Rovers 'B' team can be good for game
Published 23/12/2013 | 02:30
AT first glance, it is easy to point to the addition of a Shamrock Rovers reserve team to the First Division and conclude that it makes a mockery of that league.
The obvious counterpoint is that it's already beyond parody. Nothing could make the second tier worse than it already is.
There are valid questions to ask about the manner in which the addition of Rovers' development side has come about, but there's something laughable about the integrity of the First Division, the cold sore of the Airtricity League, suddenly becoming a burning issue in Irish football.
To put it in perspective, the combined attendances for the entire 2013 First Division season totalled 44,000 according to the FAI; that's an average of less than 400 people per game. And that was an increase thanks to Athlone's late attendance spurt.
Once Mervue United and Salthill Devon were ushered in to make up the numbers for the past few seasons, an already weakened division lost any sense of credibility.
Every so often, a disaffected minority will argue that the First Division warrants coverage on 'Monday Night Soccer' when the truth is that the facilities and attendances at certain grounds are not fit for broadcast.
It would serve the clubs better if absent fans lived under the illusion that the bar was raised higher than the reality.
Certainly, aspects of the new Shamrock Rovers initiative sit a little uncomfortably. It seems strange that three outfield players and a goalkeeper could conceivably line out in the Premier Division on a Friday and again in the First Division on a Sunday.
Regular movement between the club's seniors and 'SRFC2' was a dealbreaker for the Hoops, who are digging the FAI out of a hole by making the First Division an eight-team contest.
But the solution arrived at seems a little too flexible. Restricting it to players outside the Premier match-day squad on a given weekend would represent some kind of solution, albeit in an unprecedented situation that is never going to satisfy everybody.
However, the negatives offered on behalf of the First Division competition simply do not stand up.
After all, if the schedule allows even 50 die-hard Shamrock Rovers fans to travel and watch the second team play, that would represent 50 more away supporters than most clubs bring.
Yes, it will be jarring for Shelbourne, the former landlords, to now rub shoulders with Rovers reserves on a competitive basis. Still, there's every chance their gate from the oddest renewal of the old Ringsend derby, if timed correctly, will do more for their coffers than any meeting with Mervue or Salthill ever would have done.
And a few less trips out of Dublin will help the travel budget, too.
Ultimately, the Rovers idea stemmed from the FAI inviting applications for the First Division and finding that prospective options in the untapped areas that the League of Ireland needs to spread into -- Kerry and Mayo for starters -- are either not ready or just not interested.
They have to be presented with a more appealing prospect than a repetitive league with limited fanfare and onerous expenses.
At least the new Galway FC have dormant support to draw upon as they prepare to lock horns with unfortunate regulars Longford, Finn Harps, Waterford and the returning Shels at a level where the prospect of escaping is the only thing keeping them going.
For their sakes, a development side that cannot be promoted and operates under the umbrella of a secure club is preferable to introducing an unsustainable entity that could vanish mid-season like Dublin City or Monaghan.
Naturally, top-flight rivals of the Hoops have grumbled. They should have been officially notified by the FAI that Rovers were being lined up to fill the First Division gap, but it's highly unlikely that any other club would have the resources to finance another team.
The licensing window should be extended if that assertion is incorrect. Otherwise, the unhappiness is borne from the fact that a club which so many love to hate is stealing a march on their rivals because they can afford it.
Talk of a level playing field would suggest it has always existed in a league where the wealthier teams at a particular point in time habitually seek to plunder their weakened rivals.
The difference here is that Rovers are seriously committing to an idea that will prioritise investment in young players.
Spending €80,000 with a view to recruiting a selection of the best youngsters in Dublin at an earlier age is a better plan than throwing the same amount at a senior performer from a rival club with short-term prospects and no sell-on value.
And Rovers are no strangers to that policy.
They may fail in this fresh mission. It is entirely possible they will one day reflect on this unique departure as a spectacular waste of cash, a bridge too far, with their vision unattractive to the calibre of youth they wish to attract.
Yet it would be extremely insular to oppose it on the basis that it's a break from tradition, because that would suggest it's interfering with a tradition that desperately requires protection.
This concept is different, and that's why it deserves a chance, because trying the same thing for a long time hasn't brought the local game very far.
Even if the Hoops 'B' have three stubbled faces, there will be eight others furthering their education, players who might otherwise drift away from the sport.
If the First Division becomes the guinea pig for bigger clubs that have hitherto failed to adequately develop their youth structures, then so be it. It's better than a league having no real purpose at all.
Little knowledge a dangerous thing for lazy hacks
Last week, an English journalist popped up at O'Neill's end-of-year press briefing where a question was posed about possible additions to the back-room staff.
"I'm seeing John this evening and I am going to put a few things across to him and him likewise to me," responded the Derryman.
The locals knew it was a reference to FAI chief John Delaney, but the guest inaccurately thought it was a reference to another John -- O'Neill's well-respected former assistant, John Robertson.
A story duly popped up on the wires indicating that the Scot was being lined up to bolster Ireland's 'dream team.'
Mistakes happen and it is easy to see how an outsider got it wrong, although this error went miles further than it should have.
For the FAI press department, who had to contact some notable outlets to inform them of the misunderstanding when they were alerted to it by Irish hacks, it must have been like old times.
Shoehorning fixtures a sore on domestic game
APOLOGIES for returning to a familiar gripe, but the flaw of the League of Ireland's ridiculously long off-season is emphasised by the publishing of the fixture list.
The FAI have to cram games into a narrow window because clubs want to pay players for only 40 weeks a year. It means that the quantity of matches in the early part of the campaign dilutes quality and also empties the pockets of supporters.
As it stands, Premier Division clubs are pencilled in to play six games in the space of 21 days in April, including two midweek rounds that are shoved in towards the climax of the English Premier League and Champions League.
The Munster derby between Limerick and Cork at Thomond Park, a game that deserves weekend billing, is provisionally jotted in for Monday, April 7.
Setanta Cup participants may have other commitments to juggle, too.
It's absolutely preposterous, but unless clubs are willing to pay for longer or players are willing to sacrifice the summer break, then this will keep happening.