Extension of season looks easy fix for fixtures fiasco
Daniel McDonnell says FAI cannot take all the blame for the cramming of games
All things considered, it’s been a promising start to the League of Ireland Premier Division season.
Down below in the First Division, the recurring themes of faulty floodlights and shambolic developments at Athlone Town are damaging the brand. It’s drilling home the point that the top flight is the only place to be. There’s always the fear of a Bray-shaped crisis, but the big stories in 2018 have been about the football.
There is dissatisfaction in the Premier ranks at the moment, though, and it’s an unusual compliant – there is too much football in a hectic schedule where a three game week – Friday-Monday-Friday – is becoming the norm.
May is set to be the toughest month, and managers are fuming. St Pat’s boss Liam Buckley is aggrieved that a number of sides, including his own, will be playing five games in the space of 14 days. That comes off the back of April, where the Saints played seven matches in the space of 24 days including an EA Sports Cup tie.
It’s a sports scientist’s nightmare, in terms of rest and recovery and the risk of burnout and injuries.
The knock-on effect of that is that it impacts on entertainment, and tests the resources and patience of spectators. Crowds will suffer, which is a shame because they are definitely up this year with an early-season buzz maintained. The estimated crowd figure for last Friday’s five matches came to a total of 15,000.
That did include a bumper crowd at Cork v Dundalk, but a dreadful turnout (450) at Bray v Limerick also brought the average down.
For Monday’s five matches, the estimated figures were closer to 7,000. Just 1,900 attended Shamrock Rovers v Cork, a game that could reasonably expect to draw twice as much on a Friday. Their first meeting this season in Cork was also condemned to a Monday berth.
The League of Ireland season begins in February and ends in October, but the record books will show that a number of clubs played 12 of their 36 matches in the months of April and May. Those same clubs are set to play their final 12 games of the season across the months of July, August, September and October.
There are mitigating factors. March’s cold snap forced cancellations that added to the logjam, and the decision was made to slot the refixed games into the busiest part of the year.
Meanwhile, the FAI also sought to accommodate the four clubs playing in Europe by bringing forward one of their fixtures from July to May in order to give them a free weekend between the two legs of their first continental test.
The four clubs they will be playing against had no choice; it means that a quartet of this weekend’s fixtures will be repeated in just two-and-a-half weeks’ time.
One of the arguments against a ten-team league is that it would be too repetitive for fans and players, but a meeting every nine weeks is hardly excessive. Reducing that time-frame to three weeks is going to drain enthusiasm levels.
Various solutions have been put forward to tackle the problem. The spread of league games in the second half of the season is to slot in FAI Cup weekends, which means a very bare schedule for those sides who exit that competition early. It also presents cashflow issues.
Cork boss John Caulfield has floated the prospect of moving the FAI Cup to midweek windows, but that would be unfair on amateur sides who are already the underdog. With their deeper squads, and the support of European funds, there is no doubt that full-time clubs such as Dundalk, Cork and Shamrock Rovers are better equipped to deal with fixture chaos.
The schedule is punishing for part-time clubs with tight squads who have players trying to juggle football around other commitments. Bohemians manager Keith Long has reasonably made this point. But we are at a crossroads here.
There are tweaks that can be made to ease problems; the removal of the mid-season break is one although that would meet resistance.
Juggling cup schedules or forcing the European clubs to play between ties is another. They are all dancing away from the inevitable solution.
The season needs to be longer. Cash-strapped clubs who only want to pay players for 40 weeks are the main issue here. If the season is extended, their liabilities grow.
Yet the lesson of this season’s Friday night crowds is that there might just be a market there to push out the league season from end of October to end of November.
It would give games room to breathe, a move that can only benefit the product. If clubs want to cram games to cut costs, there’s a place they can go – it’s called the First Division.
Their shortened season of 27 games is reflective of the needs. There is no doubt that the FAI have made errors in the laying out of this season’s fixtures, but this is a problem that was ultimately created by the wishes of struggling clubs.
As the league improves, the bar has to be lifted and ambition – rather than austerity – should plot the way forward.