Thursday 19 July 2018

Does anyone really care about sorry tale of two Cities?

As weeks go, it's been fairly eventful. Cork City came to an end, and on Friday morning, a week before the opening fixtures, so too did the League of Ireland itself. And now that it is clear what this column is about, I suspect very few of you will bother to read on.

It seems it's all change. Referred to on their website as 'the former League of Ireland', the FAI announced at Friday's official launch that the top level of football played in this country is to be known as the Airtricity League for at least the next two years.

Following on from the financial irregularities which saw Derry City demoted, even for seasoned observers of domestic football in Ireland, these are turbulent times indeed.

In a bid to prevent a repeat of the events at Cork last week, the FAI is also re-branding itself as a no-nonsense force in domestic football, ready to severely punish any who step out of line. That is somewhat at odds with their decision to include Cork in the Premier Division fixture list 48 hours after their website confirmed they had not been granted a licence to compete.

Among their multitude of shortcomings, no audited accounts were submitted from last year, they held no tax clearance certificate for the year ahead, and wage payments to last season's squad, in the region of €170,000, were still outstanding. At no point did owner Tom Coughlan submit a budget for this year either.

Despite all this, there are still some deluded individuals who believe the club was victimised.

The case for including a club of their size and location is straightforward enough, but the embarrassment their actions caused throughout last season meant there was only one logical course of action available. The low point was surely the refusal of their bus company to bring them to Dublin to play St Pat's due to unpaid bills. Undermining every effort made by anyone who ever spent time promoting the league, the press coverage which followed set the league back years. If events anywhere led to similar headlines this season, you would have to fear for its very future.

Coughlan's legacy of incompetence and mismanagement should serve as a warning to supporters everywhere. While it's an incredibly difficult job running a club, it seems it is all too easy to completely destroy one.

Commentators have been asking how this was allowed to happen, but ignoring deadlines, flouting rules and amassing debts of €1.2m exposes the simple truth. Whether he underestimated what he had taken on, or was simply not up to the task, the club has paid the ultimate price as a result.

Though not the loftiest of ambitions, a season without unpaid wages or winding-up orders would represent progress. The actions of those running Derry City and Cork City over the past 12 months have damaged the credibility of the league and rubbished the notion that professionalism is sustainable here in any way. Whether it has done irreparable harm remains to be seen, but it has done nothing to discount claims that the decision-makers at many clubs are incapable of overseeing significant change.

The presence of only two clubs based more than an hour from Dublin city is unfortunate, but the inclusion of anyone on solely geographical grounds is a move for which fans in this country are not yet ready. The promotion of Sporting Fingal and UCD will do little to generate revenue for their opponents, as both have little travelling support. Though fully deserved and much needed, the absence of Cork and Derry has financially hurt everyone.

If Shamrock Rovers are away from home, the total number of paying spectators for an entire Premier Division fixture list would

not exceed the attendance of a big game in League Two in England. Particularly with Fingal and UCD in the division, there will be several games which will not entice even 1,000 people to watch. The negativity resulting from events at Cork doesn't help, but as long as attendances remain at current levels, there is little to suggest the FAI can implement change in any meaningful way.

With the level of compensation schoolboy clubs are entitled to under UEFA guidelines pricing many youngsters out of a move to the UK, the top division has now become the likeliest route to a career in England for hopeful youngsters keen to impress. Though the quality of players and coaches continues to improve, too few people around the country currently have any interest, and simply changing the name of the league won't address that.

That is the reality, and despite it being the most popular sport in the country, the general feeling of apathy among the majority of the Irish public towards anything relating to domestic football continues to be the issue more than any other which will prevent its further development.

I wonder whether last week's events have even registered with many members of the public, and that is maybe the most damning indictment of all.

Sunday Independent

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