Not long ago, the future seemed bleak for Bohemians. Its average attendance of 1,600 was a far cry from the days when League of Ireland football could draw 40,000 fans to its Dalymount Park ground in north Dublin, known as the ‘home of Irish football.’
But this wasn’t a problem Bohs faced alone. The average attendance at top-level league matches in Ireland in 2014 was just 1,559. According to research by Robert Redmond, that same year over 120,000 Irish fans travelled to England to watch games, providing a sizeable chunk of the support for elite clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. In many ways, Ireland was the first foreign market for the Premier League.
Bohemians faced other problems too: the club was millions of euros in debt and its once-great stadium was disintegrating to the point that it was largely unusable. When Bohs finished 10th in 2013, some feared the club would go the way of their historic Northside rivals Shelbourne – a perennial title winner who went bankrupt and has spent most of the past decade struggling to survive in the First Division. The decision to sell Dalymount Park to Dublin City Council for redevelopment as a municipal arena in 2015 is widely credited with saving the club, but fans are all too aware just how easily the historic stadium could have ended up as luxury flats.
That seems like a lifetime ago now. Last night, Bohemians took on Icelandic side Stjarnan in the UEFA Conference League at Lansdowne Road – the first time the club had played in Ireland’s national stadium since it was rebuilt. A 3-0 win was one of the best performances of the season from Keith Long’s side, with two goals from the prolific Georgie Kelly and a dazzling assist from 19-year-old Dawson Devoy among the highlights. They now face Luxembourger outfit Dudelange in the next round, and what they hope will be redemption for the national team’s humiliation by the same country in a recent home World Cup qualifier.
Last night’s game was a landmark in more ways than one: it was selected by the Irish government as a test case in the country’s reopening in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and saw 6,000 Bohemians fans cross the city to watch their first European football in person since 2012. As was the case across the world during the pandemic, last year’s heroic penalty defeat in Hungary to the comparative globetrotters of Fehérvár was played out behind closed doors (Fehérvár’s goalscorer on the night, Nemanja Nikolić, featured for Hungary against France and Germany at the recent Euros). This time, Bohs made their presence felt: a huge banner reading ‘International Brigade’ hung from Lansdowne Road’s south stand, only one of numerous Spanish Civil War references familiar from the stands in Dalymount in recent years.
Another high point from the game was the performance of club captain Keith Buckley. Born in the shadow of Lansdowne Road – you can see the Markievicz House flats where his family still lives from the ground – he had never played in Ireland’s national stadium before Thursday night. But you wouldn’t have known: his tireless performance in midfield was capped by a brilliantly-weighted pass for Scottish winger Liam Burt to score Bohs’ third and kill off the tie. It was just one of many storylines that made Bohemians’ first two-legged victory in Europe since 2008 seem like a fairytale.
Tickets for the game sold out at record pace. Before Covid, Bohemians had seen a surge in attendance which led to regular 3,500 sell-outs at home. The club’s membership has also more than doubled from 450 to 1,200 this season. But for the European game, Bohs sold thousands of general release tickets in just three hours – with fan pages in the days building up to the match featuring requests from those unlucky enough to miss out. It felt like the moment a lot of hard work paid off. And for those who follow the club, there’s no doubting what has allowed Bohs to prosper in recent years: its community-oriented fan ownership model.
Bohemians Chief Operating Officer Dan Lambert proselytises for fan ownership. He sees it as the future, not only for the Dublin club but for football itself. “We’ve seen with the European Super League the direction that football’s elites and big corporate interests want to take the game,” he says. “Ultimately, fan ownership is about saying the football club will make the right decision for the collective – the fans, the players, the staff and the community, not just a small number of people who profit from the club.”
“You’ve got to ask the question, ‘why does a football club exist?’ For me, it is to provide people with a sense of place, a sense of identity, a sense of purpose and a sense of shared community… The club exists in people’s hearts and minds. It’s not really in the bricks and the buildings and the training ground. It’s how people feel about it, and what they’re willing to put into it. People who are involved in big corporations can’t understand that: you see that with the ‘legacy fans’ stuff.”
Bohemians have made headlines in the past seasons with new initiatives aimed at giving back to their local community. The club has recently announced a blind football academy, not long after they offered special commentary for fans with visual impairment. This year, the away jersey is sponsored by Grammy-nominated band Fontaines DC – and sales have raised over €15,000 for homeless charity Focus Ireland. Last season, Bohs’ away kit gained international headlines by sporting the slogan ‘Refugees Welcome’, an initiative which similarly raised funds for the fight against Direct Provision. The jersey also featured in FIFA 21, bringing an anti-racist message to millions of gamers across the world.
But the club’s commitment to anti-racism isn’t limited to one kit. It has hosted viewings of African Nations Cup games for local immigrant communities, commissioned a mural reading ‘Love Football Hate Racism’ at Dalymount Park – and its jersey in UEFA competition last night bore the same message. It also has a particular connection with black Dublin rocker Phil Lynott, whose band Thin Lizzy played a famous gig in Dalymount in 1977 and who features not only in murals outside the stadium but in the club’s matchday posters. (Another musical connection with reggae artist Bob Marley, who played in the stadium in 1980, shows that Bohs’ embrace of a broader social message is not without its challenges.)
According to Dan Lambert, these initiatives have been part of developing the ethos associated with Bohemians’ fan ownership. “Being member-owned forces you to behave in a way that recognises the needs, the difficulties and the challenges that your community faces. Whether that’s the issues around homelessness, whether it’s issues with poverty, in terms of school education, whether it’s loneliness in older people. Or on a bigger scale, whether it’s things like immigration issues. They all impact on the community and the people that live in Phibsboro, in Dublin, in Ireland.”
Bohemians has been associated with its Dublin 7 locality from its foundation in 1890, and has been a fan-owned club ever since. It played its first match at Dalymount Park as early as 1901 against Shelbourne, with whom it will share the stadium under council ownership in the years to come. Recently, the club’s fans have gone viral for their renditions of ‘The Auld Triangle’ – a song popularised by Dublin playwright Brendan Behan in the 1950s which is set inside Mountjoy Prison, along the Royal Canal which runs through Dublin 7. Bohs is a Northside Dublin institution, something which only adds fuel to its bitter rivalry with Southside club Shamrock Rovers.
But its fan ownership has not always been easy. The model itself has been relatively widespread in Ireland, and has had mixed results. As Lambert acknowledges, Bohemians was also fan owned when it got into financial difficulty in the early decades of the 2000s.
“I think, at that time, the country was swept up in the financial orgy of the Celtic Tiger, and the fans were the same,” he explains. “They endorsed some bad decisions, like a lot of people did… But the debt situation was a huge wake-up. Fan ownership saved the club then, because people really fought for it. I think it hit a lot of people, ‘this thing can be lost.’ After that, we have re-engaged with what it means to be a members-owned club. For a time, we took it for granted and didn’t do so much in the community. Now we have an active citizenship model.”
Even in recent seasons, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Bohemians. In 2017 they lost club captain Roberto Lopes to arch-rivals Rovers. Then, this season, the prodigiously talented Ireland u21 international Danny Mandroiu made the same journey across Dublin to their wealthier, fully professional and, in recent times, more successful neighbours. They were tough pills to swallow for the club’s fanbase, particularly when last season saw them pipped to the title by Shamrock Rovers – a best finish in a decade, but also a continuation of one of the longest trophyless runs in the club’s history.
“A club will have victories and it will have defeats,” Lambert says. “The success of a football club is how it treats its community, how it treats the people who work for it, and how it acts on behalf of its fanbase. If it ticks those boxes, trophies will follow. But again, periodically – football is a game, no-one should be dominant or untouchable, it has to ebb and flow. There’ll be many years when you don’t win. A members-owned club ensures that the other things are right even when that’s the case.”
Bohemians will never have players like Manchester United, Lambert says, but adds that for them it isn’t about the product – it’s about the experience. “Our last major trophy was in 2009. It’s totally paradoxical to say, ‘In that period your crowds have doubled, your membership has doubled. Your games are sold out.’ All of these things would seem to go against the fact that you’re not winning trophies because most people have that extremely narrow analysis of football clubs. They think that winning on the pitch is the only measure of success.”
While some Irish clubs have benefitted from private investment, many have suffered its consequences. Shelbourne’s tragic collapse in the early 2000s was substantially the result of reckless business decisions by its executives, and Dundalk – the most successful Irish club of recent years – currently finds itself lurching from scandal to scandal under its new owners, a US-based investment firm. Even with the threat of losing more stars to wealthier rivals, that is not an avenue that appeals to Bohemians.
“You have to operate in a way that’s sustainable,” Lambert recognises. “No club can operate at a loss in the long term, you’ve got to exist in a capitalist society unfortunately! So, you need to have business acumen as a club. But to say that the club is run simply as a business, or that you’re willing to give up ownership and control because the club next door might win trophies ahead of you in the short term is a really bad decision… Ownership is what matters. And when you hand it over to a private investor, they don’t require the buy-in of the fans. You’ve had success stories, but you’ve also had clubs going to the wall when wealthy owners pull out. You’re jeopardising the future.
“When Bohemians was founded in 1890, it was founded on a co-operative basis. One member, one vote: a democratic system. It was a club built for its members. Football has moved a long way from that, and replicated the trend in society where wealth and power has flowed to the top. But corporate executives will never understand the inherent value in football because these people don’t deal in emotions. They just deal in profit, but football is not based around business. That’s the beauty of football, it’s irrational. Why does somebody attach themselves to a football club for their whole lives? It’s more of a spiritual experience akin to a religion.”
In an age of football televangelism, from Sky Sports to the European Super League, Bohemians is preaching a much older gospel: a club run for and by its fans, matches that are community events rather than entertainment products, and an ethos that harkens back to the working-class roots of the game. UEFA’s protests against the super-rich takeover of football earlier this year might have been laughable, but it is now providing a continental platform to a far more serious alternative.