Dermot Corrigan reports on the very different approach of a club bucking the trend of financial chaos in the League of Ireland

The self-made millionaire who takes over a football club, bringing initial success followed by disappointment and disaster, is a stock character in football, as fans of English clubs as disparate as Chester City and Crystal Palace know well. But the story of Wexford Youths and Irish property developer/philanthropist/philosopher Mick Wallace is different. Or so it seems anyway.

Wallace first came to prominence in Ireland in 2002 during the run-up to the current Iraq war when Dublin Corporation unsuccessfully tried to force him to remove a huge banner proclaiming “No to American Terrorism” from a site his company was developing. This site is now Dublin’s “Italian Quarter”, a whole street owned by Wallace featuring restaurants, cafés and food shops.

Not that Wallace, with his trademark long, straggly, white-blonde hair and bright yellow high-viz jacket, is a bourgeois archetype. Having lumped the whole country with a mindboggling national debt, property developers are currently less popular than post-handball Thierry Henry in Ireland, but Wallace is seen differently. He was a regular critic of the recent construction-fuelled economic boom, writing Irish Times opinion pieces denouncing government policies and likening Ireland’s big builders to mafia dons on TV.

When it comes to football Wallace has, conversely, put his money where his mouth is, with over £5 million reportedly invested in his local club – Wexford Youths – to see them up into the League of Ireland in 2007. After getting his firm to build a 700-seat stadium capable of hosting league football and top-notch training facilities, Wallace installed himself as first-team manager.

But instead of the usual ego-owner route of importing has-beens and never-weres on inflated wages, Youths follow a policy of only fielding players who have come up through their own ranks. This ethos is spelled out on the club website: “Wexford Youths FC is a unique League of Ireland club, a regional, community-based club with hard work and honesty as our guiding principles, where the Senior League of Ireland team is seen as something that is going to nourish the whole underage structure in the county; rather than vice versa.”

For a club with such modest aims the side has not performed too badly in the league. Ninth out of ten in their first season in the second-highest tier of Irish domestic football, in 2008 they improved to seventh and also reached the League Cup final, before coming sixth last year. The 2010 season has started steadily and hopes are high of continuing the steady annual improvement.

Meanwhile, many established LOI clubs have been crashing and burning. Wexford have already played Cork and Shelbourne this season, probably the two biggest Irish clubs of the Celtic Tiger era. Cork City went bust in February owing over €800,000 (£705,000) under previous chairman/fantasist Tom Coughlan and have been replaced in the league by amateur and fan-owned Cork City Foras Co-op. Shels also hit the wall spectacularly and are slowly regrouping at the lower level.

While providing the Wexford people with a decent level of live football, the club are also developing local players to the point where they can continue their careers elsewhere. Irish international and Wolves striker Kevin Doyle is easily the most successful graduate of the Wexford system, while Conor Sinnott, a midfielder now at St Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin, seems set for a decent pro career. Next off the production line might be midfielder Jimmy Keohane, a regular member of Ireland’s Under-19 squad.

Wallace has handed control of the senior side to his former assistant Noel O’Connor, but he continues to manage the club’s Under-16s and Under-18s, who have won four FAI inter-league titles and one FAI youth cup under his tutelage. Work to extend the club’s Ferrycarrig Park home to over 2,000 seats is underway. The benefactor seems content enough with his project, explaining in a recent blog post what he gets out of his emotional and financial investment in Wexford football: “It was great to hear the Shelbourne manager Dermot Keely complain in the post-match interview that his professional group of players couldn’t beat a bunch of kids from Wexford – music to my ears.”

From WSC 279 May 2010

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