Daniel McDonell: Flagging interest may signal death knell of Setanta Cup
IT was flagged as a vision for the future, but it has sadly become apparent that the Setanta Cup simply doesn't have one. Gradually, an initiative that was designed to benefit the two football leagues on this island has morphed into a southern-dominated shootout for cash that is crammed into the beginning of the season. The money adds a silver lining to the cloud.
Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk kick off the semi-finals tonight, with Sligo Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic meeting in the first of their two-legged encounters tomorrow evening – with a televised encounter going up against the Manchester derby sure to fly under the radar.
And it's hard to argue that it deserves any great prominence when all it's doing is crowding a calendar that tests the faith of loyal supporters who have to dig into their pockets far too often.
This year's competition lost its credibility when Linfield and Cliftonville, the two leading clubs in the Irish League, decided that it wasn't worth entering as the business end of their season approaches. The four northern representatives were wiped out in the quarter-finals, with only one, Coleraine, putting up any sort of fight.
A social media appeal by Crusaders to find someone with a car to drive players to Sligo summed up a grim picture.
The top League of Ireland sides do retain some enthusiasm for the competition and that's understandable when you consider that the first prize of €33,000 is worth more than a third-placed finish in the league.
Back in 2005, when the tournament was introduced, the total pot was €350,000, with a substantial lump for every participant depending on their progress. Now, it's only the winners that really earn a good wedge, hence the withdrawal of the better Irish League sides who would need to perform at their absolute peak to reach a final, but know that a full commitment could cost them in their domestic endeavours.
The enthusiasm of LOI supporters is a different matter, however. Repetition is a huge problem; it's hard to package a game as a unique experience when there are so are many of them in a row, a scenario that is preposterous after a lengthy off-season. As it stands, Shamrock Rovers will play 13 times between March 9 and April 25, and they also have to schedule a game in the unnecessary irrelevance that is the Leinster Senior Cup.
The congested run of fixtures encourages punters to pick and choose their games, and an All-Ireland competition without an All-Ireland element that's on the TV anyway offers little appeal. Fixture chaos also increases the likelihood of injury and reduces the quality of the fare.
Of course, when the Setanta Cup was introduced, the hope was that the bigger picture would be embraced rather than selfish needs. Idealists wanted it to be a springboard towards an All-Ireland league, but, if anything, it has lengthened the odds of that ever developing as there doesn't appear to be a real appetite on either side of the border.
In Belfast, there is an element that fears a union between the leagues because it could erode their identity and prompt unwelcome questions about their national team. Down here, the novelty value of an unfamiliar opponent has failed to captivate the floating spectator because they know so little about the personalities plying their trade in an inferior league.
The initial jousts between Linfield and Derry pricked curiosity, and Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk followers responded in their first crack at the trophy, but that has faded – especially when the tournament is now giving them two extra reasons to take on each other.
The failure of a worthy idea is not Setanta's fault. They invested resources at the outset hoping that others would follow and then stood by it this year when their intention was to step aside if the organising committee found another sponsor willing to take over the naming rights and make the competition their own.
Nobody wanted it, though, and with no evidence of the desire or ambition to prioritise reform of a flagging project, it's difficult to justify another renewal.