How many times have you sat in the stands, watching your beloved football team, wishing you had the chance to run the football club?
It’s a dream for many. But only a few make it a reality.
Gerard Lawlor is one of those.
I’ve known Gerard for well over a decade.
When I first met him he was a passionate fan of Cliftonville Football club, going through all the ecstasy and agony that true supporters experience.
Now he is the chairman of Ireland’s oldest side. At 35 years old!
There’s still joy and pain, though he admits it hits him in completely different ways.
When you see all that's going on in England these days with the running of some of the biggest clubs in the world, Lawlor's is an uplifting story of how he went from the terraces to the boardroom.
His dad, also Gerard, took him to his first Reds game in 1978 and his first communion money was supposed to be spent on a Cliftonville kit on a shopping trip with his mum.
“The nearest we got was that the kit was red and white, a Man United one,” he recalls with a tinge of disappointment.
Admitting that he bunked off school to watch afternoon cup matches at Solitude, the love af
fair with the Reds really kicked in when, in his teens, he became a member of the Spirit of '79 Supporters’ Club (named after a famous Irish Cup triumph).
“I joined the Supporters’ Club and eventually became chairman. As chairman, I started to get involved in the football club and interacted with board members,” says Lawlor who is the House Manager at the Grand Opera House in Belfast.
“At that time I felt amongst the board it was more a case of what you could do for Cliftonville rather than what Cliftonville could do for you. There was a very strong fan base that wasn't communicated or talked to and they were treated like mushrooms.
“I had this strong belief that the club needed to unite and that everyone needed to work together.
“From that I became involved with the IFA’s Michael Boyd and the Football For All campaign and I was appointed the first Community Relations Officer in Irish League football. That got me inside of the club, so to speak, and then trying to unite it.”
There are those formerly on the board at Solitude who would argue that there was something of a coup in order to get the old regime out and new men in, though Lawlor doesn’t see it that way.
“Stephen McKillop, the club treasurer, and myself were on the previous board. I was involved in the changes and it wasn’t a boardroom coup, more a case of setting Cliftonville up for the modern era,” he added.
“It was modern business acumen we were trying to drive into Cliftonville. In the past like all football clubs in Northern
Ireland, the perception of directors was that they’d walk in at 2.30pm on a Saturday and leave at 5pm. That was very evident around Cliftonville and there was no accountability.
“We had a club that was drifting backwards. We won the title in 1998 but didn’t move on from that. We lost Marty Quinn the greatest manager in the history of the club, so there was a strong feeling of fear amongst the support about where we were going.
“Cliftonville had very high financial debts and we needed to join the modern world. Hand on heart being involved in that process was for the betterment of the club.”
To to be fair to the chairman and the rest of the new forward thinking board, that’s exactly how it has turned out.
The dilapidated Solitude has been transformed from a few years ago. There are women’s toilets for a start! New dressing rooms, a new media room, a fantastic new stand housing the home fans, a new 3G pitch and all-in-all, a new feel to the place, with plans for more development.
Gerard says: “Solitude used to open up at 2pm on a Saturday and close at 5pm and was a white elephant outside of that. We have made great strides since. Now through our 3G pitch, the ground is open every night of the week with local community groups and local football clubs using it. My ultimate vision for Solitude is that we have mothers and toddlers groups using our rooms in the morning and oaps playing bingo here in the evening.”
Community is a word that keeps cropping up with Lawlor, who became chairman last year.
“I want Cliftonville to be for the community and be the focal point for north Belfast. The only way to achieve that is having a motto of not what you can do for Cliftonville, but what Cliftonville can do for you,” says Gerard, married to Roisin who has become as big a Red as her hubby.
The club remain heavily in debt, but according to Lawlor they are getting to a place where they want to be.
“I am the chairman, but I’m still a fan,” he said. “I want to see Cliftonville win as much as anyone else, but it is a difficult balancing act. I want to be able to sleep at night and the last year has been incredibly difficult due to a lot of financial worries. We are substantially in debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds but we won’t run away from our problems and I’ll always listen to what fans have to say. Over the last year, as a board, we have cleared a couple of hundred thousand pounds of debt, but we still have issues and a lot of historical debt. I don’t think we can move on until we clear that.
“There have been nights I have felt physically sick with worry. The worst night of my life was at Solitude when we beat Crusaders 1-0 on Sky Sports to qualify for Europe. I wasn’t thinking of the glory of the achievement, just the €90,000 we were guaranteed for qualifying which would make a significant impact on our debt.”
Lawlor, whose favourite player throughout the years has been current striker Chris Scannell, says it is a honour being Reds chairman, adding that he is only a front man for other influential board members like McKillop and David Begley.
Believe me, he’s much more than that. He’s at the heart of all that is good about Cliftonville these days. With a vacancy at Windsor Avenue, the IFA could do with a president like that, following in the footsteps of “great friend to the club” and former Cliftonville chairman Jim Boyce.
“I have no ambitions to be IFA president; I have enough to do at Cliftonville,” says Gerard.