Thursday 18 July 2019

Brian Kerr: Two steps forward, one step back but we keep faith in League

Domestic 'problem child' has made progress in recent years with graduates doing well overseas but it is still struggling to break out of its niche market

Andy Boyle swapped Dundalk for Preston but has since been sent out on loan to Doncaster. Photo: Getty Images
Andy Boyle swapped Dundalk for Preston but has since been sent out on loan to Doncaster. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Kerr

The calendar reports it is the first day of spring as I write but the alluring promise of summer football has been seized in an icy-fingered grip by a winter that seems reluctant to leave us.

The desire for the return to the old way of doing things by some League of Ireland diehards will have been less amplified this week as a taste of Siberia arrived around the grounds and, little more than a week into the new campaign, an entire set of fixtures has been abandoned.

Andy Boyle swapped Dundalk for Preston but has since been sent out on loan to Doncaster
Andy Boyle swapped Dundalk for Preston but has since been sent out on loan to Doncaster

Spare a thought for Finn Harps who have yet to kick a ball in either anger or contentment.

After travelling the highways and byways to Drogheda last week only to discover what they and most of the country knew about the lack of illumination available at the First Division ground, they may not appreciate the irony of the FAI being the first sporting body to pull the plug on this weekend's action.

Much of the optimism derives from the truly dedicated followers of fashion, those of us wedded to the domestic game and who have learned the vows off by heart and experienced each one - for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

passion Many are getting longer in the tooth and, as death may do them part, although some have passed on their unshakeable faith to a newer generation, it remains to be seen how sustainable their passion will be in the years to come.

World Cup winner Geoff Hurst (left) in action for Cork Celtic during a game against Shamrock Rovers in 1975
World Cup winner Geoff Hurst (left) in action for Cork Celtic during a game against Shamrock Rovers in 1975

Most of the rest of the population have little interest, unless a team like Dundalk achieve something relatively extraordinary for Irish club football on the European stage, as they managed two seasons ago when playing deep into December against recognisable names like Zenit and AZ Alkmaar.

Before that, Shamrock Rovers playing Spurs, amongst others, in the Europa League would also have garnered some notice from the wider sporting public but, in both cases, the adventures were of a fleeting nature, as last summer's underwhelming European results confirmed.

My biggest concern is that there are not enough children being attracted to the product on a regular basis.

There is a culture of kids going to GAA and rugby matches nowadays but not to League of Ireland games. So who will be going in 20 years' time? Too many of the supporters are ageing and I wouldn't necessarily believe all the propaganda regarding increased attendances.

There are spikes for certain teams at certain times, particularly as we have seen in the opening fortnight when once-hibernating fans are desperate for any form of live football, which skews the figures.

But of the games in Dublin that I attended last season, many of them had fewer than 2,000 people on a very regular basis while just a handful boasted much higher numbers, which I would feel is far more representative of the trend.

Without reliable data from the last 20 years, it's hard to counteract the propaganda about crowd numbers. The visual evidence of large, empty spaces around me at grounds is far more convincing.

The truth will be confirmed when the steady stream of twice-weekly fixtures gathers pace in a ten-team league where, from experience, familiarity often breeds as much contempt from customers as it does between rival teams.

Any optimism at the onset of a new season is based more on a deep longing rather than the prospect that anything might necessarily get better.

While we await Derry City's emotional return to the Brandywell, there has been no discernible improvement in facilities from Dalymount to Dundalk or Inchicore to Bray and, aside from those of us who have become familiar with them, there is little out there to attract new customers who are used to creature comforts in other sports.

There wasn't a fanfare of promotion ahead of the League's resumption; in fairness, most of the publicity was from within increasingly imaginative clubs and from the usually reliable media devotees.

The clubs have taken it upon themselves to undertake promotion, having clearly identified the lack of passion in Abbotstown for their problem child.

Outside of the senior team, the FAI's primary responsibility should be the health of its national league.

They have reluctantly dedicated funding for the belated introduction of the National Under-Age League, where clubs, who have occasionally been unable to keep themselves afloat, are now charged with the responsibility of running four new squads as well as the main show.

But what about a carrot and stick approach towards the clubs to ensure the delivery of a continuous programme to upgrade training and stadium facilities?

The current plans are too slow and not keeping pace with the changing sports world. Too many clubs celebrate getting a licence when they should be more concerned about the state of the women's toilets.

After all, the whole point of the latest incarnation of the 10-team league is to house a concentration of core elite clubs who wouldn't be weighed down by those with less support and tradition.

The expected story is that standards will increase, gates and income will rise, European results will improve and facilities will be developed along the way.

Will all of this happen? I have my doubts.

It says a lot that Brentford (Chiedozie Ogbene), Oldham (Patrick McEleney), St Johnstone (David McMillan) and Barnet (Fuad Sule) appear more attractive destinations for young players (and some not so young) seeking to advance themselves.

There is still arguably a better appreciation in England that there is a talent resource here than is the case in this country. And at a good price too.

It's easy to say Irish clubs should play hard ball in terms of transfers but the truth of it is that our league and its players haven't achieved that level of respect or status.

And they will not unless teams have consistently strong European results or its players achieve senior international selection ahead of those in the Championship.

Neither of these things are likely to happen once the best players are leaving the league - for non-existent fees - unless you can attract superior replacements who can step up to the mark, particularly in terms of European football.

The players are ambitious and want perhaps more money in an environment where football is an industry; it is not an industry here.

Perennial It doesn't always work; Andy Boyle's case is pertinent. His European exposure brought him a move to Preston and elevation to the international squad but now he finds himself on loan to Doncaster.

Daryl Horgan and Seáni Maguire remain the most recent poster boys but replacing players like these is now a perennial problem.

Recruitment has improved since the old days, even if the league did once manage to flirt, ever so briefly, with four members of that famous 1966 World Cup final (a quiz question for this sport-affected weekend!)

When I was preparing for a match with Galway United once, I remember getting a frantic phone call that morning. "Brian, Frank Worthington is in the Aisling Hotel with a load of Galway players!"

The last time I had seen the great entertainer was on 'Match of the Day' but he played that day even if the only remaining remnant of his flamboyant career were his flowing locks.

The improvement of finances has drafted in a lot of new players which has been something that the league has lacked in recent years; it had become almost too parochial. It needs players who have played in other leagues and have been developed in a more technical environment way.

Stephen Kenny, for example, has generally signed young players with potential or established players within the league but there has been more elaborate talent identification this season with a clutter of Lithuanian, Hungarian and Nigerian names decorating his team-sheet.

Cork City have remained faithful to the traditional route: signing players from within the league from potential rivals as well as some returning locals.

It's not like Dundalk and Cork are signing players from Chelsea. In fact, Sligo are the only side to get someone from Chelsea.

Neither Dundalk nor Cork have signed superior players to those that they have lost; they have signed good players but there is no guarantee they will be successful.

Notwithstanding the recent dominance of the top two, there is not as much a disparity between them and the bottom of our league that exists in other countries.

Even Derry City, during a traumatic season, qualified for Europe despite playing in a different county last season and still managed to remain extremely competitive. They will be again this season.

There is not a massive difference between the standards of players here and that is what has attracted Lee Power to invest in Waterford. We must remember how Kenny developed a supreme title-winning side from one threatened by relegation.

Clever management, tradition and some inspiration can revive anyone. At this early stage, Rovers, Bohs, Pat's and Sligo should all feel that they can make some sense of an impression this season.

So I don't share any gloom that City and Dundalk, even with their increased resources, will dominate for ever more.

And for all the frustrations and annoyances of the league, amongst players and supporters alike, we curse the blankets of snow that denied us our weekly addiction, counting down the hours until we can re-affirm our faith in the notion that anything is possible.

Irish Independent

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