Sunset or new dawn?
Published 17/02/2009 | 00:00
A necessary clean slate, or the great fudge? Depending on the colour of your spectacles, they are the conflicting viewpoints on yesterday's announcement from the FAI's Club Licensing Committee in relation to the 2009 League of Ireland campaign.
This was heralded as the day when we would learn the consequences of the misdemeanours which have blighted the past year for followers of the domestic game.
When clubs were frequently failing to pay players, slashing budgets in haphazard fashion and investing in new additions when logic dictated otherwise, the defence from Abbotstown was that the necessary checks and balances were in place to punish the offenders. We had licensing deadlines, and the 65pc Salary Cost Protocol, which would serve as judge and jury come January.
Or so we thought. January 31 has been and gone, the accounts submitted and the individual cases have been judged. And, aside from the sorry plight of Cobh Ramblers, who effectively exited the League of Ireland proper yesterday, the news from the FAI is that everyone else has received the report card they were looking for. Nothing to see here, folks.
Sure, a few parties have been given the provisional OK subject to fulfilling a few more terms and conditions -- after all, where would we be in Irish football without more deadlines -- but the sum total is that after a calamitous campaign, where numerous clubs practised their business flagrantly, the sanction is a rap on the knuckles and a sterner warning not to do it again.
No wonder those few clubs who have lived within their means and within the letter of the law are exasperated. "It's like a year's grace has been granted," said one official, who didn't wish to be named yesterday. The frustration is understandable.
For their part, the FAI have promised tougher measures for the forthcoming season although they have yet to hammer down specific punishments for those clubs who renege on wage commitments with the PFAI lobbying for clear definition.
"Clubs have gotten away without paying their players," said PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness yesterday.
"I think those clubs have to be driven towards amateurism.
"If they do their business that way -- if they stop paying players -- then they should be prevented from signing any more professional players in future, and restricted to signing amateurs because they are behaving in an amateur fashion."
What the FAI have clarified, however, is that any club that enters examinership this year faces the prospect of a 40-point deduction. This follows on from the example of '08, where Cork and Drogheda United went down that route and escaped with 10-point deductions. It is their respective successes in securing Premier Division licences for '09 which is the most contentious aspect of yesterday's news.
For Drogheda, it is another miracle. The manner in which ordinary supporters have knuckled down to raise the cash and rescue their club from extinction has been a thoroughly heartwarming tale with a Hollywood ending.
Many would have been content with their club being alive, in any guise, in the First Division so the maintenance of top-flight status is an added boost, no doubt helped by the fact that their new chairman, Jim McArdle, has worked on licensing over the past few years and possesses an assiduous knowledge of the hurdles which need to be crossed.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that the FAI have been extremely generous towards the Louth club when it comes to judgment on their United Park ground, which, to complicate things further, is actually owned by the association itself. They are paying for the installation of new seats and other ancillary improvements and have granted a derogation to Drogheda to continue at the venue until that work is completed.
In addition to that, there are question marks over Drogheda's ability to generate the necessary finance to match their estimates for the season ahead, but then they are hardly alone in that regard.
Serious concerns remain about the future of Cork City. As of yesterday, two of their players from last year were still in dispute with the club over unpaid monies, which would suggest that the Leesiders' plans to negotiate the season ahead as a full-time outfit without difficulty are just a tad optimistic. With the FAI not completely satisfied with events at Turner's Cross, watch that space.
Double-winners Bohemians had one budget estimate handed back to them by the powers that be, and were asked to come up with an alternative offering, which passed the test. Maybe it was unintentional, but they were keen to stress they had received no sanctions when announcing their all-clear yesterday, a reference to the fact that in some quarters they had been widely anticipated.
As their squad were forced to accept pay cuts in order to make room for some new players, they are in a far from healthy position and are budgeting for success in at least one competition to justify their expenditure for '09.
Sligo Rovers, meanwhile, submitted a couple of drafts before their final budget was accepted and all this in a period where their bizarre on-off relationship with Paul Cook was rekindled, with the nadir of that saga being a press release from the club seeking help in raising the €60,000 to return their former employee to his 'rightful position'.
Those case studies are just the tip of the iceberg. One club arrived in Abbotstown last Friday with cash in an envelope to settle some of their debts. Other issues rumbled on towards Sunday morning, and need to be resolved before we can properly look ahead to the football.
Fittingly enough, the first live television game of the new campaign, between Dundalk and champions Bohemians, will take place on a new Oriel Park pitch which needs to be approved after the original plastic pitch at the home of the Lilywhites was deemed unsuitable for the Premier Division.
The positive spin on all of this is that the worst is over. That those clubs who entered examinership, or the others who had to dramatically trim budgets, have learned from their recklessness, are now suitably chastened and alert to the challenges ahead. Wages are now lower, contracts shorter and full-time players less plentiful. So give everyone a chance, and promise to come down on them like a ton of bricks if they err this time around.
All fine in theory but, essentially, it's rhetoric which insults those clubs who thought that hard-line leadership began when the FAI assumed control of the League of Ireland and cut their cloth accordingly. Their feeling of injustice will linger, soured by the meritorious observation that a hand of get-out-of-jail cards has now been dealt.
This is Ireland, though, where recent events on a wider scale again emphasise that accountability lags low in the list of priorities, where the last-chance saloon has a revolving door, and a floor covered in cushions.