Domestic game faces overhaul or extinction
Old power bases must be surrendered and petty rivalries ended if the League of Ireland wants to get out of its current rut, writes Richard Sadlier
There's nothing unique about the challenges facing the League of Ireland. There's nothing particularly unfair about being next to the UK, nothing peculiar about competing with other popular sports and nothing unusual in the climate of the country.
Competing with televised coverage of high-quality sport is something that clubs everywhere have to deal with. The simple truth is that the league is offering senior football to a country full of football fanatics and most of the football fanatics aren't interested. Everything else is just noise.
League of Ireland clubs and supporters portraying themselves as downtrodden victims of circumstance and geography became tiresome years ago. It prevents meaningful discussion on how to develop the game or explore ways in which it can be improved, something I experienced at first hand during my time as the CEO with St Pat's.
During one of the club meetings I attended, the first ten minutes was used by one delegate to bemoan the political support afforded to the GAA and the coverage given to it by RTE. We then sat through another delegate's gripes that Irish newspapers were giving priority to Champions League games involving English clubs. The sports bulletins on the radio stations didn't lead with League of Ireland updates which was seen as a failing of the FAI marketing team. Actually, no matter what was on the agenda at the outset, there was always time put aside to mock the FAI for their lack of vision and leadership.
But there was always mention of the FIFA requirement to have a national domestic league in order to have a senior international team. It was difficult to listen to people sit on their hands and obstruct progress while proclaiming their importance to the greater good of Irish football. There would be no Ireland team if there was no League of Ireland, therefore the country and the FAI need to do something. However, there were varying levels of interest in exploring what that might be.
It was widely agreed that something radical needed to happen but self-interest was most clubs' priority. In any case, what exactly would radical change look like? Merge two clubs into one? Form new franchise clubs in provincial areas? Cut the first division adrift altogether and focus all efforts on maintaining a decent premier division? Form a breakaway premier division on a geographical basis? Form an All-Ireland league? If it's not radical, it's merely tinkering, and it's all been done before.
Former Galway United general manager Nick Leeson has his own view. "You're better off having something that's half-good in a smaller league, and regionalise the first division. All they've [FAI] been looking at over the last number of years is natural wastage. You've had a few clubs that have gone, Galway included. Waterford almost went this year, and whatever's happened with Monaghan. It would make far more sense to cull a few. You regionalise the first division and make it fully amateur."
But maybe it's not about coming up with the radical idea anymore. Maybe accepting the status quo would be more beneficial. "It's about knowing where you are, and I think sometimes the aspirations have been too high," says Leeson.
Fans of the league may believe they are vastly superior than Irish fans of English clubs but they wouldn't be the first set of supporters inflicted with an inflated sense of self-importance. Mocking those who attended last weekend's Dublin Decider in the Aviva Stadium gets nobody anywhere, except to portray those doing the mocking as cliquey, narrow-minded contrarians.
Last weekend, more than 50,000 people took the opportunity to see their heroes play live. The notion that they are in some way less authentic than League of Ireland fans allows those domestic fans who hold that view to feel victimised and superior simultaneously. The question they should be asking is why the league fails to capture the public's imagination in a country that, as the success of the Heineken Cup has shown, is desperate to be associated with Irish sporting stories.
It could also be taken as the latest in a long line of wake-up calls by the league and its fans. It was another demonstration of the appetite for live football in this country. The difficulties of doing business in Ireland go far beyond domestic football clubs but at least they have an enormous market to go after. Thinking up ways to attract them to games rather than sneering at them for staying away would be a far better use of their resources.
But it is difficult to come up with an initiative that would make a meaningful difference. "I'm not sure anything is workable, that's the unfortunate thing," says Leeson. "I'm pessimistic because I've been involved. You're always looking for that straw that you're clutching at to keep you going. And that's not good."
Leeson believes an increase in prize money would need to happen but past experience tells us that only drives up players' wages. The more you give a club, the more they spend on players. The Salary Cost Protocol could ensure that didn't happen but clubs will always look to find a way. Derry City were caught illegally paying their players in 2009 and even private agreements between clubs around that time didn't last.
"Clubs can't propose a unilateral salary cap. We tried to agree it ourselves if you remember, and Cork City broke it within 36 hours or something. That's the problem. If you leave the clubs to do it themselves, it just won't happen."
It was a specific example to illustrate a wider problem. Clubs cannot be asked to shape the future of Irish football because self-interest and survival are their priorities. It is the responsibility of the FAI but it requires long-term thinking. "Look at Connacht rugby and where they are now against where they were ten years ago," Leeson says. "Then look at where soccer clubs were ten years ago and where they are now. There's not too many have taken a forward step."
And ten years from now? As things stand, professional football will be a thing of the past in Ireland. Attendances will continue to decline and the numbers of new supporters attracted to the league will dwindle to almost nothing. There will be little investment in facilities because the funding will no longer be there. "Nobody's willing to put money behind it because the product isn't good enough. If you run it well you'll survive, but you'll never get rich".
Coverage on national television will be minimal, and sponsorship will consist of local businesses giving a leg-up to volunteer-run clubs watched by enthusiastic locals. Squads will return to being how the Donegal Gaelic football set-up was recently described before the appointment of Jim McGuinness as their manager – 'half football team, half stag party'. That's where this is heading.
The League of Ireland means a great deal to the people involved in it but they are getting fewer and fewer in number. Jeering those who choose to watch better players at foreign clubs playing superior football only makes League of Ireland fans sound like the kind of people most football fans would like to avoid. This opening weekend of the Premier League is an occasion of significance in the lives of the majority of Irish football fans. No date in the domestic calendar comes close.
The changes that might work would require a complete overhaul, the surrendering of power bases and the ending of petty rivalries. A franchised league controlled by the FAI with two clubs in Dublin and another eight to ten in cities and towns across the country could provide something people want to watch. Players could be centrally contracted and transfer fees from sales to foreign clubs would work much as they do in MLS with the money divided between the club and the league itself. Ultimately, the best young players in the country will gravitate towards the academies of these clubs.
These proposals were put to me last week and I believe they are worth exploring. However, the number of people who consider themselves to be powerful figures in the domestic game affected by them probably means they will never even be discussed. Yet radical change is needed or the League of Ireland will, in time, limp over the abyss.