Financial reality to stay at heart of Hoops' plan
Rovers won't lose the run of themselves as they build on League win, says Seán Ryan
WHEN Shamrock Rovers celebrated winning the Airtricity League title in Bray on Friday night, it was a moot point whether they received a valuable trophy or a poisoned chalice.
While their victory over Bray Wanderers earned the club €200,000 in prize money, the experience of Rovers' predecessors in recent years suggests the title comes with a health warning.
All the title winners in the noughties -- Shelbourne, Bohemians, Cork City and Drogheda United, plus keen contenders Derry City -- have fallen victim to this threat to their health. As a consequence, Shelbourne, Cork, Drogheda and Derry have each suffered the ignominy of relegation, while Bohemians, despite a brave effort to complete a three-in-a-row of titles, are facing the most severe pruning of staff in the club's history -- and this comes on top of a 50 per cent pay cut in the last two years.
Shamrock Rovers were contenders in the early part of the last decade and almost went out of existence trying to match the spending of their great rivals Shelbourne. They were saved eventually by an unusually magnanimous gesture on the part of the Revenue Commissioners -- and the provision of a ground by South Dublin County Council.
The common cause of this threat to the health of title-winning and contending clubs is, simply, ambition. And, in each case, the ambition extended beyond the winning of domestic trophies. Ever since Shelbourne defeated fabled Hajduk Split in 2004, this ambition gathered momentum, with the firm belief that the full-time clubs were within a whisker of making the breakthrough to the group stages of the Champions League and its attendant TV money-pot.
Subsequent heroics by Derry City in Scotland and Sweden, and the bounce of a ball which denied Drogheda United in Kiev and Bohemians last year in Dalymount against Salzburg, seemed to indicate that the breakthrough was imminent.
Sadly, the economics of reality have caught up with the ambitions of the clubs' directors and management committees, and a time of retrenchment is upon us, with the possibility that only two full-time outfits will be operating in the League next season.
Shamrock Rovers are not one of those, and chief executive Jonathan Roche made it clear last Friday that, having got out of jail five years ago, their current cautious policy will be maintained, especially as it has delivered handsomely this season, with the possibility of more to come on November 14 when they meet Sligo Rovers in the FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium.
In addition to the €200,000 prize money, Rovers are in line for sums of €130,000 for each round of the Champions League qualifiers they contest, plus a further €200,000 from UEFA if they fail to make the group stages.
It is this honey-pot which tends to change the ambitions of clubs. Rovers, who earned €180,000 from contesting two rounds of the Europa League qualifiers this year after their shock dismissal of Israel's Bnei Yehuda, could be forgiven for wondering how far they could go if they invested in strengthening their squad in certain areas.
However, this is unlikely to occur, because the FAI's salary cost protocol, which limits players and management wages to 65 per cent of income, only allows clubs to include the last-place prize money (€40,000) in their budget projections. If this seems strange, in the light of the massive debts carried by top clubs like Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City et al, then it is, but the FAI in this instance have acted quicker than UEFA, who only intend to address this problem in 2014.
The era of the full-time clubs might be at an end here, but at least the clubs have survived. What fate awaits the clubs of the sugar daddies in England and elsewhere is unsure, but Portsmouth's parlous condition may be an example of what is coming down the line there.
Manager Michael O'Neill said that Rovers had won the League "with the smallest budget of any title winner in the last five or six years, and probably the third biggest in the League this year." Roche later revealed that their budget had been €760,000.
O'Neill ruled out following Rovers' predecessors into financial difficulties. "Every club has to chase a dream," he said, "but they have to chase it sensibly."
And if that dream includes success in Europe, he pointed out: "We had a good experience in Europe, beating a higher-rated team from Israel, and only losing to a wonder goal to Juventus, so we're not a million miles away."
Meanwhile, Sligo Rovers and Sporting Fingal, the two clubs holding fast to full-time status, have qualified for the Europa League next year, with Sligo also hoping to add an FAI Cup triumph to their earlier EA Sports Cup win.
If recent history is any guide, then Sligo and Fingal should make strong challenges for the League title next season, and the fact that Paul Cook has signed a new two-year contract indicates that Sligo's ambitions remain unfulfilled.
At the other end of the table, Drogheda's brief taste of glory -- the League title in 2007 and two Setanta Cup wins -- came to an end when they were relegated to the First Division.
Galway United and Bray Wanderers meet on Tuesday in Terryland Park to decide which of them faces a play-off with the First Division's promotion candidate.