Saturday 14 December 2019

League hamstrung by gulf in standards

Forrester wonder-strike one of many magical moments overshadowed by lack of strength in depth across the League of Ireland club structure

Chris Forrester's class is a great advertisement for the League of Ireland but too few people are watching too many games
Chris Forrester's class is a great advertisement for the League of Ireland but too few people are watching too many games
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

WHAT a pleasure it was to be present for a moment of genius from Chris Forrester in Drogheda last Monday – a sumptuous 40-yard volley executed with such perfect technique that it really could have graced any stage.

As the clip predictably went viral on social media and spread beyond these shores, it once again emphasised that there are some terrific players operating in the League of Ireland.The only downside of the publicity is that the gifted St Patrick's Athletic playmaker produced his wonder strike in United Park, a stage that should have been vacated a long time ago.

The curious audience were treated to a tremendous goal from a special talent but they also learned that he plays in a league where the backdrop to one end of the pitch at a Premier Division side is a housing estate.The optics matter when it comes to selling the domestic game.

If you flick on 'Soccer Republic' on a Monday night and catch Cork City scoring a goal in front of a packed Shed at Turner's Cross, it portrays an image of vibrancy. Such thoughts are suspended when the tranquillity of a near deserted Belfield Bowl pops up next on the round-up.

Reality tends to ruin the buzz. The understandable catch-cry after watching Forrester's brilliance is to demand that the public march out to watch him on a weekly basis. But just 1,257 were present for the 4-0 dismissal of Athlone Town on Friday.

The Saints don't have the one-town rallying power of Cork, Sligo or Dundalk so crowd comparisons can be unfair, although they deserve better numbers through the gate with Forrester, Keith Fahey and an attractive brand of football.


However, when it comes to convincing the casual punter to part with their cash, an encounter with an Athlone side making history for all the wrong reasons was hard to advertise.

Friday's reverse means the Midlanders have lost all 10 of their Premier Division outings. The nadir of their campaign to date came in Limerick when goalkeeper Paul Skinner was dismissed for a professional foul and there was puzzlement in Thomond when midfielder Sean Brennan replaced him between the sticks instead of substitute 'keeper Craig Sexton.

Sexton may have been listed on the teamsheet and appeared in several match reports as a 'Sub Not Used' when in reality he was 'Sub Not There'.

The whole episode was fairly embarrassing and in their next fixture, a home loss to Dundalk in front of little more than 500 people, Mick Cooke could only name three subs. It's a grim state of affairs for an old power that was supposed to be energised by promotion. They're doing their best, yet it seems that they are just not equipped for the step-up.

This segways into one of the most vexed debates in League of Ireland land, specifically the perpetual attempt to rate the playing standard in the context of the English ladder. Is it Championship fare? League One? League Two?

It's futile because it wrongly assumes there is a stable hierarchical structure similar to the UK, where the aforementioned divisions are generally well matched coming towards the end of the campaign with a handful of points splitting a dozen or so teams because they are of similar quality.

No such consistency can be applied to our game. The disparity between top and bottom within the Premier Division alone is so vast that no umbrella can be thrown over the lot. Maybe some sides could cut it in the lower leagues or SPL but we don't know their limits because they are grouped with teams that realistically wouldn't have a hope of surviving in the Conference.

Our structure is too idiosyncratic, with a complete absence of strength in depth and a huge difference in standards which is even more pronounced than the major leagues where Sheikhs buy the trophies.

At one end of the table, you have assured performers like Fahey and Stephen McPhail and young stars such as Forrester. At the other, you have clubs winging it without a substitute goalkeeper.

This is why the ongoing ruminations over the structure of the league keep meeting brick walls. The stronger clubs want a smaller top division.

Even though it was played on an inadequate pitch, the 2-2 draw between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers last Friday week was a pulsating encounter that provided the 3,400 crowd with thrills, spills and value for money.

It was one of those games where you walked out muttering the battered old cliché about how great it would be if it were like this every week.

Frustratingly, it can't be repeated because there aren't enough entities around capable of running a sustainable business and fielding teams of that quality.


The volatility which rotates the identity of the elite across the course of a decade – today's big-guns were the poor mouths not so long ago – means that few clubs can reasonably preach about the standards of those propping up the pile.

Drogheda were league champions in 2007 and at the forefront of plans to establish a breakaway All-Ireland league but in their current guise, trapped in a run-down stadium they tried to vacate in the boom years, they are fighting hard to climb the ladder again after sliding down the snake.

Bohemians could relate to that too. These impoverished clubs who are struggling to make ends meet are still comfortably good enough to stay in the country's highest level on merit.

Forrester's strike was a thing of beauty and gave the sceptical masses another glimpse of the skills that are visible every Friday. It's just a shame the bigger picture isn't as pretty.


Forrester can prove doubters wrong

It is surely only a matter of time before Chris Forrester is lost to this league.

However, it seems he is in danger of falling victim to the negative mindset that prevented Wes Hoolahan from coming to the fore until his late 20s.

Sceptical clubs from England have focused on Forrester's lack of upper body strength, fearing that he may not be able to cut it. They should focus on his positives, but LOI products are still treated with suspicion, often forced to go through the process of trial games and training sessions, which are a less-than-ideal forum for showcasing their capabilities.

Forrester, like Hoolahan, is a playmaker with the rare ability to see a different picture and prise open gaps in the midst of a tight match where others freeze or lack imagination. If he keeps the head down, he'll make plenty of clubs regret their caution.


O'Neill and Keane futures will be hot summer topic

May, June, July, August. Four full months of chopping and changing of managers and, by extension, further speculation about the future of Roy Keane and probably Martin O'Neill as well ahead of September's Euro 2016 opener in Georgia.

They'll be in the dugout in Tbilisi, but that won't prevent speculation about their future on an ongoing basis, especially when interested parties make genuine enquiries about them.

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