The Lost Clubs: Sporting Fingal

15th November 2023

In the seventh edition of The Lost Clubs, we look back on the history of Sporting Fingal. By Peter Branigan   The story of Sporting Fingal is a bit of rollercoaster.  From a squad being assembled for the Newstalk A Division of the SSE Airtricity

In the seventh edition of The Lost Clubs, we look back on the history of Sporting Fingal.

By Peter Branigan


The story of Sporting Fingal is a bit of rollercoaster. 

From a squad being assembled for the Newstalk A Division of the SSE Airtricity League, to climbing up to third place in the Premier Division, via an FAI Cup victory and Europa League qualification, it was quite the three years for the Dublin club.
The club spent two seasons in the First Division, while their last year saw them surprise most by rising high in the Premier Division. Success came quicker than anyone imagined it would. Former chairman John O’Brien takes up the story.
"I had a chance conversation with Niall Quinn (former Republic of Ireland international and Sunderland chairman), and I told him I’d love to see a League of Ireland club representing Fingal. He suggested that Liam Buckley would be the man to go to, and it grew from there," recalled O'Brien.
"I met him (Buckley), and we discussed a plan that he had envisioned for Shamrock Rovers. I brought it to the County Manager, who was a big fan of it, and he said I should pursue it. Within two years, the club was up and running.

"We did not set out to buy success with Sporting Fingal. Granted, money was spent, but that was necessary when getting a new club off the ground. Our Business Plan was to achieve Premier Division status after five years. The fact that we achieved it after two, with an FAI Cup thrown in, was down to Liam. We wanted to develop infrastructure that would allow a club to evolve over time. It was intended to be a bottom-up plan, creating an academy, and working with the North Dublin Schoolboy League."
Buckley had been out of management since he parted ways with Shamrock Rovers in 2004, but for him, this was about more than simply the first team.
"It was unique in my career, because I’ve had great times elsewhere, at Athlone Town, at Shamrock Rovers, and now I’m thoroughly enjoying my challenge at St Pat's. But this was about more than managing a club, it was managing a Soccer Development Plan for Fingal which included Sporting Fingal FC. In my head I thought this project would be the best in the country within five years," said Buckley
"John O’Brien was my liaison officer with the council, and we had to bring the idea to the chamber. We got a massive vote of confidence and our plan was up and running. John was fronting the community side of the project, while I was looking at developing the football plan."
With the restructuring of the League, it was hoped Sporting Fingal would compete in the A Championship in 2008. Kilkenny City’s sudden demise meant Fingal were set to be catapulted into the First Division. They hit the ground running and were competitive from the very start. Well, almost!
"We lost 5-1 to Longford in our first game in the League!" stated Conan Byrne, who was one of the club's first signings. "But we soon settled, and we started to put some results together."
Just like his manager, this project was a big opportunity for the newly qualified Byrne, who had joined the club from UCD.
"Liam and I were discussing my contract at the Old Great Southern Hotel, and as we were leaving afterwards he asked me what I had studied at college. I explained that I had done Sports Management at UCD," explained Byrne.
"With that, he brought me straight back into the hotel because he said he might have something else for me to do for him! I became the Marketing Executive at the club, so I was playing, but also sitting in on board meetings with the likes of owner Gerry Gannon."
2008 was all about consolidation, as Sporting Fingal finished a respectable fourth in the 10-team First Division. For 2009, Buckley strengthened his squad, and the club was about to embark on a historic campaign. Some of the new additions included Gary O Neill, Shaun Williams, and captain Stephen Paisley.
An FAI Cup run, that saw them beat Shamrock Rovers in the quarter-finals, nearly ended in defeat in the final against Sligo Rovers. O’Brien had one major concern as that game went on, particularly when Eoin Doyle gave Sligo the lead just before the hour.
"I really feared that we weren’t going to score a goal, so getting the penalty was a relief," said O'Brien.

Colm James smashed the spot-kick home with five minutes to go, but there was a final twist as the game headed for extra-time. Robert Bayly whipped a ball into the Rovers box, and Gary O’Neill got enough onto it to push it past goalkeeper Ciaran Kelly.
Byrne, who had almost given Fingal the lead in the first-half only to see his free-kick hit the post, has fond memories of the day in Tallaght Stadium.
"Being involved as both a player, and staff member, and being heavily involved in the community, it was particularly special for me. I had loads of family and friends in Tallaght that day. Gibney’s in Malahide was where we celebrated that night," he said.
That Cup victory had come on the back of what O’Brien saw as the real success of the season. "The real achievement that week was promotion, while we saw the FAI Cup Final as a bonus."

The team had finished third in the table, and gained promotion after play-off victories over Bray Wanderers and Shelbourne.
Sporting Fingal took to the Premier Division like a duck to water. They finished fourth in what would prove to be their only season in the top flight. They were just five points behind eventual winners Shamrock Rovers. Once more Buckley brought in quality players, with the likes of Ronan Finn, Ger O’Brien, and Glen Crowe arriving at Morton Stadium. Defender Colin Hawkins arrived in mid-season, having previously worked with Buckley at St Pat's.
"I had ruptured my Achilles tendon at Brighton, who were in the First Division back then, and Gus Poyet had been appointed manager. He offered me the chance to come back, and do pre-season, and we would then work on a potential contract from there," said Hawkins.
"My second child had just been born, so my wife and I came home. Liam got word that I was in Ireland and called me. He explained the ambition of the club, and I knew we had European football to look forward to."
As it turned out, Hawkins’ time with the club was set to be far shorter than he had intended. But a highlight for him was the Europa League game against Marítimo of Portugal.
"We played well in Madeira. It was a great occasion, until (goalkeeper) Brendan Clarke broke a few of my ribs coming out to catch a ball! So I missed the return leg," he stated.
They lost 6-4 on aggregate, but for the chairman, the injury to the experienced centre-back was a key turning point in the tie. Behind the scenes though, things were beginning to unravel.

"The game was played at altitude, and in hot and humid conditions. Despite this we were doing really well. Colin’s injury took the shape off our defence, and we conceded three goals in the final 15 minutes," said O'Brien.
"August was when I got an inkling that things weren’t as they should be. Gerry Gannon was under huge pressure from NAMA to curtail his activities. He had to step back from the club at the end of 2010. The county manager initially took the initiative, but when we got knocked back on a couple of sponsorship deals, he lost interest quite quickly in my view. The week before we folded, we thought we had a deal. A verbal agreement was in place, but the deal was never signed."

Buckley lays the blame for the club’s demise at the same door.
"The council got cold feet at the end. It’s my feeling that it was incumbent on the council to keep it going. I feel they should have backed us more and honoured their commitment," said Buckley, who went on to win the FAI Cup again with St Patrick's Athletic.
For the players, the end was quite sudden. Everything appeared to be normal, and trialists were said to have been brought into the club when a meeting was called with the PFAI. That final day is part of the folklore of the League, as the squad was held together from early morning until evening time while O’Brien and Buckley desperately tried to come up with a financial solution.
Byrne says the news that the club was to be wound up was hard to take.
"It was traumatic for me. I had a young family, and was getting two incomes from my hometown club. Some of the other players had similarly young families, particularly Ger O’Brien, whose partner had a baby that day," said Byrne.
"We were hopeful of a deal coming through. I know how close we got to a deal, just a case of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, but it didn’t happen. I felt so low after it all ended, and that was difficult to deal with. I owe a lot to Alan Mathews, who put faith in me to sign for Shelbourne."
Hawkins says that final episode left a ‘bitter taste’ in the mouths of many of the players. The one blessing about the pace of the demise, for him, was that that it gave the squad the chance to find clubs for the new season. He believes 2011 had massive promise for Sporting Fingal.
"Who knows what might have been with that squad of players?"


Don't forget to check out the latest episode of Greatest League In The World podcast