Lisburn Distillery down but far from out
Lisburn Distillery chairman Jim Greer has insisted that the famous old Irish League club will not die after being relegated from the Premier Division.
Founded in 1880 and with a fabulous history, there are fears for the future of the modern day Distillery, who are attracting less fans through the gates than ever before and will drop out of the top flight of local football at the end of the season.
That hammer blow was confirmed on Tuesday night when the Whites lost 2-0 at home to Ballymena United meaning they will finish bottom of the table, regardless of what happens in the remaining two games.
The latest defeat, their 12th at Ballyskeagh this season, led to the departure of manager Tim McCann, with his first team coach Sammy McFadden taking over as caretaker manager.
Other changes are on the way. Last year, with the club deep in debt and a long list of creditors owed money, the ground was sold for £450,000 to the Drumbeg-based company Drumvale Investments. That deal should be finalised in August.
Lisburn Distillery will continue to play at Ballyskeagh as tenants, and will do so rent free for the next 25 years.
Drumbo Park, who successfully operate the greyhound track at the ground, will also remain as tenants, paying rent in the region of £40,000 per year.
With Distillery not receiving rent from September, the football club's main source of revenue next season will be money coming through the turnstiles. That won't amount to much as attendances are considerably lower in the Championship compared to the Irish Premiership.
Tough times are ahead. Even the prospect of the Whites taking on amateur status has been discussed, but chairman Greer says whatever path is chosen Distillery, whose former players include Tom Finney, Derek Dougan, Billy Hamilton, Bryan Hamilton, Bertie McMinn and Martin O'Neill, will survive.
"We have been planning for this situation for the past month or so because it has been inevitable that we would be relegated," says Greer.
"Only a miracle would have saved us, but we are still optimistic for the future of the club," he adds.
"Distillery has been going for 130-odd years so it's not going to die. This is a great club with a great history and we're intent on keeping it going.
"Going amateur is an option but we are hoping to avoid that, though the money available to us in the Championship is going to be a lot less.
"If we don't go amateur we will have to make big cuts as we can't afford to get into any debt because we won't have any assets soon.
"The sale is not complete and probably won't be complete until August which means we are still getting the rent from the greyhound people but that will be finishing in another few months and then our only other forms of income will be through the turnstiles and fundraising.
"The company behind the sale are Distillery friendly and when the sale is complete and they take over they won't be charging us any rent for the next 25 years, so I see that as a good start for us," he says.
"We are better off than a lot of clubs in the Irish League Premier Division in so much as when the sale does go through all our debts will be cleared. We may not have any money, but we won't owe anything."
One of the major issues that all Irish League clubs have to cope with is falling attendances.
Greer openly admits: "It's a big problem at Distillery, more so than at most clubs as our ground is a little out of the way.
"We even struggle with our home supporters. We have maybe about 100 hard core fans who would come week in week out. Our gate receipts depend a lot on travelling support but in the last few years those numbers have been dwindling.
"Linfield and Glentoran obviously have the most fans but the last time they played at our ground was the worst ever in terms of gates. Other clubs will tell you the same, even Linfield. I think their home support is 20 per cent down on what it was five years ago."
Suggesting that the Irish League is a mess, Greer adds that he finds it strange that Ards are about to be promoted to the top tier of local football from the Belfast Telegraph Championship even though they don't have a 'home' ground, as they host opposition teams at Bangor's Clandeboye Park.
"It's not sour grapes. It costs us and other Premier League clubs a fortune to get a license for our ground and a team comes up with no ground. They are allowed a year to get a license and it just doesn't seem fair to me," said the Distillery chairman.
His comments follow those by Donegal Celtic boss Pat McAllister on the same subject.
McAllister said: "I honestly feel that Irish League football is dying when you see some of the things that are going on. I find it incredible, and really, really strange that a club who hasn't owned their own ground in 10 years can be promoted."
Ards moved out of their traditional home of Castlereagh Park in 2002 and currently rent Clandeboye Park.
They lead the Belfast Telegraph Championship One by nine points and can now only be caught on goal difference.
McAllister's Donegal Celtic are set to be involved in a promotion/relegation play-off against either Institute or Warrenpoint Town, chasing the runners-up spot behind champions elect Ards.