Treatment of Bray shows the folly of League ways
WHITHER the League of Ireland? With the 2010 season due to kick off on Friday, that's a pertinent question, but never more so than in the aftermath of two of the League's biggest clubs for the last 20 years committing hara-kiri.
Already there are rumblings that the Premier Division, after the self-inflicted loss of Cork City and Derry City, will be an adult version of the Dublin and District Schoolboys' League, with Galway United and Sligo Rovers the only outsiders.
With the advent of full-time professional teams in the past 10 years, the role of the administrators has become more difficult, and the past season's crises in Cork and Derry proved the ultimate test for the apparatchiks in the Abbotstown bunker.
While they acted promptly on learning of the transgressions of the Derry City board, there seemed to be a reluctance to mete out the same punishment to Cork City when they transgressed. The League officials' inaction seemed to suggest that a Premier Division without Cork was unthinkable, as the club was given every chance to get its house in order.
The fact that all this was happening at the same time that lesser clubs were keeping their noses clean and as a result were facing relegation -- in Bray's case they were relegated -- didn't seem to make any difference. So for most of the season, the League didn't operate on that mythical level playing field that its custodians are expected to provide for their members at all costs and at all times.
The inevitable shambles was unedifying to say the least. While Cork City finally received the punishment their waywardness deserved, the total cost to Bray Wanderers is hard to determine -- and there is no suggestion of compensation to the offended party. Having been relegated to the First Division, Bray lost eight of their first team to Premier Division clubs. Naturally, with a First Division budget, they couldn't compete to hold on to them.
However, now that the League has in extremis decided Cork must go and Bray can stay up, the Seasiders will once again share a pitch with Chris O'Connor, Derek Pender, Derek Foran, Gareth Coughlan, Dave Mulcahy, Gary McCabe, Paul Byrne and John Flood. The big difference is that these players won't be wearing Bray jerseys.
Instead, Bray's jerseys will be filled by players who weren't able to negotiate a contract before the transfer window closed. Add in some talented players who remained on the books from last season, and you can see that manager Eddie Gormley is facing into another relegation battle before a ball is kicked.
There is nothing fair about Bray's plight, and it shows the League's legislators in a poor light -- because this is something which happened before and should have been legislated for so that it didn't happen again. When Shelbourne went belly-up in 2007, their demise and subsequent relegation -- from Premier Division champions to the First Division -- came so late that Waterford United, who had signed players with a view to a First Division campaign, had only a week to sign reinforcements upon their sudden elevation to take Shels' place. It was no surprise when they failed to retain their place in the Premier at the end of that season.
That such an unfair scenario should be revisited on another club within a matter of three seasons calls into question the ability of the League's legislators to look after the interests of all their members equally.
The Club Licensing system can ultimately only do good for the League, but the manner in which it is administered at present leaves it open to a repeat of the Cork City situation. A system of progressively heavy fines for failure to meet deadlines with regard to the licensing requirements could have brought the Cork story to a head much sooner. Suspending the owner certainly didn't have the desired effect.
Notwithstanding all the pre-season chaos, the League of Ireland has a strange ability to reinvent itself every season -- and 2010 is no different. With players taking massive pay cuts -- Bohemians' players' wages have been cut by 50 per cent in the last three years -- there is a more realistic approach to salaries all round and there seems to be a more even distribution of talent, with the exception of Bray, of course.
Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers will set the pace, but the battle below them should be intriguing, with Sporting Fingal, Dundalk, Sligo Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic all with plenty of talent at their disposal.
Meanwhile, there is always the battle to escape from the First Division, made all the more interesting by the demotion of Derry and Cork. Shelbourne just missed out the past two seasons, and will have their work cut out to go one better this time.