Monday 18 March 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'The League of Ireland continues to be held back by its ability to snooker itself'

League chief Fran Gavin announced a cross-border clash of champions. Photo: Sportsfile
League chief Fran Gavin announced a cross-border clash of champions. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

At the beginning of yesterday's SSE Airtricity League season launch, the passing of Gordon Banks was referenced.

He was a former League of Ireland player, a fact that didn't warrant a mention in his autobiography. It was a brief stay.

Banks was flown in for a one-game-only deal with St Patrick's Athletic in 1977, and duly kept a clean sheet against Shamrock Rovers.

He received £500, while the club benefited from a healthy gate.

The story goes that the World Cup winner was driven past the old Richmond Park on the eve of the game, with his fellow passengers under strict instructions not to mention this was the actual venue.

Banks - who had lost the use of his right eye in 1972 - was none too impressed when the penny dropped but parked any reservations to put in a top drawer display, denying Eamon Dunphy with a superb stop.

Everybody went home happy

Did everybody go home happy from the Aviva yesterday? Forty-two years on from Banks' visit, the local game is still searching for that X-factor.

The big reveal of the main speech from league chief Fran Gavin was the announcement of a new cross-border showdown between the champions from north and south.

Within hours of the event, the Northern Irish authorities were releasing statements which suggested the FAI had jumped the gun and nothing was agreed.

Abbotstown are sure the competition will eventually go ahead but the damage was done. Much mirth followed.

Commentators who have no interest in the resumption of the new campaign were provided with a cheap one-liner to get them through the day.

Perhaps the FAI felt they needed a fresh story to come out of an event that was short on inspiration. Prizemoney remains unchanged and inadequate. The new TV arrangements are erratic at best, and a snapshot of the league's difficulties.

Granted, the coverage has come a long way in the space of two decades.

There was a time when the announcement of live coverage of any League of Ireland match - with the exception of the FAI Cup final - was a news story.

Now we have 33 games between RTE and Eir Sport. The issue is that they are spread randomly at intervals which do not really tie in with the rhythm of the season.

RTE have turned their live broadcast into three-hour affairs, with engineers sent around the grounds to put in cabling that will allow goals from all of the other games to follow Friday's coverage of Dundalk v Sligo.

That is a fantastic step forward. Unfortunately, the next scheduled live match is on March 29. In the meantime, the weekly output will be 30 minutes on a Monday without any studio debate or analysis.

On Monday week, the goals from the previous Friday will be broadcast just as Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers kick-off in a sold-out game that often makes for compelling viewing. This is beyond daft.

It's understood the FAI were aware of this, but the date in question was a problem for broadcasters.

This is the kind of problem that should have been anticipated in advance - much as the vagaries of a congested fixture list make logistics difficult.

RTE are following the lead of Eir Sport by putting resources into really good live shows, and there remains a sense that Montrose feel they are doing the league a favour because viewing figures are low.

It is becoming obvious, however, that showing live matches at a time when a reasonable portion of the target audience are at a game is a flawed plan. Experimenting with marquee fixtures should be considered.

From afar, these ideas might seem like another attempt to spin the wheel and hope for the best when they don't really address the league's deeper rooted problems.

That may be so, but the reality is that there are a lot of bright people working here who are exasperated by lack of a defined plan to showcase the best of it.

The current generation of senior players and young coaches have evolved in an era that has proven that exceptional things - such as Europa League qualification - can be achieved if the right culture exists.

Old tales like the Banks yarn have a certain charm to it, but they were of its time. In recent years, some big Irish names have come home and actually struggled in a young man's league - that's a good thing.

It still remains strangled, however, by the absence of coherent and consistent long-term planning.

Irish Independent

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