Saturday 18 November 2017

Hold the Back Page: Dying for a show of decency

Fans of domestic soccer deserve better than what they are getting from clubs. Photo: David Maher
Fans of domestic soccer deserve better than what they are getting from clubs. Photo: David Maher

Eamonn Sweeney

Why are League of Ireland clubs so badly run?

Exhibit A: At the end of the week before last, Bray Wanderers players revealed that they were extremely disappointed that "a number of payments including some players' wages have not been made on time in recent weeks and months. This has caused hardship and distress to those affected and has a detrimental effect on team morale".

It appears that cheques given to the players bounced and, as a result of this, manager Trevor Croly resigned after just two months in the job. A source close to Croly said: "It isn't about the money, because the players don't earn a fortune. It's about the principle and the respect. And Trevor's fear is that he would immediately lose respect if he stood over a situation where players weren't getting paid." In doing this Croly at least has revealed himself to be an honourable man.

Bray Wanderers chairman Denis O'Connor blamed the bouncing cheques on "administrative stuff," and sought to reassure fans by suggesting that the big problem is that the players and the management weren't good enough.

The problem with this explanation is that this isn't the first time something like this happened. As recently as April, Alan Mathews and his management team resigned en masse because they claimed they hadn't been paid a month into the new season while mentioning "delays in payments to a group of very professional and dedicated players." A pattern does appear to be discernible.

Exhibit B: Just before the mid-season break, word emerged that Owen Heary had been sacked by Sligo Rovers after less than half a season in charge. However, there was no statement to this effect from the club with the result that though assistants Gavin Dykes and Joseph N'Do took charge of Rovers' game against Dundalk, Heary was still officially manager despite not even being at the game.

The club maintained silence on the matter despite Heary's former team-mate Stuart Byrne revealing on Newstalk's Off The Ball programme that the manager had indeed been sacked. Finally, as Heary appeared as an analyst one night on Setanta Sport, chairman Joe Burns came out with a statement that, "Owen Heary has stepped down as first team manager and departed the club." A clearly flabbergasted Heary commented live on TV, "I don't know where this statement came from. I never stepped down as manager. They sacked me a couple of weeks ago. And then there was ongoing discussions, but I can say now that I never stepped down."

The current situation is that Joseph N'Do, who doesn't have the coaching qualifications to become permanent full-time manager at the club, is doing the job with assistance from Gavin Dykes, and that the club will need a derogation from the League to allow them to stay there for a while which makes it four managers in 12 months for the 2012 League champions, or five if you want to count the time Dykes spent on his own as a caretaker last season. The current saga ended with Rovers declaring they had "reached an agreement with the legal representative of Mr Owen Heary." Jesus wept.

Now if you're a fan of either Dundalk or Cork City, riding high at the top of the league and being run without any spectacular displays of ineptitude behind the scenes, don't get smug. It's only six years since City was wound up in the High Court because of unpaid taxes before the club was reborn in Division One thanks to the local Supporters Trust which now owns City, the same route followed by Galway United after they went wallop four years ago. And it's just three since Dundalk found themselves unable to pay players with the Board appealing for someone, anyone, to take over the club.

In the past decade, we've also had Derry City relegated from the top flight due to lodging false contracts with the league, the demotion of Shelbourne because of financial irregularities, a financial examiner being brought in to Drogheda United and the extinction of Monaghan United and Sporting Fingal.

League of Ireland fans are wont to blame the problems of the League on supporters who follow English teams, a lack of interest from the FAI and the reluctance of the media to give greater coverage. But the truth is that many of the wounds the League suffers from have been self-inflicted.

There is a culture of running things in a slipshod way and thinking somehow the job will be oxo. Take the apparent sangfroid displayed by Mr O'Connor at Bray about players not being paid on time given that, he claims, they were paid eventually. But the bottom line is that people are entitled to depend on wages being paid when they're due. This is how it works for most of us. Yet this isn't the first time that League of Ireland players have been forced to ply their trade in the hope that the money will turn up eventually. It's not good enough. There is an issue of decency here.

Richard Sadlier got some stick from fans of domestic soccer last year when he said that there was no such thing as professional football in the League of Ireland. I didn't exactly send him a telegram of congratulations myself. But he was right. Being a professional club isn't just about paying wages, it's also about behaving in a professional manner towards the people who work for the club. Too often the League of Ireland is amateurish in this respect.

We have, for example, the annual spectacle of players who've just played in an FAI Cup final or a League decider signing on the dole because their club won't pay them in the off-season and will in some cases delay as long as possible before signing them up for the new campaign. I imagine that's a hard one to swallow for guys who've been flogging their guts out on behalf of the club for the previous year. It's a business model which I understand is popular when employing migrant workers in the less salubrious parts of the agriculture industry. But it has little to do with what we generally understand as professional sport.

I take no joy in pointing these things out. I have a greater affection, still, for the League of Ireland than I have for any other competition in this country. I was reared watching it, I've brought my kids up to love it and it has rewarded me with the best days of my sporting life. But enough is enough.

It is impossible, for example, to imagine a club being worse run than Sligo Rovers has been in the past 12 months. The current crisis began with the sacking of Ian Baraclough, a manager who in two seasons had brought the club a first League title in 35 years and FAI and Setanta Cup wins. He was sacked because the Board apparently felt the fifth position Rovers occupied at the time was not good enough for a club of our calibre. Well, they'd bite your hand off for fifth now.

Baraclough was sacked over the phone while he was back in England seeing his family and replaced with alacrity by John Coleman, a then unemployed manager who showed his gratitude by heading back to England once a job became available at Accrington Stanley a couple of months later. Heary's sacking also apparently took place over the phone, something which makes it obvious that the current crew in charge at The Showgrounds are following the exhortation of Ron Burgundy to "stay classy."

Yet it's not the managers or even the players I feel sorry for, it's the fans. I don't think you could get a more faithful, long-suffering bunch than those who have followed Sligo Rovers largely through thin and thin before the utterly untypical burst of success in the past few years. That the Board decided to leave them entirely in the dark over what was happening re the Heary situation is a cardinal sin in a league where the bond between fans and club has to be tight if the show is to be kept on the road. Sligo Rovers is actually a co-operative society yet the supporters seemed to be treated as outsiders.

Farragos like the current ones do more damage to the reputation of the League of Ireland than any snooty GAA or rugby partisan or any cynical journo could ever manage to.

And the annoying thing is that they are avoidable. All that's needed is a willingness to treat managers, players and above all supporters with a bit of decency and respect. Until that becomes a habit the League of Ireland's worst enemies will be themselves.

Faithful departure an inevitable blow

Is that all there is for Offaly hurling? The saddest thing about the Faithful County's 20-point drubbing by Clare last weekend is that it seems to ring down the curtain on an era when they were a serious hurling county. Hammered by Laois, scoring a first win over their rivals since 1972, in this year's Leinster Championship and utterly eviscerated by Kilkenny in 2014, Offaly have fallen back into the sport's second rank.

Without a Leinster under 21 title since 2000 and without an appearance in a provincial minor decider since 2003, Offaly show little signs of revival. With Dublin having moved past them and Wexford showing signs of resurgence with their hat-trick of provincial under 21 titles, Offaly look to have more chance of moving down the rankings in Leinster than regaining their old spot as chief rivals to Kilkenny.

Laois also beat them at minor level this year while Carlow have been minor finalists more recently than Offaly and went close to shocking Kilkenny at under 21.

Offaly hurlers, in fact, now resemble the catatonic patients from the film Awakenings who are miraculously brought out of their trance by a groundbreaking new treatment only to find themselves cast back into sleep when the effect proves not to be a lasting one. Because the sad thing about Offaly's relapse was that there really was something miraculous about their arrival at the start of the 1980s.

It's hard to recapture the novelty of the Offaly emergence now but when they won the Leinster title in 1980 they were the first new provincial hurling winners since Waterford won Munster in 1948. They were the first new Leinster winners since Laois in 1914. Their All-Ireland triumph in 1981 also put the first new name on the Liam MacCarthy Cup since Waterford in 1948; you had to go back to Galway in 1923 for the previous first-time winners.

There have been no first-time All-Ireland hurling winners since then and it's extremely unlikely there ever will be again. Offaly, who'd been in only one provincial decider since 1927, really seemed to have come from nowhere, but when they won a fourth All-Ireland title in 1998 they were joining Cork and Kilkenny as the most successful teams of the 1980s and '90s. Perhaps just as impressively they matched Kilkenny with nine Leinster titles in those years.

Given the small population base of Offaly hurling this was one of the most extraordinary achievements in GAA history and perhaps there's a case to be made that the county may only be bowing to the inevitable. Their flourishing might have been a kind of hurling version of Brigadoon, the miraculous Scottish village doomed to vanish back into the ether.

I hope not but right now things look pretty grim for the only county in Ireland to win All Stars in every position in both football and hurling.

Federer on brink of Ali-like victory

Should Roger Federer defeat Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon today he will be scoring the greatest comeback victory since Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in Kinshasa 31 years ago.

Federer, like Ali, is the greatest performer in the history of his sport. Like Ali, he is the number one challenger to the current champion but, to continue with the Kinshasa parallels, Federer is going up against a younger opponent, one who is at his peak. There is something fearsome about Djokovic's competitive spirit as there was about Foreman's.

You have to back to 2012 and Wimbledon for the 33-year-old Federer's last Grand Slam triumph and it is his only Grand Slam victory in the past five seasons. Since 2011 on the other hand Djokovic has bestrode tennis almost in the same manner that Federer did and is gunning for his eighth title in that period.

Federer did give Djokovic a magnificent match in last year's final, forcing him to a fifth set and almost four hours of tennis. Yet it was the very excellence of that effort which made it seem impossible the former number one would ever again defeat the current number one in a major final. It was hard to see what more Federer could have done. Djokovic once more confirmed that his outstanding quality is the ability to get things done, to outlast opponents and grind out victories by virtue of a steely focus which has few equals in any sport.

There was also a feeling that Federer might have missed his best chance for a last Centre Court hurrah. Djokovic was not quite his usual awesome self, Wimbledon proved to be his only Grand Slam title of the year. That has already been put right this year with a win at the Australian Open.

And yet Federer abides. When he dropped to world number six in 2013, it appeared that like Tiger Woods he was a star undone by the vicissitudes of time and wear and tear. But he has now moved up to second and the nature of his straight sets semi-final victory over Andy Murray suggested considerable life in the old dog.

Yet should he win today Federer would become the oldest player to win the Wimbledon men's singles title, surpassing Arthur Ashe. An upset seems almost as unthinkable as it did when the bell rang for the opening round in Zaire.

All the same, I'm sure I won't be the only one turning their couch into Federer Hill this afternoon. Who doesn't like to see history being made by the greatest?

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