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Monday 23 April 2018

FAI can't afford to sniff at cash-cow kickabouts

Marquee club friendlies at the Aviva frustrate some – but that's what punters want

Last year's 'Dublin Decider' between Liverpool and Celtic sold out the Aviva and a repeat would probably see similar crowds return
Last year's 'Dublin Decider' between Liverpool and Celtic sold out the Aviva and a repeat would probably see similar crowds return
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

What's the difference between meaningless and worthless? In Irish football, the definition can be found in the finer points of arranging friendly matches for the Aviva Stadium.

A fortnight ago, the FAI welcomed the establishment of UEFA's new Nations League, an initiative that will reduce the number of international friendlies in the calendar and give people added incentive to descend upon Ballsbridge. "I think the public will look upon these games in a better light," said John Delaney.

Last week, it emerged that up to three club friendlies could be staged at the renovated Lansdowne Road in 2014 with a possible Celtic-Barcelona match and a fixture involving Manchester United possible additions to an event schedule that already includes the visit of Liverpool to lock horns with Shamrock Rovers.

They don't require sugar coating.

There is certainty that the Brendan Rodgers' show will sell-out and there is confidence that the other two would fill the ground if they came to fruition, a contrast from the perpetual battle to put bums on seats for competitive Irish matches, let alone friendlies.

England's historic visit in June 2015 is an exception to the rule and was advertised as a serious boost to the FAI's new season ticket deal, arguably representing a bigger draw than crucial Euro 2016 qualifiers with Scotland and Poland.


This is a rarity, with the Abbotstown bosses finding that accepting invites for dates on neutral soil, such as the London encounter with Italy on May 31 or the subsequent jaunt to America, makes more economic sense than incurring the risk of staging a match in a half-empty Aviva.

Club matches are a banker, though, which educates us on what galvanises a larger rump of paying punters. The importance of the fixture is a sideshow.

Given how seldomly Martin O'Neill gets to work with his players, their friendlies are likely to be more informative with an eye to the future than the club equivalent. That has minimal impact on sales. It's the personalities in the squad, or lack thereof, that strongly influences demand.

A sprinkle of stardust brings in the audience. The FAI had a brief taste of that when the O'Neill/Roy Keane factor spiked the turnout for the dream team's debut v Latvia.

Significantly, the English powers have now copped that end-of-season showcases are a straightforward way to boost the coffers. There's no pretense of relevance.

Liverpool's kickabout with Rovers on May 14, three days after the conclusion of the Premier League campaign, is effectively a glorified photo opportunity, aimed at Reds followers who are desperate to see their heroes in the flesh, regardless of who they are up against. While the 90 minutes are meaningless, they are certainly not worthless. Rovers will earn a six-figure sum and the FAI are also doing well from the tri-party agreement.

This is an example of sobering pragmatism. Hardcore fans of the local game may have contempt for people who are more interested in producing a camera phone everytime a corner kick is taken in their vicinity as opposed to watching the end result of it – hands up, these are the words of a League of Ireland fan who simply cannot relate to that desire – yet they are the clientele who help to pay the bills and justify the appearance fees that the global powers charge.

Everybody craves their business.

Since the explosion in the global popularity of the Premier League, Ireland has struggled to financially capitalise on the proximity to a football superpower. The big guns have realised that spending a few weeks per summer in the expanding markets of Asia and America is an absolute necessity. Ireland, once a popular destination for a short stay, had nothing to offer in response, with substandard facilities well behind the comparable alternatives.

That has gradually changed with the building of the Aviva, the availability of Thomond Park and the work on training bases such as Carton House which hosted Real Madrid in 2009.

Manchester City investigated coming back this year because Manuel Pellegrini, the Madrid boss for their Tallaght encounter with Rovers, was impressed by the set-up in Kildare although it's understood they have opted for Scotland instead.

Ireland will only ever be a small part of the overall touring mission, but it's a short hop away and player-friendly and that's the angle which is being pursued by resourceful officials with certain League of Ireland clubs and the FAI.

It's a delicate balancing act. When there's an Irish XI in opposition, either in the form of a specific club or an Airtricity League selection, there is a vain hope that spectators who would never dream of venturing to a game here might have their heads turned and change that policy.


However, when there's no home participant – like the proposed Celtic-Barca encounter – all the Aviva is doing is providing a venue for the concert.

The only benefit is financial, bonus money that will go towards national development or servicing debt depending on your view of FAI affairs.

The Irish public's indifference to its own league is a deep rooted problem with numerous causes. But the extent to which the surge to see Liverpool, Manchester United or any illustrious club side has overtaken demand for the national team has to be a source of frustration for many members of the football family.

Last August's Dublin Decider between Celtic and Liverpool created a buzz around Dublin 4 that used to be associated with the big nights for the Boys in Green and, while a long-term absence from these shores for the Anfield side perhaps contributed, it would be dangerous to underestimate the likelihood of the same happening if they came back annually. 15,000 tickets for the Rovers clash were sold inside 30 minutes.

This is where the glamour is now; these are the presents that kids want from their fathers. The next generation has never known it any different.

It's another example of Ireland's extremely idiosyncratic supporter culture, but the powers that be have realised the value of giving them what they want. They can't afford to turn them away.


Fulham momentum leaves Norwich staring into abyss

This column may have to row back slightly on last week's discussion of the relegation situation in light of Fulham's win over Norwich on Saturday.

The Cottagers' owner Shahid Khan is hardly a visionary, given how he's fumbled around this term, but Felix Magath has built up a bit of momentum heading into the final stretch and you'd now fancy the Londoners to finish ahead of the Canaries, who took the bizarre decision to show Chris Hughton the door with five matches remaining.

That was a strange call because it has been clear for some time that their board had little confidence in Hughton; if they were going to sack him at any stage then it should have been earlier, so his replacement had a chance to get his message across for the run-in – like Magath evidently has.

Neil Adams now faces into four matches with Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal requiring at least one win and possibly two to secure their top-flight status.

Fulham travel to Spurs next and then take on Hull, Stoke and Crystal Palace, who could all have nothing to worry about by match-day. Quite a turnaround.


Clubs too broke to combat fixture congestion

Liam Buckley and Trevor Croly clearly don't like each other very much – the awkward tension between the pair when they are in the same room is actually quite amusing – but the managers of St Patrick's Athletic and Shamrock Rovers were in agreement on one thing on Friday night.

The topic was the manic fixture congestion which is a consistent talking point at this stage of every recent season, a particular curse for those clubs who find that progressing in the Setanta Cup comes at a cost.

Regrettably, they are forced to play every three or four days because the authorities have to cram an entire campaign and pre-season into the space of the 40-week contracts that are the norm around the country.

This is not a stick to beat the FAI with, it's problem that can only be addressed by a coming together of clubs to argue for an extended season.

But that would mean longer contracts and more running costs which it seems would put the democratic majority off the idea. It's another difficulty that arises when you have a league where there is such a disparity between the clubs at the top and bottom.

It's hard to blame the poverty-stricken clubs for their stance, but it is a clear obstacle to progress.

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