European funds to make for even more uneven playing field
Published 06/04/2015 | 02:30
THERE was an appropriate juxtaposition between the two major League of Ireland stories of last week, a pertinent transition from good news to bad.
On Tuesday, the four teams that will be flying the flag in Europe this summer learned that a huge increase in UEFA prize money will mean a significant boost to the coffers even if they fail to win a tie.
Dundalk are assured of €550,000 and could scoop €1.2m if they can pull off a shock in their Champions League second round qualifier.
Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick's Athletic and Cork City will collect a minimum of €200,000 and have a good chance of scooping another €210,000 if they get through the opening round of the Europa League - the Dublin pair should be seeded.
This made for some encouraging Wednesday morning headlines - a ray of sunshine that lasted until that evening when the resignation of Alan Mathews and his allegations of turmoil at Bray delivered an insight into how the other half is living.
In Wicklow, they can only dream of the funds the foreign travellers will be fighting for in July, even if it's slightly bizarre that a crucial 180 minutes are now worth far more to clubs than their endeavours over a 33-game league season.
Of course, the reward for a successful campaign is the chance to compete for European riches the following year, but that's a strange kind of glory, a bit like spending nine months working towards winning a free throw of the dice with the high rollers in Vegas.
Granted, the consolation if it goes wrong is that, in UEFA's casino, nobody goes home empty handed.
With the cash incentives likely to rise again in 2018, a top four finish in Ireland (or top three if the FAI Cup winner comes from lower down the table - an outcome which looks like becoming the exception as opposed to the rule) is attaining the same status as across the water, where it's the be-all and end-all.
No Irish team has managed consistent success this century - the cast of characters battling for honours has rotated thanks to financial turbulence.
Europe was always the pipe dream, a justification for some of the rash spending that blighted the noughties with Shelbourne's rise and fall the most dramatic example of how the pendulum can swing.
Shamrock Rovers performed heroics to reach the Europa League group stages in 2011 - within four years the value of repeating the feat has doubled. Clubs now have to do a lot less to earn the euros that the Hoops gathered from that adventure
Worryingly, this could prompt officials to lose the run of themselves but one would hope that lessons have been learned and collective restraint can prevent a comical upturn of wages motivated by one-upmanship.
Despite being in a position to attract crowds, our title chasers still have to work hard to break even, never mind turn a profit.
What is noticeable, however, is that the leading quartet in 2014 already look a safe bet to fill those positions in 2015 unless Sligo Rovers come to life. It's not difficult to envisage this year's European representatives going forward again in 2016.
The genuine chance to double their dividend while maintaining a similar budget, even if larger bonus demands from players are inevitable, offers a form of security that will widen the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots.
This inequality is visible every Monday on TV when viewers see the contrast between a packed Turner's Cross and the awful backdrop of Jackman Park.
Unfortunately, there is no viable plan to bring a dozen teams up to scratch simultaneously.
Indeed, there's a school of thought which argues that the best way to raise the bar is for a coterie to pull well clear and urge others to follow.
This sounds attractive for those at the summit, but the danger is that others will over-extend in an attempt to catch up and find themselves in the kind of pickle that casts a negative light on the whole brand.
The strength of a division is often reflected by its weakest operation, an uncomfortable truth which the authorities should have to address. It's plausible that the disparity in wealth could take the problem out of their hands.
European monies may give the recipients a shot in the arm, yet it's got the potential to be a gun to the head for the struggling entities which cannot compete.
All the signs are pointing towards a smaller top flight, dominated by the lucky few in the right place at the right time.