Whole new ball game
Soccer Correspondent Daniel McDonnell looks at the big questions ahead of the 2011 League of Ireland campaign, with the football taking centre stage tomorrow night after a turbulent winter.
Will this year's headlines be dominated by football?
It's hard to be positive. The only cheery spin on the chaos of the past few years was that the league had to reach rock bottom and weed out some of the worst financial offenders before rebuilding again.
Some believed we had reached that point 12 months ago and the season itself was less traumatic off the park than those that went before. Alas, a disastrous winter has reduced optimism that things are heading in the right direction. Once more, matters of promotion and relegation were decided behind closed doors and one club, Sporting Fingal, went bust.
How has the recession affected League of Ireland football?
There are parallels with the bigger picture in the sense that pain has followed a period of reckless spending. There are also parallels in that the recession is being used as an all-encompassing excuse for a variety of cutbacks, when the truth is they would have been inevitable anyway due to bad practice.
Wages have dropped considerably; clubs are carrying lighter squads and the prize money is down by 66pc. A couple of years back, numerous players were commanding in excess of €100,000 a year from League of Ireland football. Nobody is earning even half of that figure this year.
What does the future hold?
Some have argued that the best chance of building something sustainable is in this kind of climate. Basically, the theory is that offering a footballer €30,000 a year and employment is more attractive than the likely alternative of the dole. The asking price was greater during the Celtic Tiger era.
There is logic in the theory if starting from scratch, yet the reality is that many clubs are saddled with the excesses of the good days, not to mention the cynicism of the general public, who have watched champions after champions go under.
Where do the FAI stand on the domestic game?
The association are in cash trouble of their own and have yet to commit to the stewardship of the league beyond the end of this season. Clubs have voted to continue the relationship and it should be a formality, yet the FAI say the junior side of the game has to be consulted.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is the dispute with Limerick FC over the decision to block last summer's friendly with Barcelona. A costly arbitration battle is ongoing, and League Director Fran Gavin admitted it could impact upon spending at all levels of the game. The feeling is that everything is on hold until the matter is resolved.
Shouldn't the rules put a stop to the messing?
Licensing was supposed to be the solution to all the League of Ireland's problems, but, like alcohol, it has proven to be a cause as well. Clubs have simply found a way to manipulate the rules that are there and the FAI has effectively allowed them to do so.
For example, there was no formal punishment for Bohs failing to pay their players after the November 30 deadline, a very obvious flaw in the system. And, ultimately, all budgets were passed by the FAI at the beginning of the last campaign.
Can the FAI really be blamed though?
Naturally, they can't account for clubs submitting bogus info, or suffering the unexpected loss of a main sponsor, but the suspicion remains that the system is too forgiving.
The courts finished the old Cork City, while Sporting Fingal waved the white flag. Only the old Derry have really been cracked down upon by authorities, and that was for operating dual contracts. Clubs who persistently renege on wage commitments get off the hook. That is a flaw in the system.
Reasons to be positive?
The season ended on a football high with 36,000 watching Sligo and Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup final, and their renewed strength means that two well-supported clubs should be to the forefront of the league title race.
Meanwhile, the return of Derry City should give the top flight a boost, while Dundalk are another side with decent following that should be around the business end. Throw St Pat's into the mix, and a competitive title race could generate some interest.
Can anybody stop Shamrock Rovers?
Realistically, it's going to be difficult for any of the pretenders given the depth of resources that the Hoops have available. They must hope that Michael O'Neill struggles to keep a large dressing-room happy. Sligo strengthened in July last term, and hope to do the same this year with the help of European funds. They need to start well and avoid injuries in the early weeks, or else they'll be playing catch-up.
Is the next Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey or Seamus Coleman out there?
The three examples set a high standard and it's worth noting that they spent their final days in the league in a full-time professional training environment, which allowed them to hit the ground running with their new employers.
It will be difficult for the next generation to match those feats in a part-time set-up.
Nevertheless, there are still players here with a chance of going on to enjoy good careers in England. Dundalk's Daniel Kearns and Shamrock Rovers' Karl Sheppard have prospects, while Bohs and St Pat's have some interesting youngsters.
Fahey went back over in his 26th year, so Sligo's Richie Ryan, who has just reached that age, need not abandon hope just yet.
What about the First Division?
Cut to 11 teams after Fingal's demise, and Drogheda's surprise elevation. Pending the continuation of the merger between the league and the FAI, the top two will go up automatically, with the third entering a one-off game with the bottom team in the top flight.
With Cork, Shelbourne, Limerick, and Waterford all strengthening, there should be ample excitement.
They are likely to be the front four and, whatever happens, there will be welcome additions back to the Premier Division.
Take a punt on Shels and Limerick filling the top two spots, with Cork making the play-off. At the other end, Mervue and Salthill Devon will try and maintain some kind of respectability.
Is Europe still the dream?
With the drain of talent from the league continuing, the ambition of making the group stages of either the Champions League or Europa League seems more distant than ever.
That said, there is serious money to be made from moving through the earlier rounds, with Shamrock Rovers' dalliance with Juventus adding spark to last summer.
Indeed, with the drop in league prize money, advancing through one round in Europe will be worth more financially to the Hoops than regaining the title.
It's a similar story for the Europa League representatives.
Let's just hope they don't gamble on progression.