Wednesday 7 December 2016

Daniel McDonnell: Misery seekers blind to only hope of progress

Published 03/10/2016 | 02:30

Dundalk’s Ciaran Kilduff (R) celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Thursday. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Dundalk’s Ciaran Kilduff (R) celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Thursday. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Naysayers must realise Dundalk’s Euro run is welcome shot in the arm for the league.

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So what's the column about today?

Dundalk.

Again?

Yeah, sorry if it's repetitive.

I came home from Tallaght last Thursday and the other half - who has no interest in football - was wondering what the big deal was.

Informed that Dundalk had made history, she just shrugged her shoulders and said 'Ah you said that the last time' and then turned her eyes back to the screen. But they keep breaking new ground.

What's the point of this piece?

That Dundalk's European run could well be the best thing that ever happened to club football in Ireland.

Is that in dispute?

Yes. It's one of the stranger aspects of this year. The vast majority of the sports fans with no interest in Irish domestic matters - 'the barstoolers' as some LOI fans call them - seem to view Dundalk's success as a good thing. The glass-half-empty slant has come from worried fans of other clubs.

That's about rivalry though?

Mostly. Every fan wants their club to be in that position. And that's football - nobody is going to enjoy a team they dislike lording it over them.

The argument is that Dundalk's injection of funds is going to allow them to dominate the league for the next decade.

They said that about Shamrock Rovers in 2011 though?

True, but their breakthrough made them somewhere in the region of €1.5m. Dundalk's earnings are past the €6m mark and counting and, while costs and the desperate need to upgrade their dilapidated ground will eat into that, it's still a major head start.

What's the bad news angle here?

The view has been expressed that Dundalk leading the way could 'ruin' a league that has spread the trophies around. Eight different teams have won the title since 2000. Unfortunately, two of those clubs - Shelbourne and Drogheda - are in the First Division because they're still coping with overspending.

Cork City effectively had to reboot and start from scratch. Bohs have come through some dark days too. The standard of the league around the mid 2000s was excellent but the leading clubs were pretty much all living beyond their means, so the rise and fall was a theme.

So Dundalk streaking away could make it boring?

That is the argument, but the collapse of the aforementioned clubs was dreadful PR and hurt credibility. Then the associated cutbacks led to a number of players leaving and the standard suffering. Yes, the league was quite open around 2012 and 2013, with a number of clubs portraying realistic title ambitions, but that really wasn't working as a selling point - especially with European results suffering.

Why is it a good thing for the league then?

It's fairly simple really. The league is engaged in a constant battle for respect and this Dundalk side has put it on the map. Europe will always be used as the barometer and they have tackled age-old perceptions about Irish limitations without engaging in crazy spending.

Yes, Dundalk have gradually strengthened and used their new-found clout to pip clubs to players, but Stephen Kenny kicked it off by identifying individuals that other managers didn't view as stars and improving them. Their budget is well off what the aforementioned top clubs were spending a decade ago.

What has their success done for attendances?

Crowds have been poor around the league. Galway did experience a spike when Dundalk came to town just after they beat BATE, but there hasn't been a knock-on effect anywhere else. That's because all the existing problems haven't gone away - poor facilities and all the usual excuses.

It hasn't transformed the league then?

Of course not, and it would be naive to think one solitary run can. But progress has to start somewhere.

The ideal-world scenario would involve every club improving in tandem with each other, but that's a fanciful notion.

Ironically, Dundalk's success has effectively highlighted inadequacies - the prize money for starters. The dramatic contrast between their Euro rewards and the €110,000 local pot has gone viral on social media and featured in news coverage around the world.

If Dundalk had gone out in July, then the same old debate featuring the die-hards would have dropped off the radar for another year. Instead, it's firmly in the mainstream and the FAI will not be allowed to forget it.

What do other players and managers make of it?

There will be jealousy - again, it's understandable. They are competitive. But there is a real sense that it has given them pride in what they do because they are accustomed to being viewed as second-class sporting citizens.

Cork are pushing Dundalk hard for the league this year but their players get it. "A pub league they said...", tweeted their midfielder Gavan Holohan last Thursday, making his point.

After the landmark win over BATE Borisov in August, ex-Sligo Rovers midfielder Richie Ryan - who is now with Miami - said: "Any LOI fan that wasn't wanting Dundalk to progress needs to have a look at themselves. More success, more growth for the league."

Cobh Ramblers boss Stephen Henderson summed up a popular view on Thursday. "I'm beaming here," he wrote. "Always proud to be part of LOI football and this Dundalk team will make everybody involved walk around with chest out, head high."

Numerous supporters of other clubs have attended Dundalk's European games and shared in the experience too.

This should be celebrated then?

It's an opportunity. Dundalk's exploits should focus minds instead of breeding complacency.

They're not alone either. Cork still have a real shout in the league and performed well in Europe this year.

The increase in UEFA prize money has given regular qualifiers the chance to stabilise. Two strong clubs is preferable to a closely-matched top flight consisting entirely of weak ones.

Rosenborg's spell at the top in Norway is often cited as a negative, but their league is now a different animal under a variety of headings. It has modern stadia, a TV deal and the ability to command transfer fees.

Make no mistake about it, the Irish game is light years away from that and hard calls lie ahead with regard to applying structures and minimum standards.

But the fact is the league was meandering along after another review process without any real sense of direction until Dundalk pushed open the window to a brighter world.

The League of Ireland regular that sees darkness emerging from this chink of light sounds beaten down to the point where they are conditioned to misery.

Bad for their club in the short term? Perhaps. Bad for the league as a whole? No.

If this example doesn't inspire change, nothing will.

Online Editors

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