Saturday 24 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: League of Ireland fans insulted and betrayed by Athlone debacle

Athlone Town Stadium Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Athlone Town Stadium Photo: Oliver McVeigh

Eamonn Sweeney

Igors Labuts must be a very unlucky man. On 17 occasions, matches in which the Latvian goalkeeper played have been the subject of UEFA investigation due to dodgy betting patterns. That's also the number of times games involving his fellow countryman Kirils Grigorovs have been subject to a similar investigation.

But Igors is also a very lucky man. You'd imagine with his record he might have found difficulty in securing further employment in football. Yet at the start of this season he made the move from Latvia to Athlone Town. As did Kirils. And a Romanian defender named Dragos Sfrijan, who has played in four investigated matches. What were the chances that they'd end up together in the Irish midlands? What would you bet against something like that happening?

Sorry, did I say 17 investigations? Make that 18 because Athlone are now the subject of a UEFA investigation following their 3-1 loss to Longford Town last week in a match which attracted over €400,000 in betting, mainly in Asian markets. And while it's good to see the League of Ireland's fame spreading abroad in this way, the problem is that the pattern of betting, to use a technical term, stunk. To put it bluntly it looked as though the people wagering on the game had an uncanny knowledge of when goals would be scored and how many goals would be scored. UEFA have said that there is "clear and overwhelming evidence" that the match was fixed, an opinion concurred in by the anti match-fixing organisation Federbet.

This could all be a coincidence of course. I'm not suggesting Igors and Kirils were involved in anything dubious. Strange things happen. It has been a strange season for Athlone so far. They've had four managers in 10 games for example. And even before the season started there was the strange sight of the club being taken over by a group of mysterious foreign investors. When Fran Gavin of the FAI met said investors he commented: "We've never experienced that type of investment in a club where they're bringing players in from all over Europe. You would wonder what is their motivation. That's something we've to look at very carefully." Ahem.

We don't know exactly what was said when the FAI contacted UEFA to make inquiries about the bona fides of these investors but we do know that it seems to have prompted the FAI to place the club under scrutiny from the start of the season. Alarm bells, anyone? Was it the wisest thing to allow the deal to go through and to give Athlone a licence to play in the league when it did? The FAI have also revealed that on March 29 Gavin "delivered an integrity workshop presentation to the Athlone Town senior squad and coaches on the prevention of match fixing and betting, in his role as FAI Integrity Officer." A workshop? A whole workshop? It's hard to see what more the FAI could have done, isn't it? Kingsley Amis's line that 'workshop' is the one word which sums up everything that's wrong with modern life springs irresistibly to mind.

When stories about betting on matches like this break the tendency is to bang on about gambling addiction and the pressures placed on players by the increasing linkage between football and betting. I would respectfully suggest this is not that kind of story. Something more sinister may have been going on.

A betting coup in horse racing usually elicits admiration. Things are different when it comes to football because in football the big victims are not the bookies but the fans of the team which has taken a dive. We are talking about betrayal. In the grand scale of things, Athlone Town might not seem to have many fans (and home attendances have understandably been nosediving since the start of the season). But, as someone who spent many years following Sligo Rovers through thin and thin, I know just how genuine the love of a League of Ireland fan for their club is. On one level I almost think the hardcore fans of the struggling League of Ireland club are the most loyal in Ireland. Their clubs offer them nothing but blood, sweat and tears yet like the cat on the hot tin roof they stay there and that is their triumph.

They are great supporters. And Athlone Town is a great club. This is the club of Mickey and Padraig O'Connor, of Eugene Davis, of John Minnock, of Denis Clarke, of winning the league title without dropping a point at home, of holding AC Milan to a 0-0 draw in the UEFA Cup at St Mel's Park and being still on level terms at half-time in the San Siro. There is a proud tradition there. It is a club which to a large extent has been killed by the League of Ireland's insistence on a two division system. Cut off from glamour ties against the big clubs Athlone mouldered in the dystopian world of Division One and when they got back to the top flight were relegated again after just a season. More than once the club has looked to be on its last legs.

Yet League of Ireland clubs are resilient entities and Athlone still has its fans. And the most awful aspect of this saga is what has been done to these fans. Because long before the Longford game the Town fans were saying that something dodgy was going on. And no-one was listening to them. They just had to watch and suffer.

I'll show you what I mean. Here are some tweets from the Athlone Town fans Twitter account over the past month. During the Longford game, before the betting story broke: "Them goals were fucking ridiculous. The club can no longer defend this. It's obvious." April 26: "We've been sent two articles from Holland and Portugal reporting that a current Athlone Town player is on a UEFA watchlist. Very worrying." April 8 v UCD: "First goal seemed very smelly of fish." Mar 26: "Serious allegations by Shels fans after the game last night." Mar 25 v Shelbourne, from Shelbourne fans, "Nothing dodgy down in Athlone at all tonight." "So obvious it's embarrassing."

There are a load of tweets like this and together they make up a pretty harrowing story of what was happening to the club. Imagine if something like this happened at yours. The Athlone fans were boys crying wolf when there actually was a wolf.

The news of the UEFA investigation seems almost to come as a relief to these fans. "There were so many people who doubted this was true as recently as a couple of weeks ago. It's all coming out now," reads one tweet. "The Longford Town game was the tip of the iceberg. If UCD haven't been asked for footage and the markets investigated, I'm astonished," says another. At least they're not being told to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes anymore.

It would seem pretty obvious that the committee at Athlone, who've been accused of adopting a head in the sand approach to the bizarre goings on, can hardly stay on. Yet I have a certain amount of sympathy for them, life in the lower echelons of the League of Ireland is hard.

As for the FAI's role in this? Well, when less than two years ago the Association announced that they had cut a sponsorship deal for the League of Ireland with streaming company Trackchamp and "global online gaming company," BWIN there were warnings about the signal that this sent out. It was essentially selling the League of Ireland as a market for foreign gamblers. What we may be seeing in Athlone is this particular flock of chickens coming home to roost.

It's essential that the FAI get to the bottom of this situation as quickly as possible. Because there is already an example of what can happen to a financially weak European league when it becomes entangled with the gambling world. Two years ago one European league was forced to remove three teams in as many months from its top division because of match fixing. The country? Latvia.

The willingness to allow the Athlone investors into the league stems from the same mentality behind the Trackmat sponsorship, namely that the League of Ireland is so hard up any money from anywhere is welcome. But this won't stand.

This is the league of Paul McGrath, of Ronnie Whelan, of Roy Keane, of Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan and James McClean. It should not be a squalid playground for dishonesty. The Athlone fans aren't the only ones who've been insulted and betrayed. Anyone who cares about Irish football has been as well.

Enough of this. Enough.

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