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FAI bring injustice to a new level with Dundalk dumping

SOMETIMES it's hard to be from Sligo. Far too often the county has been on the verge of a famous victory only to be foiled at the last minute. And now it's happened again.

A week ago the Sligo Gaelic footballers were a shoo-in to win the coveted Hold The Back Page Sporting Injustice Trophy (it's a papier-mache model of the figure of Justice with the scales all weighed down on one side.) It seemed that nothing could match the moment when the referee sent Eamon O'Hara off in the game against Westmeath because he'd mistaken the Tourlestrane man's suntan for that of Seán Davey, thus costing Sligo the game. The trophy was parcelled up and ready to go.

But hang on a minute. Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it's the new model eircom League. And they must really, really want the SIT because, at the last minute, they've managed to perpetrate an injustice which makes a poor refereeing decision look like very small beer indeed. The trophy will not, after all, be wintering in Sligo. Time to redirect the package to Louth.

Dundalk, you may recall, recently won a promotion play-off against Waterford United. But last week it emerged that Dundalk will be staying in Division One along with relegated Waterford while Galway, who finished in third place, get promoted. The reason is that the eircom League, in their infinite foolishness, opted for a new set of criteria when deciding who makes the Premier Division for next season.

This was apparently the price demanded by the FAI when agreeing to a merger with the League. (Why the FAI felt they had to make this demand remains a mystery, though self-importance, power mongering and the simple fact that they could, can't be ruled out). Clubs would earn their place by a combination of their on-field ranking and an off-field ranking decided by something called The Independent Assessment Group (which sounds like a body that should be searching for IRA arms dumps and operates with the same degree of transparency.)

When the ranking totals came in, Dundalk were 14th and Galway were 12th and the Corribsiders got the last place in the top flight. The play-off had thus been rendered meaningless. And, given that the League top brass presumably knew how the rankings were going to turn out, you'd wonder why the clubs were put through a charade and, more importantly, why the hopes of the Dundalk fans were so cruelly and misleadingly raised.

Now, there's not much that can be said in defence of the League's new system, but we will try to be fair here. Given the chaos caused by Dublin City's withdrawal from the league, isn't it only fair to make sure that clubs are properly set up off the field? Didn't Dundalk know this? Hadn't they sufficient warning to get their act together financially?

The only problem with this reasoning is that Dundalk did get their act together off the field. In fact, their off-field ranking is joint eighth out of 21. So they would appear to qualify for the premier division on both on and off-field grounds.

However, what has scuppered Dundalk is their low on-field score of 247 points, a mere 15th overall, just three points ahead of the perennially struggling Cobh Ramblers, almost 100 points behind Waterford, who finished bottom of the Premier Division and in a normal year would have been automatically relegated, and 86 behind Bray Wanderers, who previously might have been playing off with the Oriel Park side.

And the reason for this terrible score? The League decided that the on-field ranking would be computed by taking into account the combined results of clubs since the 2002/2003 season. Dundalk have had a bad couple of seasons so they were severely handicapped before they started their campaign at all. You and I might think that Dundalk actually deserve credit for bouncing back from adversity. Then again, we're mere football supporters who cannot appreciate the Borgesian intricacies of the eircom League, an organisation which thinks logic is someone who used to play for Red Star Belgrade.

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Whatever the reason for bringing off-field factors into play, this invocation of past results goes against everything competitive sport should be about. Surely the point of a football season is that every team starts with a clean slate and will be judged purely on their results. The only reason I can think of for this clause is that the League were scared that (a) a big club might follow the lead of Shamrock Rovers and get relegated this year or (b) that Shams might not do that well in Division One and might need a leg up. In the end, they needn't have worried. The Hoops won Division One. But it says something about the way the rankings are weighted that, after narrowly winning the title in the lower division, their on-field score is 40 points higher than Sligo Rovers, who finished fifth in the top flight.

We are in the realms of utter absurdity here. UCD, for example, come second in the off-field rankings. But, as any supporter of domestic soccer knows, if there's one team which the Premier Division could lose without regret, it's UCD. They have, for obvious reasons, no real fan base.

And it's easy enough to present an impressive business model when you can secure players by offering them scholarships.

There hasn't been a partnership with so much promise since Peter Andre and Jordan decided to record an album together

Waterford were proclaiming their unhappiness last week, but they have far less to complain about than Dundalk given that, under normal circumstances, they'd have made the drop anyway. On the other hand, it was interesting to hear that they were mystified about being awarded almost 100 fewer off-field points than Galway. This is the problem with ranking systems, they will always have a whiff of the arbitrary about them and that is why these matters are properly settled on the pitch.

Then again the League has previous on this. It's not too long since Shelbourne were given a League title which St. Pats had won on the field.

And the exciting run-in to this year's title race was marred by the capering of Ollie Byrne and Shels, who at one stage had three different appeals on the boil in an attempt to gain extra points should they fall short against Derry City. In the end Shelbourne didn't need the points, but the fact that they reserved the right to once more win the league off the field left a sour taste in the mouth. They should be beyond the 'by hook or by crook' approach at this stage.

So, a kick in the teeth for the proud soccer town of Dundalk and an unwarranted promotion for the perpetual under-achievers from Galway. And a brilliant start to the merger between the FAI and the eircom League. What a dream team. There hasn't been a partnership with so much promise since Peter Andre and Jordan decided to record an album together.

I, for one, can't wait to see John Delaney doing for domestic soccer what he's done for the international team. The GAA must be quaking in its boots.


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