Monday 24 October 2016

Daniel McDonnell: League of Ireland voices know what needs to be said

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Ger O’Brien and Longford Town’s Conor Powell at the launch of the new Airtricity League season at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Ger O’Brien and Longford Town’s Conor Powell at the launch of the new Airtricity League season at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

The return of the League of Ireland this week brings with it the inevitable comeback for lengthy discussions about how it can be improved. For those who love the domestic game, it is the never-ending debate.

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Last week's official launch of the new campaign brought a lot of interested parties together under the one roof and it presented a straightforward idea to kick off the build-up to Friday.

Identify some recognisable faces that have been knocking around the domestic game for most of their professional life and ask them - aside from their own personal ambitions - one thing they would like to see happen around the league in the forthcoming year.

After all, the most insightful observations on the game here generally tend to come from the people who are trying to make a living in this sphere because they are engaged by the topic all the year round.

No prompts were offered and, without hesitation, two experienced managers and players spoke their mind.

Tony Cousins

(Manager Longford Town)

"There's one thing that's struck me this year and that's from a marketing point of view. You look at Lidl and what they've done with the advertisement for Ladies GAA.

"If you listen to that advertisement, it's like talking about a League of Ireland player wanting more people to come to games. When you see them up on billboards, you're thinking, 'Jesus if we could just have our players up on those billboards'.

"Last year, there was a lot of talk about the goals Richie Towell scored and it would have been nice to drive along all day and see a picture of Richie on a billboard, scoring a goal or whatever. Those Lidl advertisements on the TV are really hitting home.

"It's fantastic they are doing it for the women's game when they don't really get big crowds - it's things like that which hit home with people. That's been a great promotion and I'd like to see more of that."

Stephen O'Donnell

(Captain Dundalk)

"It's gone now, but the thing I'd like to change would be the pre-season. Players are coming back and it's the worst time of the year. And we're not paid for it. It's the hardest part of the year in your job, the month you hate the most, and you don't get paid - I don't think it happens in any other job.

"I'd like to see the league publicised a bit better, promoted a bit better. The big league clashes like the games with ourselves and Cork, there's a good rivalry there now and you can get it out there beyond the League of Ireland fraternity.

"I could be talking to someone in Galway and we could be playing Cork that week and the person might be a sportsperson but they wouldn't even know the game is on. And that's two good teams.

"We have to promote our assets better because people like Chris Forrester have shown there are some really good players in the league. Now can we promote them and get their talents on view?"

Tommy Dunne

(Manager Galway United)

"Just listening to the guys there (at top table of launch), they're talking about developments in grounds and the quicker that happens the better for me. How are we supposed to produce a good product if, firstly, we can't bring people to the right stadiums to watch the games and then, secondly, I also look at training facilities. That has to be improved on.

"I know there's a development in Glanmire in Cork and there's talk of other facilities becoming available around the country that the League of Ireland will be able to use as part of the bigger scheme of things. That's essential.

"It's a difficult question to answer generally. I hope the coverage is good and teams play a good style of football which gets the respect it deserves. Everybody in Ireland seems to be England-orientated and if we can win over a couple of those guys that travel to England, then that would be progress.

"Yeah, sure, (they can) keep going to England of course but even if they could go to games here on their week off then that would be progress."

Ger O'Brien

(Captain St Patrick's Athletic) "I might be hitting the rewind button here but I've never known for a big report to have happened the way it did - the Conroy Report - without the employees being asked any questions. I know the PFAI were consulted on it and I'm on the committee but they never bring in the players enough, they needed to speak to us about what we want.

"We are the attraction and I would have liked the chance to say how we feel. The report is done now, they've recommended things without speaking to us and on that front it's disappointing. Maybe the horse hasn't bolted yet on that, before they make any drastic decisions.

"They can get a sense of how we feel because, for me, and the likes of the other lads at St Pat's and the lads at Dundalk and Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers, this is our livelihoods. The league has given me a wonderful opportunity in this country for the last 12 or 13 years where I've been able to live my dream as a footballer here to a certain level.

"I get up every morning and play football so I'd love to be able to help and give something back. If we could offer our views about what can be better, and they could explain to us why this can't change or that can't change then it would be better than asking questions and never getting answers. That would be my wish.

"We can make it better. And not just by throwing money at it. Speaking to the employees would be the first step."

* * * * *

From a small randomly-selected group, the answers offer an accurate introduction to the main areas of concern. They all kicked off on a different note; marketing, working conditions for players, improvement in facilities and the importance of listening to the men in the dressing room when plotting a roadmap forward.

Throw in Keith Fahey's recent observations on these pages about the inconsistent standards across the country and you're close to a full picture.

The perpetual mission is to sell the game to a sceptical public and the main obstacles to making that happen are the idiosyncratic imperfections and frustrations which complicate the process of delivering on the potential that exists.

Unfortunately, the fear is that the same points will be just as valid 12 months from now. It could be argued that they were equally relevant 12 years ago.

Some day, this script will have to change.

Irish Independent

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