Off-field revolution fuels renewed positivity as Bray Wanderers face first season back in the First DivisionWed, Jan 30 2019
January 2018 was a dark time for Bray Wanderers. Just 12 months ago, a feeling of anxiety bordering on despair had descended on fans of the Co Wicklow club.
With little over a month and a half before the start of the Premier Division season, there had been scant news about new signings following a mass exodus of players. The club even lacked a main sponsor for the team's jersey.
Speculation was rife that the club wouldn't even be able to take part in the league that year.
The 2018 season played out predictably, with off-field uncertainty undermining the considerable efforts of the squad that had been assembled only shortly before the start of the season. Despite some notable results, relegation was the inevitable conclusion.
Fast forward just a couple of months later, and there has been nothing short of a revolution behind the scenes at the club. This time around the Seagulls are looking ahead to life in the second tier, for the first time since 2004.
But following the takeover of the club by Niall O'Driscoll and his brother Tim in the summer, they do so on a far sounder footing than last year. For starters, there have been a raft of new additions to the squad, including players from Premier Division teams.
Manager Gary Cronin has bagged a number of notable signings, such as highly-experienced midfielder Paul Keegan from Waterford. Gabriel Sava, Dundalk's back up keeper has also signed up.
Highly-rated Richie Purdy has joined from First Division promotion rivals Drogheda United, and several other young and promising players have joined the squad. Fan favourite, defender Hughie Douglas, has been retained.
But it's the activity off the pitch that is more significant to the club. In stark contrast to last year, the club jersey will be adorned with no less than four sponsors: Matt Britton Carpets, O'Driscoll O'Neil Insurance Brokers, Campus Oil and Lifestyle Sports.
Fans are delighted too that the club is returning to its iconic green-and-white-striped home jersey which had been inexplicably ditched by the previous regime.
This flurry of activity was heralded through an orchestrated social media campaign, with one piece of good news after another being fed to the fanbase in the run up to Christmas.
This has been consistent with the approach of the new ownership, which has worked hard to engage the public in Bray, to re-energise the fanbase that may have drifted away in the last few years.
The supporters' club, which traditionally played a key role in the running of the club's matchday activities, has been re-engaged. And the junior supporters' club has been rebooted.
The message from the club is loud and clear: it's on a strong, stable footing and has the support of local businesses.
The new owners are putting in place structures that will see the club not just stabilise in the long run but could position it for considerable growth.
The wider community in Bray and throughout Co Wicklow have taken notice and appear to be taking a renewed interest in the club.
"The support so far has been fantastic, and it is great to see many of the old faces back," O'Driscoll said in an exclusive interview with extratime.ie.
"We must accept that the image needs rebuilding and we have taken the view to start from the bottom and build the club as and embedded part of the community. This will take time and is a long-term approach."
As part of the effort to embed Bray Wanderers in the community, the club has actively been recruiting people in the town to get involved by helping out on matchday, helping with media, selling tickets, providing sponsorship, buying advertising.
Perhaps the most significant move for the long-term future of the club was the announcement that all children under 14 years of age will be able to attend any Bray game free of charge.
This demographic is key to the long-term future of the club, and O'Driscoll recognizes that the club would neglect it at their peril.
"Our focus will be to develop the fan base with particular emphasis on children coming to games and identifying Bray Wanderers as their club.
"We have now introduced a range of initiatives from free season tickets for under-12s, discounts for secondary and third level students, as well as OAPs etc. which are the lowest in the league!
"We have identified sponsors who will offer attractive products/discounts to this group to keep them engaged, etc. We will be expanding the whole area of camps for the coming season to attract over 400 kids to get involved."
As the academy director of schoolboy club St. Joseph's Boys, with whom Wanderers have fielded joint underage teams, O'Driscoll knows well that the next generation are vital to the future of the club.
With supreme irony, the club is facing into a season in the dreaded First Division, something they have fought tooth and nail against for the last several years, with a greater sense of positivity than in recent memory.
There is a palpable buzz about the club and the town, a feeling that Bray may well be competing for honours this year. That is something that has eluded them for a very long time indeed.
O'Driscoll says the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity he faces is "making the club sustainable, while at the same time having fun and just being the best we can be."
In January 2019, things are arguably looking brighter for the club than at any time in recent memory. The Seagulls' fans have seen their club transform before their eyes.
What has transpired at Bray Wanderers in the last six months could well be described as a revolution, one which could not possibly have been predicted this time last year.
The year 2018 was the story of the club that wouldn't die. The 2019 season is a new chapter in the never dull story of this club.
It is a story that may have instructive lessons for other clubs in the league who are striving to connect with their own communities.