Sunday 18 March 2018

Dan McDonnell: Greater stability gives League of Ireland clubs a stronger argument for raising grievances

John Caulfield Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
John Caulfield Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The irony in the crossover of stories is striking.

On the day that another round of eyewatering Premier League TV deals is announced, a League of Ireland manager vents at televised coverage here.

Fran Gavin Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Fran Gavin Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The formalities were drawing to a close at the launch of the new season in the Aviva Stadium when John Caulfield asked host Con Murphy to allow a final word.

He then proceeded to dissect the Sunday evening 9'o'clock sports bulletin on RTé news which featured only a passing reference to his side's 4-2 win over Dundalk in the President's Cup earlier in the day.

"There was eight minutes of sport on the 9'o'clock news," started Caulfield, "The first two-and-a-half minutes was GAA which is very good. Half a minute on the ladies GAA.

"Then a minute and a bit of the ladies rugby, two-and-a-half minutes of the Premier League's three games and there was a four-second slide of the President's Cup and about a minute and a half of the Winter Olympics."

"We all have a responsibility to talk about our league and promote it. A lot of people here work for the national broadcaster and it's important to talk to the people above them."

It is true that gripes from League of Ireland people about poor coverage can draw a weary response from targets, especially when it can be argued that the league does pretty well relative to average attendances.

And RTé will say they will broadcast 17 live games in the coming year in addition to a weekly highlights programme - although it remains the case that clubs receive no money for this when TV cash is what keeps other leagues rolling along.

But it is easy to dismiss Caulfield's complaints about coverage as beleaguered League of Ireland types banging the same old drum when the truth is he might actually have a point.

The President's Cup may only be a glorified pre-season friendly, but it did bring together the two leading sides in the country who have gone toe to toe over the space of four seasons.

It was a well-attended game in unusual weather conditions - with snow in one half and sun in the other - and it still managed to throw up six goals and some interesting storylines.

For the protagonists, it is galling to participate and come home to find it as a footnote. It's one thing to be behind games featuring Liverpool and Manchester United in the pecking order.

But when a fixture featuring Huddersfield and Bournemouth - two sides who do not have Irish fanbases to compare with Cork and Dundalk - gets a more prominent billing then it's going to grate.

Fran Gavin admitted afterwards that Caulfield wasn't exactly wide of the mark and he has acknowledged that web streaming and other avenues might be explored in any future broadcasting deals.

After all, the current restrictions mean that a wonder goal scored in a non-live Friday night match has to be kept a state secret until the Monday night highlights show unless RTé decide to release it over the weekend as they did in certain situations last term. It's a dated approach.

Let's not pretend that the League of Ireland is completely reformed. The comical episodes at Bray and Athlone last year brought headlines for all the wrong reasons. That fits in with the image of a basket-case league. There are signs, however, that things are changing slightly.

The cycle of a team winning a league one year and then going bust within the next three appears to have stopped. Caulfield's Cork and Stephen Kenny's Dundalk don't look like going away any time soon and they are now full-time operations with players on 52-week contracts.

When the top sides are constantly on the brink of turmoil, credibility is damaged and it's a challenge to construct an argument for more air-time.

But Cork are thriving and averaged 4,500 per home game last year, so Caulfield is coming from a strong position when he says that an innovative strategy has to be explored. He argued that live games are broadcast on Friday nights when a good chunk of the likely viewers are out viewing their own team. Thursday would make more sense, he reasoned.

The live TV matches are also crammed into certain windows of the season before long breaks which make it hard to establish continuity within a schedule. Consistency is lacking.

"Having five or six of the first rounds of matches on TV and then none for the next six weeks doesn't make sense," he said.

"I look at the league for the last 40 years as a kid playing and playing all the way through and you get a point where you go, 'Look lads, are we going to move to the next level or are we not?'" he said.

"We've got an opportunity now. We've been through the Celtic Tiger. Clubs folded and have taken time to come back. European results are better, crowds are up.

"I always use the example of Connacht Rugby. Their own union didn't want them but they decided they were going nowhere and they came together."

The example has its flaws, but the principle of fighting for recognition because you represent a parish is a valid one.

Irish clubs that have shown they can stand on their own two feet are entitled to argue for greater recognition.

Irish Independent

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