Smaller companies: Irish hope to strike oil at their leisure

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THE Irish are shifting their attention from oil companies exploring in the Celtic Sea to discos and snooker halls.

A month ago they piled into three oil companies based in Ireland on rumours that the trio had found significant gas reserves off Cork.

Sure enough, a few days later the rumours were followed by official confirmation of a discovery - though it was oil, not gas. The shares shot up, anyway - though within days they were back to where they started because of swift profit-taking.

The latest word from across the Irish Sea is that Dublin's punters are turning their attention to European Leisure, the troubled operator of discos - including London's Hippodrome - and snooker halls.

According to City dealers, the Dublin-registered company's shares saw heavy buying late last week. Several hundred thousand are thought to have changed hands. The market price has remained unchanged at 3p, but is expected to rise if the buying continues.

However, other than recovery hopes there were few clues to explain the buying interest.

Last Thursday, European Leisure reported a near- pounds 46m taxable loss for the year to 30 June, compared with a pounds 5.2m profit in 1991.

The results reflected pounds 37m provisions for losses expected on disposals. The company, which owns 74 discos and 67 snooker clubs, has been hit along with the rest of the leisure industry by reduced consumer spending.

Heavy price-discounting and a drop in cash flow from the important youth sector have forced it into an asset disposal programme.

At the year-end, group debts amounted to almost pounds 77m, compared with net assets of pounds 34m. Ian Rock, who took over as the company's chief executive after the abrupt departure of Michard Ward 14 months ago, plans to sell about 30 outlets to restructure the group.

But investors should be cautious as the shares are highly speculative and volatile.