Sunday 22 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Football on the island needs to stand on its own two feet'

U-21 bid is worthy but it's difficult to praise infrastructure if other codes have to help

Border crossing: FAI Chief Executive John Delaney during yesterday’s announcement at Windsor Park. Photo: PA
Border crossing: FAI Chief Executive John Delaney during yesterday’s announcement at Windsor Park. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It may not be hugely glamorous, but the joint attempt to bring an U-21 European Championships to this island is a worthy one.

The point has been made on these pages before that there is something deeply dissatisfying about Ireland pitching for Euro 2020 and World Cup 2030 when one of the biggest problems facing football in this country is the substandard conditions that players and supporters must encounter on a week-to-week basis.

Much as the Aviva Stadium is a fine facility - albeit a costly one when you make a horlicks of the ticket-selling plan to fund it - the reality is that it does not paint a picture of everyday life in the sport here.

The players of Dundalk and Cork City and Peamount and Wexford Youths are looking forward to their day out on Sunday because it's some way removed from normality. We've already hosted a Europa League final and the Ballsbridge venue has also become a popular base for money-spinning pre-season friendlies.

That's all well and good for event junkies, but it's not much consolation to fans visiting Premier Division stadiums without proper toilets or players grappling with pitches and dressing-rooms that are third world in comparison to what they encounter in their European endeavours.

The blame has to be shared for that, of course. And the FAI have indicated over the past 18 months that one of their priorities going forward will be infrastructure.

It remains a source of wonder that football in this country managed to get through a golden era of three World Cups in 12 years and then a Celtic Tiger boom without ever really modernising stadia to any great degree. These things tend to happen very, very slowly. Stadiums pop up one stand at a time. Sometimes they start and don't continue at all.

News of fresh developments in Finn Park should be encouraging to those who are old enough to remember the first sod being dug - they must all remember Live Aid too.

Other codes are quicker off the mark. And that's why it would be deflating if a bid for an U-21 tournament needs to be propped up by rugby or GAA; cross-code alliances were a must for the Rugby World Cup bid and would likely be required for a World Cup but that shouldn't be necessary in this instance.

The GAA don't really appear to be in the equation. They were only raised when a journalist mentioned them and, while John Delaney said they would speak to them if necessary, there was no hint of a GAA venue in the press release.

But Ravenhill and Thomond Park are two of the eight venues in the frame. Thomond has functioned as a temporary home for Limerick FC before and ticks a significant geographical box. It would be a worthy venue.

Still, it would be a shame to let a golden opportunity to bring bread-and-butter stadiums up to a higher standard slip by.

The renovated Dalymount Park is a part of the plan and there remains some political lobbying to be done to get that project fully across the line. Including it in the proposed submission is wise.

Why stop there? There was significant political weight thrown behind rugby's doomed 2023 vision.

Shane Ross has even flirted dangerously with satire by proposing that Ireland should have a crack at the Olympics.

What we are dealing with here is a smaller-scale project - and the fear is that there's not enough votes in it to energise the parties - which can leave a longer-term legacy in the form of improved stadia.

There will be an economic benefit too; recent editions prove that a selection of European football's rising stars will be involved in the competition and football tourists will travel.

Decent

It's a basis for arguing that the west of the country should not be excluded. The Showgrounds in Sligo has 4,000 seats and is one decent stand away from coming into the mix.

Eamonn Deacy Park in Galway shouldn't be forgotten either. Go north-west where that Finn Harps project needs a shove.

Across the border in the Brandywell, the local authorities took their time before providing another entry for the great big folder entitled 'A nice stadium and it will be even better when it's finished'.

Yes, there are only so many grounds that can get involved. Major population centres will be favoured to meet criteria in terms of hotel beds so there are limitations at play.

But with UEFA seemingly keen on the all-Irish idea and also apparently willing to do their bit to spruce up facilities, then this idea actually has longer-term promise.

It would be a shame to waste some of it by becoming too reliant on favours.

Irish Independent

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