Monday 22 January 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Setanta woe spells the end for All-Ireland vision

Shamrock Rovers player Thomas Stewart tosses away a flare during their 2013 Setanta Cup clash with Linfield in Windsor Park
Shamrock Rovers player Thomas Stewart tosses away a flare during their 2013 Setanta Cup clash with Linfield in Windsor Park

Daniel mcDonnell

The death knell was sounded for the Setanta Cup last week and it is surely only a matter of time before organisers give up hope on a competition which once offered it.

Linfield's withdrawal and the general air of disinterest which has complicated the process of solving scheduling issues has scribbled the writing on the wall, and the inevitable demise feels like the end of any lingering ambitions for an All-Ireland league (AIL).

Ultimately, the Setanta Cup may have served a purpose by disproving the theory that a unified north and south division would act as a panacea for domestic problems.

There is a certain irony in the timing as the joint efforts to raise awareness and funds for Mark Farren has demonstrated the commonality that exists between fans, players and administrators in the League of Ireland and Irish League.

Farren spent time at Glenavon and will always be associated with Derry City, yet there is a sense from both sides of the fence that he is one of their own.

Last Monday, at the Northern Ireland Football Writers' dinner, Sligo man Ciaran Martyn, who switched to the Irish League in 2010, spoke on his mate's behalf in tandem with a charity whip-around which raised over £3,000 for the cause.

The extraordinarily successful fundraising campaign which has made possible Farren's trip to Mexico for cancer treatment has been the product of a laudable collective effort.

Still, for all the mutual understanding between the football communities that has been apparent in the face of a heartbreaking crisis, the Setanta Cup has highlighted the differences that exist when it comes to business.


When the competition was introduced in 2005, it had two things going for it: novelty and cash. For a new generation it was a first opportunity to sample cross-border fixtures aside from rare European clashes. (The Tyler Cup, which ended in 1980, was the last attempt)

The moolah compensated for inconvenient games on a Monday or Tuesday as seasons crossed over. With a prize pool of €350,000, qualification guaranteed a jackpot. Each of the six teams that competed was assured of €30,000.

Over time, the format and number of participants varied, while the economic downturn eroded the dividends. In 2014, the total pot was €73,000; winners Sligo Rovers collected just €30,000.

Linfield and Cliftonville were absent because the spring staging clashed with their league's run-in and they reasoned it was more hassle than it was worth.

The domination of the Airtricity League clubs certainly affected interest levels but the crucial lesson once teams had an initial taste of the tournament was that it did not draw out the latent follower that all clubs on the island need to tempt away from other attractions. Curiosity was quickly sated.

Only the hardcore would have a knowledge of the leading players from the other league; it's the traditional foes that are a real magnet for crowds and, in Irish football, the long-term strategy must focus on what makes the turnstiles click.

In short, the floating Shamrock Rovers or Glentoran fan is more likely to come out of the woodwork to watch Bohs or Linfield respectively as opposed to a team they know little about. Richie Towell means as much to the man on the street in Belfast as Joe Gormley does in Dublin.

Regrettably, the crowd disturbances which cast a shadow over certain spicy fixtures suggested that some of the characters who were actually energised about a bit of cross-border rivalry have no place in any football stadium. This remained the elephant in the room.

The idea of a 32-county structure poses questions about identity that would inevitably be met with opposition but, perhaps more pertinently, it's hard to see the football philosophies aligning under one umbrella.

From this vantage point, the Irish League seems quite comfortable in its own skin, whereas the League of Ireland remains unsure about what it wants to be with a hybrid of clubs making up the top flight.

Up north, they don't appear to engage in the same volume of soul searching debates about the game's direction.

Granted, a league authority independent of the IFA was introduced in 2013 with a view to improving the product, but the consultation process seems to favour reform within the existing framework as opposed to radical change; a switch to occasional Friday night matches was considered a big departure.

In the '80s and '90s, the northern big guns splashed the cash yet they stopped well short of the experimentation with full-time professionalism and the crazy wages which accelerated down here as the Setanta Cup came to life.

Their top clubs are serious outfits but the league has retained a part-time ethos which is beginning turn the heads of mid-ranking LOI players who are finding it hard to balance a job and intensive training commitments for small bucks.

Instead they can travel up the M1 for a preferable financial deal and much less stress. Away days are easier too; there's no long journeys back through weekend nights or unpopular Monday dates.

July tends to highlight the contrasting cultures. In Belfast circles, few bat an eyelid if a player misses a European tie, which falls in their pre-season, because of a personal commitment.

Indeed, in 2012 Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter was absent for a Europa League clash with Rosenborg because of a pre-arranged family holiday. That would provoke outrage in this neck of the woods; in Baxter's environment there was understanding and very little fuss.

When talks about a breakaway AIL took place in 2007, the assumption was that it would build towards a professional structure.

It never got off the ground for a variety of reasons, and political obstacles always promised to stand in the way. That may always be so, yet it's hard to see common ground on football plans ever being reached when there is a diversity of opinions about the viable end-game.

The Setanta squabbles hint at a simple truth. There might be affinity, but there will never be compatibility.


European money will go a long way at UCD

UCD's surprise ticket into the Europa League is unlikely to do much for the League of Ireland co-efficient given that the First Division is no preparation for continental performance. This was evident when relegated cup winners Dundalk were thrashed back in 2002.

Still, with the increased UEFA money set to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots - and early signs that this year's qualifiers could nab next year's spots too - it's hard to begrudge the long-serving administrators at Belfield their slice of good fortune.

Provided they pass licensing criteria, they'll collect an unexpected €200,000 for their Fair Play pass which will go a very long way in their set-up.

The boost in the European rewards really does have game-changing potential if any cash-strapped side is fortunate enough to qualify.

Certainly, it puts a different slant on Bohemians' impressive start to this campaign and will also raise the hopes of the money men if any teams outside the title race make it to the latter stages of the FAI Cup.

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