Ewan MacKenna: We shouldn't fear the idea of a 32-county League of Ireland, we should embrace it
Sometimes a throw-away question turns up an answer you ought to cling onto and delve into.
So it was last week with Stephen Kenny talking about the joy he felt when, as Derry manager, he took the club to places like The Oval and Windsor Park as age-old barriers proudly crumbled. It was this that caused you to bring up the seemingly defunct idea of an all-island league. “It would be very good for the game,” one of the best minds in the sport here mused. “But there isn't the will from the associations or some clubs.” That jarred as, in other words, what's perhaps beneficial doesn't interest those that could benefit.
Fear of what's new can on occasion be natural, but it's absurd when what's old has never worked. The idea of merging the club game on both sides of the border was briefly talked about a decade ago, however now not even whispers remain. That's a great shame for while bigger may not always be better, what we have in the north and south is just too small to stand seperately. So let's start the chatter again as this is a discussion to embrace rather than avoid, given the problems both leagues are forever enduring.
At the end of last month when UEFA delved into the figures that drive the game across the continent, this was a wasteland on a significant scale. The average earnings for a top-flight club in the Republic were around €1.5m per annum, and even that paltry sum is more than double the figure in the north. In the former 43pc of income is based on UEFA grants, in the latter 37pc derives from donations. All the while the rate of decline of crowds in the League of Ireland over the last decade is above the European average and without broadcasting cash to fall back on.
Fair enough they talk about attendances in Northern Ireland growing by some 30pc across the last 10 years, but even with this there are currently five of the dozen Premiership clubs there getting below 600 and the overall average is barely twice that. Let's be honest, that's dust-in-the-wind stuff as there are children in other sports who've lined out in front of more. Whether a unified league solves all that is debatable. But it is worthy of debate as what we do know for sure is that what's there right now will never solve it.
In the Republic it's true we can see what's best for us and neglect to look at it from the other side. And there's a genuine fear in Northern Ireland that such a move would be the first step to a united national team but it doesn't have to be like that - besides it's far more likely to come from politics rather than sport as Arlene Foster and her flat-earthers head right, sending the masses fleeing left.
There's also a real concern of their clubs tumbling down the ladder as they wouldn't be able to compete but do you think some progressive minds in Linfield and Glentoran, Coleraine and Crusaders, haven't seen Dundalk and Cork within five years of near-bankruptcy become successful even in Europe and didn't think they could do that much right? Do you think they'd prefer to remain amoeba in a droplet of water? Besides, if soccer in Northern Ireland is key to a unionist identity it's worth remembering the game has always given groups a chance to project themselves positively and this would be to a wider audience.
In essence, what's not to like for those who believe in what they can achieve.
And yet, in the shadow of that reality, the same protectionism continues to halt a 32-county league conversation, which would be fine if there was something worth protecting. There's not though, just small-mindedness from some who would rather 100pc of a little than 50pc of more. It all brings to mind the saying that if you put an Irishman on a spit, you’ll always find another Irishman to baste him.
Indeed, last week, some members of the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Association met with league officials to brainstorm. Over the course of a two-hour discussion they chatted about the pros and cons of summer football and a variety of other changes that could be made to improve matters but not once did an all-Ireland league come up. Instead it was about working within the hodgepodge framework of past politics inflamed by a present inaction and acceptance. Does no one think progress is better than excuses; that failure is no place for continued tribalism? When it comes to cross-border ideals, there are always new attitudes that disappoint, but from boxing to hockey to rugby, sport has shown an escape route from introversion. This should be no different.
None of this is a shot at the good work done by many there, but an attempt to progress it. And on the eve of another League of Ireland season, the same logic applies. But if Cork are perhaps now the most complete club on the island, it didn't say much that at the launch of the competition on Tuesday John Caulfield was left to break down RTE's Nine O'Clock News sports bulletin to show how their President's Cup win didn't get a mention. His grievance might be correct but it reeked of desperation and of the small-time. In PR those that get attention tend not to scream, 'Look at me'.
Much has changed in domestic soccer here, but too much hasn't and there are still easy sniggers at Athlone's match-fixing allegations and Bray's delusions and Limerick's struggles. And ultimately there's a stigma still attached that gimmicks like 'real football, real fans' doesn't bypass. Despite showing that the best-built and best-run clubs can go toe-to-toe with medium-sized teams Europe, play good football, and progress, when they return it seems like more of the same. To many it's cheap and easy pantomime with a sense of laughing at it and not with it, a sense of amusement and not entertainment.
It's a losing identity that's hard to get rid of and requires something drastic. So just consider an alternative. Better quality and more variety; larger first and second divisions; regional third and fourth divisions; a football pyramid working it's way down that benefits two national teams and two sets of players and two differing mindsets; and a crucial maximisation of limited resources. Of course it's never going to be something huge but it should be as good as it can be, and in an era of super clubs and ultra-capitalist business in the sport, the club game down the ladder is more and more of an attractive proposition to many. But it depends how far you go down the ladder.
A united-league wouldn't solve all with grounds to licenses to association financing to sponsorship all still issues. But while there may not be strength in our combined numbers, there'd be a lot less weakness.