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From Cork to Wimbledon

13 February 2014

Niamh's visit connects two fans clubs

The AFC Wimbledon story has long been admired as a model for fan ownership and that’s certainly the case at Dons captain Alan Bennett’s former club Cork City.

Cork City FC supporter Niamh O’Mahoney, who is pictured above right with Alan, (photograph by Zoe Linkson) travelled across the Irish Sea to sample the matchday experience at Wimbledon four years since her club became fan-owned.

Niamh is a staunch believer in the ethos of a fans-club and that therefore added extra significance when she attended the recent Exeter City match.

“I'm a former board member and director of FORAS (Friends of the Rebel Army Society), which has owned and run Cork City FC since 2010,” Niamh said. “For the past two years, I've also been working with Supporters Direct Europe on a cross-European 'Improving Football Governance through Community Ownership and Supporters Involvement' project, which FORAS headed up in Ireland.

I'd love to think that our two clubs could find ways to work together.” “Alan Bennett was a central part of the Cork City team that won our last Airtricity League Premier Division title in 2005, so we're delighted that he's captain of the Dons.

Cork City featured an in-depth interview with Alan Bennett in one of its matchday programmes and this is reproduced below.

Two cities, two clubs - but only one Alan Bennett...

Founded in 2002, AFC Wimbledon is a well-known name to anyone interested in the issue of fan ownership in football. The Dons hold the distinction of being promoted five times in nine seasons and they are competing in League Two once again - thanks in no small way to former Cork City FC centre half Alan Bennett.

A central element of Cork City’s league-winning squad in 2005, 31-year-old Bennett is captain of AFC Wimbledon and he took some time out to catch up with City Edition.

“In January of last season, having captained Cheltenham to the play-off final, I got a call from Neal Ardley (the Wimbledon manager). I wanted to return to London as that’s where I’m based and although it was going to be a massive challenge to get a team in the bottom two out of the relegation zone in half a season, it was an offer that suited me perfectly.

“The history of the club is everywhere and the passion of the people who run it and follow it became evident during the final run in when we were desperate for results. Fans openly voiced their concerns after some bad results, but the support for the club is incredible for a League Two team with average gates of between 4,000-5,000.

“For me, fan ownership is an effective way to maintain common sense at a football club, within an industry that lacks common sense. It's democratic and supporters get to make decisions with regard to all aspects of the club; the only issue being that it’s a lot to ask fans to contribute to the budget and to pay to support the team as well.

 “There are obvious similarities between Cork City and AFC Wimbledon. They are fan owned, both had former glories ripped apart by greed, both are being rebuilt by the people for the people. Also, with past players now managing the clubs, both are now looking optimistically towards the future.

“This season is AFC (A Fans’ Club!) Wimbledon's third in the Football League. We, as a group of players, have a duty to preserve and move this club forward and that’s the plan. There are a few rebel Wombles in the crowd and I do recognise the odd 'Come On Benno Boy' in the unmistakeable Cork accent. Of course, a few more are always welcome!

Alan started his career with hometown club Cork and he recalled his early days there with great affection.

“When asked about my CCFC days, I always wonder should I start with following the team of ‘93 from a grassy bank at Turner’s Cross, watching Derek Coughlan’s header in Dalymount Park or going to reserve games in Ballinhassig?

“For me personally, it started with a youth game in which my local club, Richmond, played against Cork City youths. I was asked to come in after that, and what followed was a great year as our group won the league, national cup and some additional silverware under Paul Bowdren and Stuart Ashton.

 “My senior debut came in the Intertoto Cup against FK Liepajas Metalurgs. I brought my boots ‘just in case’ so coming on as second half sub was incredible. There was a header at the back post that I might have scored and for the away game in Latvia, I played in midfield due to my energy and running ability.

“The club was moving forward into a professional era at that stage. The collapse of the ITV deal meant younger players were being released and coming home from the UK. It meant no more smoking on the bus, no more gravy at pre-match meals, a slight increase in money and full-time training for some.

“I learned to work hard in every training session under Murp (Liam Murphy) and that graft also gets you a long way. Pat Dolan took over in 2003 - and love him or loath him, he was brilliant entertainment. Training was never dull and we made strides in Europe with trips to Malmo, Nijmegen, Nantes, Limassol, and Belgrade. The home games for those fixtures were magic: the energy in Turner’s Cross was incredible and the passion of people immense.

“Pre-season 2005, and Pat was replaced by Damien Richardson. The next season was steadier and with the groundwork in place, we went on to win the league and should have claimed the double. The final game will always be a beautiful memory for me. My grandfather - in his elder years - tore onto the pitch at the final whistle with family, friends and loved ones. Celebrations in the Shed End, fans and players in it together - only people there that night understand how special it was.”

 Alan left his beloved Cork City behind though after being offered an opportunity to try his luck in England with Reading.

“In December 2006 Damien asked me to his house in Bishopstown. I sat in his back garden - he talked, and I got a dictionary out. In hindsight he was telling me to prepare for a move to the UK, though at the time I thought he was sharing the secret of life!

“The move itself was done during the last days of the window. Damien called me to his house and I took his dogs for a walk. I left them off the leash and while one stared at me, the other shot off into the fields. Damien wandered out to find me missing a dog, and 15 minutes of whistling later, the suspense ended and I was told that I had been sold to Reading FC.

“We played Man United in my first game that summer. I also got called into the Irish squad and played during a tour of the US. A difficult loan move to Southampton followed, before another loan move to Brentford FC - where I won a league winners medal. I was also promoted with Wycombe and later reached a play-off final with Cheltenham.”

Alan’s subsequent move from Cheltenham to Wimbledon pitched him into a relegation battle with the Dons, but that thankfully had a happy ending.

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