Dundalk won the inaugural running of the competition with a two-legged defeat of Linfield
As we reach the halfway point of the season, it can be good to look back on the good and the bad of the period just gone.
Thankfully for Dundalk, it has been a memorable few months at Oriel Park but can the same be said for our league as a whole.
Headlines in relation to unruly behaviour by fans have been all too frequent, while the weekend just gone saw reports of drugs at our grounds added into the mix.
While that is undoubtedly more a societal issue, perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of the year to date came just under a month ago when it was announced that the Unite the Union Champions Cup had been called off due to “scheduling issues.”
Dundalk were the inaugural winners of the cross border competition back in November 2019 when they beat Linfield 7-1 on aggregate over two legs at Windsor Park and Oriel Park.
The Lilywhites banked not just great memories from the occasion but also a €50,000 cheque.
Given the regular and understandable moans about resources for our league, it was hard to see how any club could turn their nose up at a competition that provided prize money which is pretty much half the amount awarded for winning the SSE Airtricity League title.
“But that's what has happened,” laughed Brendan Ogle, the Dundalk man who was heavily involved in getting the competition off the ground three years ago.
“It might surprise you and it might surprise me but it appears they have turned their nose up at it,” he said.
While Brendan is best known in local circles these days as the chairman of The 1903 Dundalk FC Supporters’ Club, by day he is an ardent trade unionist.
As he reflects on the competition of his employer’s demise, he can only find one word to sum it all up: sad.
“As the person who thought up the competition and brought Unite into the idea, it's sad really.
“We're always talking about the league not being able to get the coverage and the resources and the platforms that the players, the fans and the communities deserve. The League of Ireland family talks about that the whole time so that was the motivation that I had from a football point of view when Unite were looking to get involved in something north and south.
“Unite is an all-Ireland union. It's the only major all-Ireland union on the island and in the background of Brexit we were looking something that would demonstrate our commitment to working with communities across all traditions on an all-Ireland basis. There were a lot of things we could have done but because myself and a couple of my colleagues in the north supported local football and because local football needs resources we thought we'd focus our attention on the League of Ireland and Northern Ireland Football League through this competition.”
While the 2020 edition was called off due to Covid-19, the 2021 event was due to be bigger with both the winners and runners-up from the two leagues north and south competing in a semi-final and final with €60,000 up for grabs for the winners, €40,000 for the runners-up and €25,000 each for the two beaten semi-finalists.
Yet, neither Shamrock Rovers or St Patrick’s Athletic were interested in the game at the end of last season and nor could they agree to play it at the start of this year either, much to Unite’s despair.
“We weren't trying to sell something. When this all started at the beginning it was John Delaney that I spoke to to discuss the idea with him and when I told him the figures that were in our heads he was really taken aback and he was honest enough to tell me that but we wanted to be generous because we know there isn't a lot of resources in the league.
“We could have went to Windsor Park or the Aviva Stadium and got boxes and tried to sponsor something there. We could have done something more high-profile with more luxury but we weren't interested in any of that.
“We always talk about how we have to look at the league and we have to reflect and we have to get a report and an analysis and 10 years later nothing changes so we have to get another report and a development plan. This is basic stuff though. This is someone trying to give.
“There was the potential here for two League of Ireland clubs to walk away with €85,000 - €60,000 for a winner and €25,000 for a runner-up. Now we've a very expensive Cup that has only been won once and will never be played for again. There's medals minted that will never go anywhere either. There's also a stage and platform. It is what it is but I think as fans and League of Ireland people I think we really need to get the basics right.”
While Ogle admits the competition had its challenges such as its name and scheduling games between sides from leagues which have different schedules, he feels it is real pity that such an event – which also supported local initiatives in the community of the finalists – couldn’t be made happen.
“I have to say all the problems from our point of view happened in the south. We didn't get any problems in terms of participation from the teams in the north or the association itself. Certainly there were questions raised about times and venues and things but there was no reluctance like the sort of stuff we encountered in the south and what we encountered basically was that first of all they didn't want to play a two-legged game at all.
“They just wanted to toss a coin and have one match. That's fine except the whole point of Unite's sponsorship was that it was an all-Ireland home and away game and that Unite would be getting its message across in both the north and the south. If there was just one match either in the north or the south that wouldn't be the case in the other jurisdiction.
"That was completely against the ethos of the competition but we moved on from that by bringing the four teams into it and then we got into a situation where the teams were saying that they didn't want to play it at the end of the season, that they wanted to play it at the start of the following season so we're into 2022 at this stag and I'm told the clubs weren't told by the FAI that this wasn't a fixture that they had to factor in to their diary and their schedule and for that reason they wanted to go ahead on a different basis.
“The FAI were saying the very opposite that they had been on to the teams at the start of the season and that they had to take part in it. I never got to the bottom of that but then we got into a situation where we read in the paper from somebody close to Shamrock Rovers that if they didn't get their way on it then they were going to play their reserve team.
"That was a concern because as someone sponsoring a competition you want the best teams on the pitch to attract the crowds and a bit of media coverage. This caused some consternation and certainly made us look again at what we're involved in because we were spending €300,000 in total and that's just the prize money. You can put another half on top of that for the community stuff, not to mention buying the Cup, the medals for three years and the stage and background etc which we had in storage.
“We couldn't believe this is what we were having to listen to from people we were effectively trying to give money to. There was a bit of a hiatus then and in the end the last proposal we heard – and I wasn't in work at this stage – was that the President's Cup this year, which by coincidence would be between Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic, would double up as the semi-final of the Unite the Union Champions Cup.
“We were then faced with a situation then where we would effectively pay at least €65,000 for the President's Cup – a game that was going to happen anyway.
“At that stage a lot of soul searching went on but that was never going to happen. I was fundamentally opposed to that idea and other people at Unite were scratching their heads.
“Unite is run by an executive and they're not all soccer fans but they all pay into the union. It wasn't the easiest argument we ever had to try and get Unite lined up for this in the first place but when we did it we did it with some aplomb and even the people who were against it initially were really impressed by 2019 and really got behind it afterwards.
“We had little kids from the Falls Road being the mascots for Linfield at Windsor Park. Think about that. We had the kids from Direct Provision in Mosney as mascots in Oriel Park along with the kids from Quay Celtic. This is the sort of stuff we were trying to encourage.”
Ogle rightly says it is a great pity such an event has been lost.
“I reflect on it from a soccer point of view because I support the League of Ireland. We have fierce rivalries with each other but we all support the game here and we all know the problems with grounds, the problems with money, the problems with player contracts and the problems with facilities.
“This year and last year we haven't got a League Cup sponsor. I'm not sure what the prize money was but I know it wasn't what we were offering. It's gone now though and there doesn't appear to be a sponsor to come in and replace it and, for me, looking from the outside in I just think it's really sad that that is the kind of environment that we're operating in.”
Unfortunately there was nothing united about the clubs’ desire for this competition. The saddest part is, Irish football has lost a great potential backer in the process – possibly for good.