A league stuck at a crossroads
THE LEAGUE of Ireland is back this weekend.
For some Irish football fans, this is welcome news after a long winter starved of their passion. For others, it is a chance for a tired wisecrack at the expense of an easy target. For the majority, it doesn't mean very much at all.
The indifference felt by large swathes of the general public towards the domestic game has always been its biggest problem. Brief flirtations like Shamrock Rovers' Europa League escapades and the hype surrounding Shelbourne's Champions League tilt back in 2004 prove that the Irish sporting public tend to turn their head when the going is good.
Week to week, however, the appetite for the Airtricity League is limited to a hardcore community, which is only inflated by passive fans when a team makes a charge for glory.
There was a special atmosphere in Sligo as they closed in on the title last year, just like the glow of a packed Brandywell or Turner's Cross when Derry and Cork have challenged at the top in previous years.
The perpetual challenge is to keep the floaters coming back for the bread and butter, the increasingly crowded fixture schedule that is often repetitive in a 12-team top flight.
It isn't easy. In an ideal world, the start of a new campaign would command substantial coverage, but the launch weekend clashes with the Six Nations visit of France, a double round of fixtures in the GAA's National League and a particularly busy weekend across the water.
Due to rugby commitments, RTE successfully pushed for Limerick's Thomond Park bow with Cork City to be moved to Sunday evening, where it will now directly clash with Manchester United/Chelsea in the FA Cup and Liverpool/Spurs in the Premier League, a switch that will provide unnecessary complications in Limerick's attempts to convince long-lost followers who prefer life on the barstool.
Throw in the fact that Giovanni Trapattoni will be in Dublin on Friday to name his squad for the crunch qualifiers with Sweden and Austria and it's clear that the local game's battle for oxygen will be even more pronounced than normal.
Obviously, if the league was a more successful entity, it would be able to stand on its own two feet without worrying about alternative attractions but, in its current state, it needs all the help it can get to find exposure. This weekend's logjam is a microcosm of the wider picture.
It's easy to apportion blame to the FAI but they have to draw up a crammed fixture list because the clubs want a shorter season so they can keep wages down. On the flipside, Abbotstown minds are so focused on the impact of the forthcoming World Cup ties that everything else is secondary.
The strange thing, of course, is that it's likely that over a third of the Italian's squad will be made up of players who completed an important stage of their development in the League of Ireland.
Unquestionably, the move towards professionalism which raised standards over the last decade was fundamentally short-sighted because the investment went into first-team costs rather than an improvement of facilities or building long-term structures.
Nevertheless, the positive side-effect is that the improved levels of coaching and fitness gave late developers like Seamus Coleman and James McClean – to name just two – a higher standard in which to learn their trade. It is no coincidence that a long list of players have emerged from the league to comfortably compete at a higher level, debunking the myth that every promising Irish kid has to leave home in their teens to have a chance of making it.
The fear is that the general impact of the recession and the legacy of overspending will send the league back in time. Veteran Cork defender Dan Murray observed that last year's Premier Division was the worst in a decade.
Once again, the League of Ireland has reached a crossroads, and the 2013 campaign will be accompanied by serious questions about the future.
ARE THERE REASONS
TO BE POSITIVE?
Although there is still a gap between spending at the top and bottom of the table, clubs are now working off more realistic budgets. Players would prefer the security of long-term contracts but, while the general trend circa 2008 was clubs driving wages upwards, there is now a little more caution being applied.
Sligo Rovers seem keen to build on their league win in the right manner by using a development grant to improve facilities at the Showgrounds, while Limerick have ambitious plans and their return – allied with positive vibes in Cork and Derry – has restored a decent regional spread.
There should be a healthy fight for the title and the European places, which will keep interest alive at half a dozen clubs into the final weeks.
WHAT ARE THE
Prize money has fallen to a level where the clubs destined to finish at the bottom end of the table are barely making their affiliation fees back. Meanwhile, the First Division consists of eight teams repeatedly playing each other in front of hardly any fans. A drive towards a 16-team league was resisted and the wholly unsatisfactory situation in Galway remains, with Mervue United and Salthill Devon ploughing on.
The broadcasting deal with RTE has increased exposure, but there is little financial reward for clubs who lose valuable gate money when games are rescheduled.
HAVE ALL THE GOOD
No. While there was a dramatic exodus of players between 2006 and 2010, the prevailing financial climate has left clubs with no option but to focus on youth. These youngsters are gaining experience from first-team responsibility and, suddenly, players who might have slipped under the radar in their mid-teens are earning moves to England on the strength of their League of Ireland outings.
Kevin Feely (Bohemians-Charlton), Stephen McLaughlin (Derry-Nottingham Forest) and Sean Maguire (Waterford-West Ham) earned decent moves over the winter.
YouTube sensation Chris Forrester (St Patrick's Athletic) is rated a certainty to go across the water once he gets another year at home under his belt and the likes of Barry McNamee (Derry), David Cawley (Sligo) and the slightly older Ronan Finn (Shamrock Rovers) are sure to attract further attention.
The reality is that progression through one round in Europe could potentially be worth more than a season in domestic prize money for the protagonists. Therefore, Sligo, Drogheda, St Patrick's Athletic and Derry will naturally have July on their minds. In contrast with previous years, the four European qualifiers should enter that sphere with a relatively similar set-up to what brought them there in the first place.
However, Sligo's underwhelming European record in this era means they are likely to face a stiff Champions League hurdle. The Saints have a remarkable record in Inchicore, but UEFA regulations prevent them from playing there if they get through two rounds, while Drogheda will have to move their ties to Dublin. These factors make a difference.
Shamrock Rovers performed miracles to reach the Europa League group stages in 2011; reaching the penultimate stage of qualifying would be an achievement for the 2013 representatives.
WHO WILL WIN THE LEAGUE?
Sligo Rovers look reasonably well equipped to cope with the pressure of being defending champions and they should have a major say in proceedings.
However, Shamrock Rovers set the transfer agenda this winter by raiding The Showgrounds and Richmond Park and weakening their opponents in the process.
Jason McGuinness will strengthen the spine of the team while a rejuvenated Karl Sheppard in tandem with the talented Mark Quigley can compensate for the loss of Gary Twigg.
Trevor Croly has forged a good reputation as a number two and just needs to prove that he can respond to the challenge of being in charge if the Hoops hit a rocky patch.
If they can make a positive start and build momentum, the Tallaght men should benefit from their rivals' European commitments and reclaim the title.