Feeling the crunch
There’s little light at the end of the tunnel after a disastrous year for the League of Ireland, writes Daniel McDonnell
"It was a good league last year, it will be a better one this year. There's a clear strategy from the FAI here. What we want to do is have a sustainable, consistent environment for professional football in Ireland. Hopefully we'll be sitting here next year saying, that was a really, really good league. How are we going to follow that?"
Fran Gavin, Eircom League Director, February 2008
Ah, hindsight. It can make fools of mortals. As a country reflects on its pre-recession investment portfolio, we should all be aware of that.
In League of Ireland football, there has been ample cause for such reflection, where the mistakes have been similar to those of good-time guys who bought cars and houses they really couldn't afford.
The luxury was footballers. Cost was irrelevant; getting them was the cause for celebration. Sadly, the guiltier parties are now suffering from a pretty brutal hangover.
Much as it is painful to acknowledge it, 2008 was a disastrous year for League of Ireland football. A horrible, excruciating debacle with the odd chink of light to tease us about what could have been possible if the house had been built from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down.
Imagine how future generations will look back on the ills of the past few years. An era where businesses with a turnover of a couple of million euros per year tried to survive on a staff comprised almost entirely of players and managers; with no proportionate balance to administrators or business professionals dedicating their lives to balancing the books.
Barring a few honourable exceptions, the ones making the decisions and trying to pay the bills have been well-meaning volunteers, busy trying to juggle things with their own working lives. Sure is it any wonder some clubs were doomed? This was like getting on a plane to be informed by the pilot that he would be steering the controls from home today. With little assistance and no cabin crew; just well-fed passengers.
Facts, unfortunately, speak for themselves. At this juncture last year, we were speaking of a league where the part-time clubs were about to be left behind. For Shamrock Rovers, Bray, UCD and Cobh it would be a struggle in a league where everyone else was doing it for a living. The gun was being jumped.
Next year's Premier Division will have just three completely full-time clubs; Bohemians, Derry City and Sligo Rovers and all they have in common is that they have been under the cosh at periods this year and will enter next season with a smaller budget than this year commenced with. You wouldn't bet your life on them existing as truly professional entities in 12 months' time.
Along the way, we've almost lost Drogheda United and Cork City completely, St Pat's have sensibly taken correct measures to avoid going down their road, while Finn Harps and Galway United were living in dreamland.
The part-time clubs have been similarly culpable. Cobh and Athlone could yet go to the wall, Bray needed to take drastic action, Kildare, Longford and Waterford all had their issues. Almost everywhere, there has been turmoil.
Jobs have been lost. Mortgages left unpaid. Ordinary decent people, like the supporters of Drogheda, Athlone and others facing doomsday, have been digging into their pockets to keep their hobbies alive. Overall, an unseemly mess.
Only those who have been living under rocks would be unfamiliar with the stories because the prevailing doom and gloom has stuck like glue to the league. Enough dwelling has been done on what's gone before, but the bad news is that there's more to come as the financial end of year approaches on January 31.
As always, the sad thing is that it has completely detracted from the football which, again, has proven to be a drastically enhanced product. Far better than those who enjoy sanctimony from the comfort of their living room or barstool would ever accept.
The fear is that, in some ways, the achievements of the past few years will be reflected upon as glory days rather than the stepping stone they should represent.
In a different context, it's a case of looking at the facts. Europe is the barometer. This was the year when Drogheda United -- for all that they rode their luck in the first leg -- constructed a tactical plan for the return tie against Dynamo Kiev in the heat of the Ukraine which resulted in the Louth men being very, very unlucky not to eliminate a side who went on to qualify for the Champions League group stages. It was a matter of inches. A stunning near miss.
Then there was St Patrick's Athletic, who outplayed Elfsborg of Sweden -- a respectable benchmark in their own right -- and then went on to lose to Hertha Berlin as a result of profligacy rather than blatant inferiority. On that journey, they were inspired by decent passing football and the brilliance of Keith Fahey, a talent lost to the league in 2009, like so many others who stole the show in this campaign.
And then there was Bohemians, who feel hard done by because their accomplishments are rarely mentioned in the same breath. While other clubs were starring on European soil sporadically, they dominated the league in which the aforementioned trailblazers operated week in, week out.
An outstanding team, completely underappreciated in their own parish.
Over a 33-game campaign, the Gypsies lost just twice and were so parsimonious defensively that they conceded just 13 goals. Add to that that they had a patched-up team in the midpoint of the campaign and their achievements were all the more laudable.
A lot for Pat Fenlon to be proud of, and the double success secured with the penalty shootout win over Derry City at the RDS was the icing on the cake.
Alas, that was another occasion that tantalised. We had two teams, at peak fitness, and producing good football, serving up 120 minutes of entertainment. The tragedy is that we can't accurately predict if we will see the like again. If 10,000 people came to watch them every week, well, we would spend far less time hand-wringing.
Of course, there is a positive spin on all of this. Essentially, that this year was a necessary blood-shedding exercise. To a degree, there is logic. Clubs will never throw money about again in the manner they did over the past few years. It is accepted that contracts must be shorter, offering incentive as opposed to encouraging complacency.
A more stringent application of the 65pc wage cap should encourage a prudent attitude in relation to drawing up budgets instead of composing fantasy ones which are chopped halfway through. Maybe then, there is a chance of growing an industry where all involved are paid what they are worth, not what people believe they have to earn to live the dream.
That's the challenge from now. There are some things to be cheerful about, with the arrival of Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght standing out above them all. It is an opportunity that will hopefully be capitalised on.
Allied with the return of Dundalk to the Premier Division, it should at least bring an increase in average attendances in the top flight.
Nevertheless, that should not be seized upon as a sign of progress. The powers that be cannot be blamed for the recklessness of some clubs, but they cannot be excused for adopting the attitude that their tenure in charge has been a blessing.
John Delaney may shudder to think what would happen if the FAI hadn't assumed control of the league. The rest of us will shudder about an association which, in a backdrop of unprecedented crisis, seeks to seize upon barely credible attendance figures and convenient reading of accounts to declare the fact that clubs are returning profits when the opposite has been the case. Such deplorable spin insults intelligence.
From another standpoint, though, it is perhaps fitting. For it is the obfuscation of reality which has brought us to this point. The future depends on eyes being opened.
Tomorrow: Daniel McDonnell reviews the Ireland international scene of 2008.