Friday 15 December 2017

Less spin and more change required to keep League afloat

If the FAI wants credit for its successes in the League of Ireland, it must shoulder the blame for its failures also, says John O'Brien

Estimates vary as to how many will turn up in Thomond Park for today’s clash of Limerick and Cork City
Estimates vary as to how many will turn up in Thomond Park for today’s clash of Limerick and Cork City

However many punters stream through the turnstiles at Thomond Park this evening for the somewhat historic encounter between Limerick and Cork City, the sharp discrepancy in the anticipated attendance between Limerick chief executive John O'Sullivan and Airtricity League director Fran Gavin was curious to behold.

At the very least it told us something interesting about the League and the worrying gap between blind optimism and hard-nosed reality.

Hardly ecstatic that the game had been shifted from its original Friday night mooring, at the behest of RTE, O'Sullivan had lowered his initial estimate of 5,000-6,000 to 3,000-4,000. Gavin, though, predicted an attendance between 5,000 and 10,000. However accurate that turns out to be, the difference between them was striking. Gavin's lowest estimate was still significantly greater than O'Sullivan's highest.

Why should this matter? It matters because those conflicting estimates came against the background of a League launch that was so unremittingly positive it left seasoned fans of the game here, while offering a guarded welcome, scratching their heads and wondering if things were going so well why so many of them were anticipating the coming season with a sense of quiet dread, merely hoping to reach the end supporting a club still in business.

The good news was welcome, of course. That the 19 clubs still surviving from last year's League turned a collective operating profit of €241,544 is unreservedly a positive development.

But only up to a point. If, for example, you considered the collective operating profit of La Liga clubs, the figures, heavily skewered by the giants of Barcelona and Madrid, would paint a rosy picture of a league awash with cash. Yet, in reality, Spanish football is gripped by crisis, several clubs teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Another positive development was that no club leaked more than €40,000 (although only after "exceptional items were taken into consideration") in 2012 is a blessed relief after years of sustained losses. This turnaround, we were reminded, came under the watch of the FAI which took the League under its wing in 2007 and seemed anxious that its efforts got due acknowledgement.

A report published by UEFA last year revealed that aggregate income of European football clubs had increased by 46 per cent between 2006 and 2010, but what does that actually mean? Operating profit merely refers to the core business of a football club and it's hardly surprising that most of them are efficiently run. It is when you factor in the variables like transfer fees that the true picture emerges. What we can say with certainty is that operating profit, as a measure of health, is a rather unreliable indicator. The good news, indisputably, for the game here is that wage levels have dropped dramatically and no longer reflect the insane splurge of a few years back, but that is a grim enough consolation when set against the debts that remain over several clubs.

One glaring issue instantly raises its head here. If the FAI wants to be credited for the good things that have happened under its watch, does it not then follow that it should receive a rap across the knuckles for the not-so-good things? That's why the self-congratulatory tone of last week's launch grated with so many fans. They could easily applaud what was said. It was what wasn't said and the manner in which it was unsaid that alarmed them.

Where to begin? With the coming and going of cash-crazy Sporting Fingal, perhaps, or the near demise of Derry City and Cork City? How about the administrative problems faced by Drogheda or the grim state of Dalymount Park that threatens the future of the capital's oldest club? Or the debts hovering over Shelbourne and St Pat's? The farcical situation where a lovely ground in Galway city is virtually laying fallow without any League football this season?

Or how about Monaghan United, preparing ambitiously for a fruitful season under Roddy Collins this time last year, only to pull out before they'd reached halfway? The truly shocking thing is that the club wasn't even bust at the time. It had no massive debt. There was no court order issuing an immediate wind-up. The money simply wasn't there to continue and, thus, a huge question mark was placed over the integrity of the League.

By ignoring these stories, or pretending they don't exist, you inadvertently create the impression that everything is rosy in the garden. The reality is glaringly obvious, though. One of the most positive developments of recent years has been the role supporters are increasingly playing in the running of their clubs. They know the perilous situation that faces them better than ever. There is no desire to hide from the stark reality.

According to those involved, the FAI has engaged with those supporters more than most of its rival head bodies across Europe and that is to its credit. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be more. Supporters want hard facts now, not spin. They demand real change, not just blind hope that profits will go up and more supporters will magically appear at the turnstiles. Something radical, perhaps, like a long-term strategic plan for the League. How about that for a starting point?

If things have picked up since 2007, then that's good. But it's just a drop, really, when what is needed is a sea of change. Today's supporters are a harder, more driven lot than they once were. They deserve better than that.

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