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Heart of the Game conference: The vital role that Supporters play

“I am very encouraged to see football supporters coming together like this for the first time to develop ways of addressing the long-term challenges facing football in Ireland.”

The words of Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins, whose message of support to the club officials and supporters organisations in attendance opened the recent Heart of the Game football conference in Cork. (Download: Message from President)

The event – part of an EC-funded football governance project being led in Ireland by FORAS – brought together experts, academics and supporters to hear and share best practices and experiences from across the League of Ireland as well as English, Swedish, German and Italian football.

The two-day conference was opened by project manager Niamh O’Mahony. She spoke of the value of co-operation between clubs and groups and cited William Gaillard, advisor to UEFA President Michael Platini, who had just days earlier reiterated the importance of supporters to football at an event in the European Parliament. The results from a recent online survey of League of Ireland fans were also unveiled. (More details here).

Delegates heard from John Kennedy, youth worker and Cork City Board Member, and Phil Frampton of FC United, who spoke passionately about the short and long-term benefits for any football club of being active in their local community. It was followed by discussions around some of the best practices going on in the League of Ireland at the moment.

Seán Ó Conaill (former CCFC board member/ UCC) gave an overview of FORAS’ story during the Governance session – giving particular focus to how being a legal entity has helped the Trust make an impact – before attendees heard the story of AFC Wimbledon from the club’s founding chairman Kris Stewart. Lena Gustafson Wiberg also spoke of how Swedish football operates and how their 50 + 1 rule is now under threat.

The evening session saw robust discussion about player development within the League and the growing number of former LOI stars that are now representing their country at the very highest level. Chaired by Irish Times journalist Emmet Malone, Cork City boss Tommy Dunne, ex LOI manager and pundit Damien Richardson, David Toms of UCC’s School of History and Alan Smith, a freelance journalist with, all weighed in with some excellent opinions and talking points.

The session also heard from Riccardo Bertolin, representing the MyRoma Supporters Trust, about the challenges that Trusts face in Italy to convince stakeholders there that fans have a valuable contribution to make to the game.

Sunday kicked off with a focus on Fan Activism and how supporters can make a real difference in giving time to their respective football clubs. The session heard more from Phil Frampton of FC United, a club which has about 500 active volunteers, as well as from Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct and Kris Stewart from AFC Wimbledon. A discussion on Activism within the League of Ireland followed, particularly around how GUST (Galway United Supporters Trust) is maintaining an active presence despite having no senior team at the moment.

The day’s second session heard from Tim Murphy, chief executive from Cork City, PR consultant Siobhan Meehan, who made a recent study of marketing within the League, Stephen Ryan of Fota Wildlife Park and the Sunday Independent’s John O’Brien – all of whom addressed many of the marketing and media challenges facing clubs and spoke about what can be started and improved on right away.

The conference’s final session heard from Stuart Dykes, the SLO consultant at Supporters Direct and again from Lena Gustafson Wiberg, who is the SLO at Swedish club Djurgarden. Both spoke in depth about the potential of the role and why all clubs – including those owned by supporters – can gain a great deal from having an active SLO that is independent of the club and Board.

In conclusion, delegates broadly agreed that it would be beneficial to have an informal network of support available to supporters-run clubs and organisations, and it was agreed to explore some possible next steps after the conference.

The project’s working group, meanwhile, is continuing to piece together a handbook that will assist supporters-run clubs and organisations in the League of Ireland by detailing some of the best examples of governance and community ongoing within Irish football. The document will be published next year with a Final Report from the entire project due next summer.

A more in-depth summary of the conference will be made available within days on the project’s webpage. Anyone interested in learning more about the ‘Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership’ project and the Handbook in particular should email: for more details.

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