29 January ~ Along with Linfield, Glentoran and Cliftonville, Distillery are the only team to have taken part in every Irish League campaign since the foundation of the competition in 1890. Indeed, for two seasons in the mid-1890s, this early version of a "Big Four" were the League's only members. Recently, however, the club have come close to being wound up having committed to paying wages they can't afford.
The club's unusual name came from Dunvilles Distillery on Belfast's Grosvenor Road where cricketing employees branched out into football in 1880. The club, nicknamed the Whites, were one of the leading lights in the early years of football in Ireland, having won five League titles and nine Irish Cups by 1910 before slipping behind Glentoran, Linfield and Belfast Celtic in the pecking order. Nonetheless, they continued to be a decent side, adding another League title in 1963 and even tempting Tom Finney out of retirement to join the European Cup campaign that followed.
With a predominantly Unionist following the club's location in the Nationalist Grosvenor Road proved troublesome. Although Jimmy McAlinden's side won the Irish Cup in 1971, with a young Martin O'Neill scoring twice in the final, some games were moved to neutral venues during that season before the ground was destroyed by a firebomb. The homeless club left Belfast altogether in 1979 to settle at New Grosvenor Park in the Ballyskeagh suburb of Lisburn. The move did not bring immediate success and Distillery were the only member of the elite four assigned to the First Division when it was created in 1995. It would be 1999 before the name of their new hometown was added to the club's title, in part to celebrate their promotion to the Premier Division. Initially a yo-yo team, Lisburn Distillery soon established themselves as one of the Irish Premier League's stronger sides, finishing third in 2004 and fourth in 2008 and 2009.
The improving situation on the pitch did not mirror events off the field however. The club was hit with a winding up order over an unpaid rates bill of £65,000 as part of a wider debt estimated at £200,000. In October the board agreed to seek a Company Voluntary Agreement (CVA) in order to stave this off. By this point neither manager Tommy Wright (a former goalkeeper with Forest and Newcastle) nor the players had received wages in two months and Wright described himself as shocked when he found out the club's monthly wage bill was £20,000. With the club in a state of limbo and wages still unpaid chairman Jim McGrory resigned from the board along with two other directors on Christmas Eve. McGrory claimed that he was unable to do any more, having already put in an unspecified five figure amount of his own money to keep the club afloat. However, it was clear that spending under McGrory had been profligate to say the least and Wright has indicated that he was given inaccurate figures when he questioned the funding of the club when appointed.
At a meeting of the shareholders on January 7 it was agreed to follow the CVA line. By this point debts had risen to around £280,000 as more creditors appeared on the scene. With the CVA in place interim chairman Bobby Hanna has decided that the only option is to sell the club's ground. Already the company behind Drumbo Park, an alternative name for New Grosvenor used for its regular greyhound racing events, has expressed an interest, along with another unrevealed party. For the club any sale would secure the immediate future but would also damage future revenue by removing the Drumbo Park rent and adding new rental costs. This also assumes that if the mystery bidder succeeds they do not have redevelopment on their mind. Meanwhile on the pitch, although Wright has worked a minor miracle by keeping in touch with the rest of the division, the club remains rooted to the bottom and relegation to the IFA Championship is likely to cause even more financial woes, particularly with crowds hovering around the 400 mark already.
Wright has said that he hopes the example of Lisburn Distillery will be a "massive reality check" to all the other IFA Premiership club. However it is less than five years since Premier League Omagh Town were wound up and yet clubs like Lisburn Distillery have continued to live beyond their means. It has to be hoped that Wright is right but experience dictates that the madness will continue and more clubs will be following in the Whites' sorry wake. John Morrow