Sunday 21 January 2018

Comment: FAI League report misses target of real reform

Declan Conroy makes a point as he briefs the media on his SSE Airtricity League Consultation Process Report
Declan Conroy makes a point as he briefs the media on his SSE Airtricity League Consultation Process Report

John Fallon

While the government were announcing their capital expenditure splurge yesterday, a group of journalists in another part of Dublin were left desperate for figures as the FAI-commissioned League of Ireland strategy saw daylight.

When the association last embarked on an independent review in 2005, what they received from Scottish consultants Genesis was a blunt assessment of the malaise engulfing the domestic game.

Their targets by 2010 were concise, tangible and straightforward, specifically that Premier Division attendances would average 4,000, be staged in 5,000-10,000 seater stadia throughout the country and, finally, progression on the European stage to the point whereby Ireland's coefficient entered the top 20.

None of the above was achieved not alone within that five-year time-frame or subsequently. Not much has changed either in the figureheads leading the FAI and the League.

Declan Conroy was still on the FAI staff as chief strategist for a couple of years following the Genesis Report and has been retained on a consultancy basis since.

Read more: FAI urged to boost LOI prize money and revamp format

Amid calls to arrest an alarming decline in the League, Conroy was the man John Delaney and his board turned towards last year to formulate this latest blueprint. After all, the chief executive himself had labelled the domestic game a "difficult child" for the association.

Rather than select an outside pair of eyes and ears, as An Post did by engaging Bobby Kerr for example, the FAI felt it appropriate for someone familiar with the landscape to spearhead the project.

Between February and August of this year, Conroy traversed the country meeting the 20 clubs for talks on an independent basis, although the fact only seven managers provided input demonstrates the overall attitude to the exercise.

Perhaps they may feel vindicated in their stance this week. Despite Conroy's recommendations featuring a catchy format change for the 2017 season, involving two tiers of 10 teams with a split occurring in the top-flight, scant reforms on the substantive issues long plaguing the League are proposed.

Granted, the need for an increased prize fund is suggested, yet hardly surprising given the 80pc cull from the high point of 2007 when over €1m was on offer to much fanfare. More strikingly, though, is the absence in the report of sums to support this measure.

"The prize fund is inadequate but I've no idea what it should be," said Conroy yesterday, unable to confirm whether the new sponsor floated at the league launch in February had materialised. "It's not my desire to put a number on that."

Neither too was there a clear prediction on the scale of attendances envisaged during the lifetime of this charter. Aspiring to have better, expanded facilities like Dalymount Park is one thing but it's futile if clubs are struggling to fill the stand they already have.

"I might be accused of being too conservative in this report and yet some are saying it is too radical," says Conroy, who had a twin birthday and wedding celebration yesterday.

"But my objective is to get more bums on seats. If it is through my version, fine. If not, so long as there is a path forward to improve attendances, then that is what I want."

In lieu of anyone from the FAI hierarchy fielding media questions yesterday, a statement released last night endorsed the report, with Delaney revealing clubs are to be contacted to ascertain a timetable.

League activist John O'Sullivan has been through this process before and the former Cork City, Athlone Town and Limerick delegate spoke with authority on Monday night by pleading with the FAI to deliver instead of reneging on promises he claimed were tabled prior to the merger between the League and the association.

As it stands, the 20 clubs fork out combined affiliation fees of €268,000, plus an average of €61,000 per annum in fines, to play for a League prize pot of €315,500.

Still, the FAI and Conroy insist the association incurs a deficit in running the League operation.

More significance could be attached to this assertion had the income from sponsors such as Airtricity and RTé been divulged, yet confidentiality clauses were cited to scupper this even though the FAI had no issue in disclosing at last year's AGM a new €4m deal with primary commercial backers.

As a compromise, Conroy advocates a third-party inspecting the documentation to verify that clubs are not being short-changed.

There's no evidence that the Jim McGuinness mantra of "Your future is your past" is embraced here as the seminal Genesis report doesn't get a single mention and O'Sullivan was urged by Conroy live on television to look only one way after raising legitimate shortcomings on the FAI's part.

Clubs, who had their €15,000 grants for Club Promotions Officers withdrawn as the FAI's finances squeezed beneath their failed Vantage Club scheme, are expected to do more with less resources in order to attract local punters through the turnstiles.

For Stephen McGuinness, secretary of the Professional Football Association of Ireland (PFAI), the onus rests with the governing body to drive the revival measures, however limited they seem.

Riding a good race requires the right jockey to mount the horse and there's nothing contained in this mammoth document to indicate any shift looming on that front.

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