Owner Mick Crossan has brought the feel-good factor back to London Irish
There was a time, in the mid to late 2000s, that the London Irish jersey was the highest selling Premiership shirt. In Ireland, only the national team strip sold more. As London Irish owner Mick Crossan puts it: “Whether you supported Connacht, Leinster, Munster or Ulster, for most Irish people, their second team was London Irish.”
That may seem hard to believe for anybody who lived through the years spent in Reading. Yet today, as Crossan seeks to “bring the craic back”, they are rediscovering their identity at the Brentford Community Stadium. There is a neat sense of symmetry here; London Irish, the tenants, are on the rise just as Brentford Football Club, their landlord, have been promoted to the Premier League. The feelgood factor is back, even if it looks like Irish will miss out on a Champions Cup place.
Crossan, who grew up in north London, is second-generation Irish and wants to make his club the modern equivalent of the ballrooms of Kilburn and Cricklewood, which his parents frequented.
He is also keen to point out that he wants the club to be for all those who are away from their home country – Irish or otherwise.
“All the places that the Irish could congregate in London have gone. We don’t want to make this all about being Irish, we are called the Exiles for a reason, everyone who is not in their own country is an exile,” he says. “Everyone is welcome, it is about bringing the craic back.”
Crossan, who owns the waste management giant Powerday and has a background working in construction, also wants to make the club “the builder’s club” to open the Exiles up further.
Another aspect of Crossan’s plans is to keep hold of the club’s brightest young talent. “Our academy is one of the best for getting international players to represent England,” he says. “When you look at Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonathan Joseph, they all came through our academy. The experience our young lads have gained from being with the likes of [Sekope] Kepu, Sean O’Brien – they are learning from their experiences. I have always advocated for no relegation, because what was happening was we had really, really good young players, but we wouldn’t play them because the win was everything. It was crucial because of relegation.
Crossan took over the ownership of Irish in 2013
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“Obviously, with what happened with Saracens last year and what happened this year with Covid, there is going to be no relegation. That has given us the opportunity to blood our young players. Worcester Warriors may be at the bottom of the league, but they are able to give their youngsters opportunities.”
London Irish had a sliding doors moment more than two decades ago when Crossan was in talks with former Chelsea owner and chairman Ken Bates about having the Exiles play at Stamford Bridge.
“We were so close to getting London Irish to play at Stamford Bridge, we were very closely aligned, even having our player of the year awards there. But it didn’t come through,” he says with a hint of regret, which is little surprise as Crossan is such a Chelsea obsessive that his daughter is named after the club. “Ken understood the Irish connection as his wife Susannah is Liverpool-Irish. It is a great shame as west London would have been perfect for the Irish community. But Brentford is the perfect fit now.”
For a conversation that segues so naturally between football and rugby, Crossan gives a curious answer when asked if rugby can learn anything from football, as the richer and more professional sport.
His reply is a firm “no” before continuing with a chuckle: “Football is tribal, and I know that from following Chelsea. People could say things about London Irish and I wouldn’t be bothered, but if they say things about Chelsea, I would be annoyed. Football brings out the ogre in you!
“There is a joy about rugby that I don’t always get in football.”
Crossan, like Sale Sharks owner Simon Orange, did not grow up around rugby. The Irish-dominated St James’ School he attended in Edgware was a long way from the manicured pitches of Twickenham.
“You were either in construction, prison or going between the two!” he says.
This, along with his desire to market his club to construction workers, opens the question of rugby’s traditional class divide. But he is quick to swat it away. “The whole thing about having to [go] to a private school to be involved in rugby is an old wives’ tale. I see it when we go back to Ireland for the internationals, you have people from all sorts of backgrounds at matches.”
He is certain of how he sees himself. “I am London Irish, you can call me a ‘plastic Paddy’, I don’t care. Cut me in half and I will be green, white and gold.”