New vision aims to get (London) Irish eyes smiling again
Home-grown players are the key to Exiles' future success following their recent high-power takeover
Mick Crossan has made a success in business ripping up the pitches of Arsenal and Chelsea every summer, so you could say he is not the type to let the grass grow under his feet. As the new co-owner of London Irish in rugby union's Aviva Premiership, Crossan is keen on reinvigorating a troubled club's metaphorical grassroots.
"We were a few minutes away from winning the Premiership in 2009, a few minutes away from a Heineken Cup final the year before that," says Crossan. "It was all here. Unfortunately with a lack of investment, and thoughts on other things – the sale of our ancestral home at Sunbury – people took their eye off our business, which is rugby. This is a new dawn for London Irish. If we're playing good rugby, everything will fall into place."
Crossan is boss of the Powerday firm who have waste-management contracts at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge. He is also a season-ticket holder at Chelsea, so it has been a busy few days: the Bridge on Boxing Day for Eden Hazard's winning goal against Swansea; a flight to Ireland to visit his mum in Cavan; back to his own home city of London; and finally to the Madejski Stadium in Reading today for the oval-ball meeting of London Irish and fellow stragglers Gloucester, with the bottom club Worcester to follow in another crucial dogfight next Sunday. Rival supporters have long derided London Irish as the "not-nots" – not London, not Irish – but is that view shared by Crossan, a club sponsor for the past decade, and his consortium partner Phil Cusack, who bought out the previous majority shareholders a fortnight ago?
"The giveaway is in the name – London Irish," says Crossan, a squat, steady-eyed figure who one could imagine lifting the 300 tonnes of Chelsea topsoil with his bare hands if the machinery was out of order. So, more Irish players and a move back to London? "If there are good Irish players available and they are right for the club, they'll come," says Crossan cautiously. "Our academy is where we see the future. Think of Shane Geraghty, Delon and Steffon Armitage, Tom Homer, Adam Thompstone, Marland Yarde… Our academy was second to none, but we've seen a decline due to cuts in budget and coaches. Three years ago in a game against Northampton, 63 per cent of the team had come from the academy, that's where we need to get back to." And Reading? "We are contracted to the Madejski Stadium until the 2025-26 season, with no break clause. We want people in London to come out and support us." Even though the accepted business model is to own a ground? "Exactly – and that would be nice," says Crossan. "But not in the foreseeable future."
The Exiles have been on their uppers, with loan notes, a bond and a bank overdraft totalling more than £9million in the last five years alone. The sale for housing of the current training ground at Sunbury-in-Thames – the pre-open era home pitch since 1931 – has paid off almost all the debt but not quite covered the lavish new training headquarters at nearby Hazelwood. "The best in the country, without a doubt," says Crossan, who knows that good facilities count. He promises more engaging hospitality at the Madejski, "unique" in embracing all the professional and amateur clubs bearing the London Irish name.
Declan Danaher is Irish's longest-serving professional player, one of just three remaining from the starting XV beaten 10-9 by Leicester in the 2009 Premiership final. Having seen good times and bad under successive coaches Dick Best, Conor O'Shea, Brendan Venter, Toby Booth and now Brian Smith, he shed tears on BT Sport's Rugby Tonight last week at the memory of recent flirtations with relegation.
"We were so close to doing something big," Danaher says. "Why were we not backed up to take it to the next level? Where was the next bunch of youngsters to do what Leicester do, what Northampton do, what Exeter are doing?" Danaher and everyone else know there will never again be 15 starting Irishmen in the first team. But the 33-year-old back-rower, who coaches the academy forwards, has a vision of both English and second and third generation Irish becoming internationals with the Exiles.
"We produced Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson but they left [for Bath]," says Danaher, whose team have won once in nine matches. "Players have gone for money, and maybe I can't blame them. Is it a fun place to be at the moment? Not really. No one likes being down the bottom. No one likes being in the middle. But we were introduced to the new board and Phil Cusack said 'winning solves everything'. And that's what stuck with me. They're in this to make this club great and somewhere you'll come to win."
Premiership clubs' owners
Bath: Pharmaceutical tycoon Bruce Craig bought the club in 2010.
Exeter Chiefs: Exeter Rugby Group Ltd, a 750-strong members' club. Communications businessman Tony Rowe is chairman and chief executive.
Gloucester: Ryan Walkinshaw, who inherited the majority shareholding from his late father Tom in 2010.
Harlequins: Charles Jillings and publicity-shy City investor Duncan Saville.
Leicester Tigers: Thousands of minority shareholders, including chairman Peter Tom, through Leicester Football Club Plc.
London Irish: Majority shareholders are Mick Crossan and Phil Cusack after recent takeover.
London Wasps: Monaco-based Irish insurance businessman Derek Richardson and unnamed associates.
Newcastle Falcons: Local businessman Semore Kurdi, who increased shareholding to majority 80 per cent in 2011.
Northampton Saints: The family of regional-newspaper tycoon Keith Barwell have a majority shareholding alongside more than 2,000 individual shareholders.
Sale Sharks: Jointly owned by Brian Kennedy and Ian Blackhurst, who made their riches variously in kitchens, double glazing and mobile phone services.
Saracens: Entrepreneur Nigel Wray and investors from UK and South Africa including Johann Rupert.
Worcester Warriors: WRFC Trading Ltd, majority owned by Hockley Investments on behalf of DHL founder David Allen.
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