Irish clubs facing a bleak future
EARLIER this week, a delegation from the PFAI met a bunch of young footballers from the FAI's Emerging Talent Programme to discuss the opportunities that exist for them on this island.
Discussions turned to the subject of wages. "How much money do you think you can earn playing in Ireland?" PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness asked his teenage audience. "€7,000 a week," replied an enthusiastic voice from the crowd, who was soon to be disappointed when informed that dropping a zero from his estimate would be closer to the truth.
Well, in 2010 anyway. If a similarly innocent group of youngsters had popped the same question three years ago, they would have learned that players in this country may not be earning €7,000 a week, but there were a couple coining in that ball-park figure every fortnight. Extend the time-frame to three weeks, and there were a good few more in that bracket. Crazy days.
Money bought success, the kind of short-term success that lends itself to ultimate failure. With concerns growing about the well-being of Bohemians, it's not unreasonable to suggest that next season's First Division could include all the Premier Division champions from the Noughties.
Shelbourne (2001/02, '03, '04 and '06) have been stuck there since their demotion after that last success, while Cork ('05) are now essentially represented by a new entity in that sphere and Drogheda ('07) have been forced to downsize to such an extent that they seem destined to be involved in a relegation play-off, at the very least.
Now, Bohs, (2000/01, 2002/03, '08 and '09) are in their second fundraising quest to reach for a bar they set -- or were allowed to set -- for themselves.
Was it worth it? No doubt the respective hardcore fans have precious memories to treasure, the short-term bragging rights over their old foes. The problem is that their intense rivalries didn't arouse the interest of enough people in the outside world -- a familiar refrain in League of Ireland circles. It was bound to catch up eventually.
Highly rated young players coming into the league a couple of years ago had multiple suitors to choose from, and the opportunity to make the game their livelihood.
Now we have a situation where one teenager, who has broken into the first team at a leading Dublin club, was called in for a meeting to discuss the contract he was promised once he completed a FAS course. He was told there was no money to offer him, but he could collect the dole and keep training with them every day.
Thankfully, he can console himself with the knowledge that he is part of the football family.
Today, at the FAI AGM in Wexford, there will be much talk of the football family. John Delaney gave a sneak preview of the message he will convey in White's Hotel later today, when he gushed about the achievements of Fran Gavin and the overhaul of the League of Ireland last weekend.
In fairness, it would be wrong to state that the FAI are to blame for the mess that some clubs have gotten themselves into. The problem is that the authorities are constantly at pains to stress what great jobs they are doing, keen to drum home the message that X amount of clubs are turning over a profit. What about the existing debts, lads?
These AGMs can be illuminating experiences, though. It's easy to ponder matters under the heading of 'Irish football' and restrict the discussion to Giovanni Trapattoni's capabilities and the foibles of the domestic game.
The reality, of course, is that the football family is considerably bigger and far more mixed up than your average clan. While other sports have provincial bodies or powerful county boards that create a coherent enough food chain to figure out, Irish football is a mish mash of different characters operating at varying levels of the game.
Only 13 of the 26 counties are represented across the two League of Ireland divisions, with large schoolboy leagues and other regional bodies from around the country having no distinct link with the senior game.
And in some of the counties that do have clubs, with Dublin the prime example, there is a tetchy relationship between the senior clubs and the schoolboy bodies, in particular.
Only this week, the transfer of Bohemians defender Matt Doherty to Wolves was stalled until his schoolboy clubs, Belvedere and Home Farm, were satisfied. The thorny issue of compensation lingers. Naturally, self-interest drives all the actors -- the nursery clubs trade off how many lads they can ship off to the UK -- but they were also entitled to politely ask why they had nothing to show for the development of individuals who were playing for big bucks, as professionals, down the road. The elephant in the room.
Now, we are told that 'full-time football' has failed when, in truth, it never really existed, with the anomalies related to rewarding those who nurture talent one box that was never satisfactorily ticked when people claimed they were going to build an industry. The managers and players lived and breathed the game, and improved the standard considerably, yet it mattered little considering what was propping it up.
The support structures were limited, with a lack of staff and infrastructure to sustain businesses that were turning over seven figures in terms of on-the-pitch personnel. A fourth striker, cover for the left-back, or another goalkeeper were essential purchases. But hiring a CEO? Or pumping real money and expertise into developing your own players? It was never really on the agenda. Offering an extra 500 quid a week to gazump one of your rivals was great craic, though.
Shels had Ollie Byrne trying to run the show on his own, Cork chose the wrong people to call the shots, while the largesse of Drogheda and Bohs was based on grounds they couldn't build in the case of the Louthmen, or sell properly in the case of the Gypsies.
And ultimately, the bottom line is that it was fanciful to speak of new grounds when, save for the big games, they were unable to come close to filling their existing venues on a regular basis.
That's why Shamrock Rovers, who have built steadily from the bottom up, are the beacon of hope as we enter into the next 10 years. It will only matter if they're still around at the end of it.
Champions 2001/'02, 2003, 2004, 2006
Memorable Champions League run in 2004, which brought them to the final qualifying round and a showdown with Deportivo La Coruna in front of 27,000 at Lansdowne Road.
What Went Wrong?
Shels were never on a steady footing, reliant on Ollie Byrne's unique ability to drum up funds against all the odds. A flood that wrecked Tolka Park took its toll but, ultimately, the empire was built on sand.
After Shels were demoted following their title win in 2006, they entered the First Division where they have remained ever since, coming agonisingly close to promotion without quite getting over the line.
With 10,000 people packed into Turners Cross, they defeated Derry on the final day of the season to claim the title. The charming tale of two cities was flagged as a blueprint for the future.
What Went Wrong?
Off the pitch, they always had their issues, but when they handed over to Arkaga in 2007, it looked like the Leesiders had found the path forward. Alas, the UK-based group ran the club into examinership and Tom Coughlan stepped in. The rest is history.
After the collapse of the old Cork City FC, the supporters group, FORAS, entered the First Division with a new club that are working to try and bring a viable, successful club back to the city. It will take time.
FAI Cup success in front of a healthy Lansdowne Road attendance in 2005 was a glorious moment for long-suffering Boynesiders followers, and they went on to claim the league crown in 2007 and the Setanta Cup as well. Running Dynamo Kiev within inches of Champions League elimination took the novelty value to new levels.
What Went Wrong?
The project was predicated upon a move to a new ground but the vagaries of planning meant they failed to secure a number of intended sites. Suddenly, they were left with an expensive squad and no light at the end of the tunnel.
The club managed to escape demotion after some frantic efforts but their budget for players has shrunk to almost nothing, with Darius Kierans blooding young locals who are learning on the job with a view to a brighter future. It'll be tough to stay up, though.
Champions 2000/'01, 2002/'03, '08, '09
Plenty to choose from in a decade where they twice won the double. They looked set to dominate after marching to the title in 2008, but even then it was apparent that their move from Dalymount was on rocky ground.
What Went Wrong?
The Dalymount sale to Liam Carroll in a deal worth €60m, including a new Harristown ground, was to be their golden ticket. But they'd committed to sell part of the ground to Albion Properties and, as the whole mess was unravelling, with the courts siding with Albion, the recession happened. The ticket was gone -- but Bohs kept spending.
Battling hard to meet a €400,000 shortfall between now and season's end. Members have been told that they may not even be able to sustain part-time football next season, with mounting debts looming over the horizon. A crucial couple of months lie ahead, but the omens aren't good.