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Demise of Fingal must serve as warning to others

A MONTH ago, Sporting Fingal manager Liam Buckley was planning an assault on the Airtricity League title. Seven days later, he was out of a job, Sporting Fingal had folded, and the League was faced with another crisis.

That's how quickly things change on the League of Ireland scene, echoing the mantra "a week is a long time in politics," except that, in the case of Sporting Fingal, there is no Seanad bolthole to re-build the club's profile. It's the end, leaving a lot of sad, disillusioned and disappointed football people out of work.

It is particularly disappointing for Buckley, whose original presentation to Fingal Council in its Swords headquarters was so well received that it was described by one councillor as "a benchmark for other sports".

At the time, Buckley was making a play to enter a team in the League's A Championship, but Kilkenny City's sudden demise offered instant promotion to the First Division and Fingal accepted.

That was three years ago, and what a tremendously successful three years the club enjoyed: winning the FAI Cup and promotion to the Premier Division in its second season, and qualifying for a second shot at the Europa League last season.

With only five points separating Fingal from winners Shamrock Rovers, no wonder Buckley felt a title challenge was on the agenda this year.

Sporting Fingal was a prototype community-based club, representing the ideal for all League clubs, with its emphasis on establishing links with all levels of football within its area. One of its biggest projects was the establishment of an Academy in Lusk, the planning permission for which had just been passed.

All that is now in limbo, and Buckley, the visionary, is sitting

back ruefully reflecting on what might have been, while waiting for another offer to get going again.

"The progress we made was exceptional," he said last week, "and it's a shame it ended the way it did. There was so much going on, and we put a huge amount of effort into the project, trying to develop the structure of the club.

"For it to be gone in the space of a few days is a bit of a disappointment. It's a great opportunity lost for all sporting people in Fingal. I'm still in shock that it's gone. It was such a big project.

"I believe that all clubs have to engage with the local community as we had done. There needs to be better links between schoolboy, junior and League of Ireland clubs. We're the top level of football here, and we need a better top division."

As to his own future, he said: "I would like to get back into football, where or how I don't know. I had just finished my Pro Licence, part of which was in FC Twente with Tommy Dunne, Kenny Cunningham and Curtis Fleming."

With the exception of Derry City, the Premier Division's recent list of troubled clubs -- Shelbourne, Drogheda United, Cork City, Bohemians and Sporting Fingal had one common denominator: they were all funded by the property bubble.

They all rode the crest of the wave with the country's developers, but when the bubble burst, they were caught up in a rip tide which brought them crashing on to the rocks.

For Shels, Drogheda, Cork and Bohs, re-trenchment secured their futures, but not so for Fingal, who were unable to find another backer to take over from NAMA-bound Gerry Gannon, and didn't have a Plan B.

However, it's not all bad news for the League. When the FAI took over its running four years ago, the combined debt of the clubs was a staggering €7.5m. This has been reduced to a manageable €900,000, with 11 clubs recording a profit from last year's activities, and a further six clubs recording losses of less than €20,000.

These figures come from the audited accounts presented to the FAI, and show also that very little is owed to the Revenue Commissioners -- between €200,000 and €300,000. In fact, the clubs' finances have gradually been put into shape through the Club Licensing Agreement, with the cost-base reducing yearly. This is contrary to what is happening in the rest of Europe, where obscene wages are still the order of the day.

Despite the cutbacks, full-time football is still part of the scene, only it is full-time with a difference. Players are now full-time for a period of time, usually for the length of the season, 40 weeks.

The upside is that contracts are being honoured, where before inability to pay left players holding contracts which weren't worth the paper they were written on. Bohemians were the last club saddled with big contracts from the 2008 season, and that has now been resolved, with the players once again taking a big hit.

Inevitably, the clubs with full-time players can be expected to challenge strongly for the League title, so take note of Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers, Dundalk and Derry City, all of whom have full-timers and have strengthened their squads during the close season.

Michael O'Neill, boss of title holders Shamrock Rovers, let six of last season's squad go, and has replaced them with proven quality players like Gary McCabe (Sligo), Ken Oman (Bohs), Gary O'Neill and Ronan Finn (Fingal), Stephen O'Donnell and Karl Sheppard (Galway), Ciarán Kilduff (UCD) and Dean Kelly (Oldham). Getting them to gel might be O'Neill's biggest problem.

Paul Cook, manager of Cup winners Sligo Rovers, has also moved for players of proven ability, taking on Brendan Clarke and Alan Kirby (Fingal), Rafaelle Cretaro, Aaron Greene and Jason McGuinness (Bohs), while retaining most of last year's squad.

Dundalk boss Ian Foster has secured some top quality in Jason Byrne and Mark Quigley (Bohs), Colin Hawkins (Fingal), Keith Ward and Greg Bolger (UCD) and Eoghan Osborne (Drogheda), while Derry's Stephen Kenny has signed Eamonn Zayed (Fingal) to replace top scorer Mark Farren, who has been forced to retire, and has also re-signed Gareth McGlynn and Ruairi Higgins after their sojourn with Bohs.

If there is a dark horse in the Premier Division it has to be St Patrick's Athletic, for whom manager Pete Mahon has raided his former club UCD for Brian Shortall, Evan and David McMillan, while also signing Stephen Bradley (Shamrock Rovers) and Shane McFaul (Fingal).

It is always unwise to rule out a team managed by Pat Fenlon, but having lost 11 of last year's squad he will be doing well to tread water in mid-table and hope for a decent Cup run.

That leaves Bray Wanderers, Galway United, UCD and Drogheda United to fight it out at the bottom to avoid the relegation play-off spot.

With two due to be promoted automatically from the First Division, Shelbourne and Waterford United have invested heavily to boost their hopes, and Monaghan United, Limerick and Finn Harps should also be in the mix for the play-off.

Sunday Indo Sport