Winning the national cup, sealing promotion to the top flight, making your European debut and mounting a title challenge in three seasons – an action-packed period by anybody’s standards.
Remarkably that is the entire history of Sporting Fingal, an Irish team who disappeared as quickly as they arrived.
Only 965 days separated the first and final matches of a team who were set up as a community club following a chance meeting with Niall Quinn and a county council member.
Liam Buckley – Sporting Fingal’s only manager – and secretary John O’Brien helped set up the club. Shaun Williams, who is now a senior Republic of Ireland international, played for them for two years and Ger O’Brien, whose daughter was born on the day they folded, was there for the final season.
They explain how the club was started from scratch – and how it all fell apart in the space of two weeks.
How it all started
John O’Brien was working with Fingal County Council when he met with then Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn on a community project.
By a “fluke, chance conversation” he happened to mention that Fingal – which is about 15 miles north of Dublin city centre – was a rapidly growing area with a young population of almost 300,000 and it would be nice if they had a football team.
Quinn put O’Brien in touch with former Republic of Ireland international Buckley, who had a similar idea when he was manager of Shamrock Rovers.
Over the space of six months Buckley put together a soccer development plan – and even came up with the name of Sporting Fingal. The council approved it and Irish property developer Gerry Gannon bankrolled the club.
Sporting Fingal was designed to be a community-based project involving special needs teams, an academy, educating youngsters – and potentially other sports. A League of Ireland football team was only a part of it.
The plan was to enter the new “A Championship” in 2008 – a short-lived third tier for developing teams and B teams.
“We were taking time to put it together but lo and behold Kilkenny City were in trouble and we got asked a few weeks before the league started to put a team into the First Division [second tier],” Buckley said.
Kilkenny resigned from the league on 18 January 2008, Sporting Fingal had their official launch on 11 February and they played their first league game on 8 March.
Fingal’s three seasons of football
Sporting Fingal’s first season of football was solid if not spectacular as they finished fourth in the second tier – and reached the FAI Cup quarter-finals – a decent effort considering the late notice.
But their second was a different proposition altogether.
They beat Bray Wanderers in the play-offs to reach the Premier Division. They had targeted reaching the top flight in five years – but managed it in two.
Six days later they won the Republic of Ireland’s major domestic cup – the FAI Cup – coming from 1-0 down in the 85th minute to beat Sligo Rovers 2-1 and book a place in the 2010-11 Europa League.
Their European debut, midway through the next season, ended in heroic failure.
The Fingal players spent a whole week in Portugal – Sunday to Sunday – for their first and only European trip against Maritimo.
After leading 1-0 until the 78th minute they suffered late heartbreak as they lost to a 90th-minute goal in a 3-2 thriller.
The second leg – at Bohemians’ Dalymount Park in Dublin – also ended 3-2 to the Portuguese side.
“The Europa League was an added bonus to the previous season,” said Williams, who had played in the FAI Cup final. “Maritimo were a good side and played better football than we did but it wasn’t so much of a step up from the League of Ireland. We had a great time that I’ll never forget.”
That season – their debut campaign in the top flight – they finished fourth in the league, enough for another European campaign, only five points behind champions Shamrock Rovers.
“It wasn’t about winning leagues and cups and playing in Europe, just about making progress in the community,” said Buckley. “On the pitch things went quite well, but there was a bigger picture to where we were going with the project.”
They had big plans for the following season.
“I did think we were going to get better. We definitely would have challenged for a top spot that next year,” said Buckley, who is now Sligo Rovers boss. “We had broken through and we spoke to three or four players about coming in and that would have made a difference.”
Williams, who is now at Millwall, played for Sporting in 2009 and 2010.
“My time at Sporting Fingal was incredible,” he said. “It was an exciting, young hungry bunch of players wanting to do well. I believe if the club had survived we would have won a lot more trophies in the coming years and progressed in Europe.”
Ger O’Brien added: “The season was great. We were only five points behind Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians – two of the biggest clubs in the country. They had gone toe-to-toe for the title. We had such a good side. We played a fantastic brand of football.”
A 4-1 win against UCD on the final day – 29 October 2010 – may have seemed unremarkable at the time. But it would prove to be their final match – 31 months after a 5-1 defeat by Longford in their debut.
A financial crisis in Ireland killed Sporting Fingal. The collapse of the property market meant Gannon, the club’s major benefactor, had to withdraw funding.
Buckley says “we knew there might be difficulties with Gerry leaving but we felt things were going to be OK” as they looked for new funding, including a trip to Malta to meet some businessmen.
But in the end they only had a couple of weeks to find a new backer. “We weren’t given enough time,” said Buckley.
John O’Brien said: “Liam and I worked frantically to put a rescue package together. We’d made good progress. I was told by my county manager to get out so we just didn’t have time.”
One thing which could have given the club more time was a big transfer fee. Williams was offered a three-and-a-half-year deal by Celtic – and was told the Scottish giants had bid £150,000 for him – only one week before the end of Sporting Fingal.
“I presumed everything at the club was all right if they were able to reject that offer,” Williams, who went on to join MK Dons as a free agent, said.
But both Buckley and O’Brien insist there was no firm offer on the table and the fee Celtic were talking about was more like £50,000.
“We weren’t impressed by the approach from Celtic,” said O’Brien. “We’d heard they were notoriously mean when it came to transfer fees. We’d have been delighted to get a firm offer for Celtic to allow us to carry on.”
And so came the final day – which was only four days before they were due to play their season opener in the all-Ireland Setanta Sports Cup.
“It got to the stage that I was told to tell the players they were getting their P45s,” said John O’Brien. “In early February, Liam had to meet the players to tell them they were free agents. From the players’ point of view, it came as an absolute shock.”
Ger O’Brien, now director of football at St Patrick’s Athletic, said: “On 10 February, and I know this because it’s the day my daughter was born, we were called into a meeting and told ‘lads, we’ve just been told to wind up the club’.
“It all happened so quickly even though we knew it was coming. We were handed letters saying your time is finished at Sporting Fingal. The club will no longer exist from today. You’re free to seek employment somewhere else.”
O’Brien’s wife was in labour as he was getting his letter. “It kept my mind off the situation with football,” he said. “You’ve lost your job, the club no longer exists. But your daughter is born. That’s your main focus.”
Williams said: “It was a strange day to be honest. We’d all turned up for training and had a meeting telling us. Obviously we had a lot of questions and queries but in the end that was basically it.”
For a club who were primarily set up to play a part in the community, John O’Brien – who continued to work for the council after the club went bust – says it is possible their success on the pitch played a part in their downfall.
“The attitude towards the club in the county council changed,” he said. Because we were successful they felt the club was in a position to stand on its own feet. But that wasn’t the case. We needed to develop the academy facilities.”
They did not survive long enough to build their own stadium, playing their three seasons in Morton Stadium – an athletics venue. They had just signed a deal to play their next three campaigns at Dalymount Park.
“Ten years later, I’m still sickened,” O’Brien continued. “The players were let down badly. We developed a community trust based on the Sunderland model, we were doing a lot for a Special Olympics football team.
“We had an awful lot going on, plans for the next five years and it all went out the window.”