Monday 16 September 2019

Stephen Henderson fears new Airtricity League format will result in some clubs going to the wall

Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

A sense of dejection engulfed the League of Ireland last night as Cobh Ramblers led the backlash against the decision to cut the Premier Division to a 10-team format from the 2018 season.

Rams manager Stephen Henderson and secretary Ian Ryan, part of the club last season when their mid-season revival secured a play-off spot, won't have any such landmark to reach in 2017 as only the champions of the First Division will clinch promotion.

Coming the other way at the end of next season will be three teams.

The reform constitutes a triumph for the biggest clubs in the country, eager to cut loose the dead wood from the top flight in the aim of enhancing what they perceive as the competitive element of the sector.

Of course, their wishes had been validated by the contents of the Conroy Report, a strategic document which the FAI cited yesterday as evidence of their commitment to prioritising the only professional aspect of the game in this country.

Conroy had advocated a series of other novel alterations, including a mid-season split and a play-off game following the FAI Cup final, and it remains to be seen whether these gain the type of approval his prime structural change has.

Fractious

If his report carried the objective of unifying a league long renowned for its fractious nature, then the reaction of those left in the wilderness by this development presents a stark alternative reality.

"We have put a lot of hard work over the past 18 months into our club, as have other First Division clubs, and this is hard to stomach," said Ryan - Cobh are just three years back in the league following a four-year absence.

"Scrapping the First Division play-off next year is farcical. God help attendances in the First Division if one team runs away with the league."

Henderson has seen the good and bad times during two spells as boss at Cork's second club.

While their historical problems were largely self-inflicted, the bleak landscape heading into the new year as his squad return for pre-season is shaped by the macro picture.

"If Waterford United do what Limerick did last season (dominate the second tier), then expect a few clubs in our division to crash during the season," was his cautionary remark.

"Every strand of our hugely positive and effective strategy is gone out the window. We have to start again but this time with no direction. This is galling."

His last comment touched on the controversial topic of long-term thinking by clubs often plagued by myopia.

The FAI's backfired bid last summer to stimulate the minds of their members by offering them €5,000 each to develop a strategic plan is further hampered by altering the market they inhabit.

For starters, seven of their clubs will spend at least another two years in the graveyard of the bottom tier struggling to keep any semblance of relevance to their operation.

It wasn't just the First Division fraternity hitting out. Ger O'Brien, captain of St Patrick's Athletic and a veteran tipped to progress into management, spoke his mind from the standpoint of independence.

"I don't agree with two divisions of 10 teams. Instead of trying to make 10 teams strong in one division, there should be help to get all clubs better and stronger by giving them more support - proper support, not the €5,000 grant. The rest of the clubs have been forgotten about."

Where the blame rests for creating the chasm is a moot point. The FAI were keen to emphasise that the appetite for the overhaul was driven by the clubs, and there is nothing to suggest otherwise.

Debate on its merits internally, however, seems to be ongoing as the negotiations were spearheaded by Michael Cush, the senior counsel appointed by the Premier Clubs Alliance (PCA) to broker their side's arguments with the FAI on the implementation of Conroy's recommendations.

As confirmed by FAI chief executive John Delaney in recent months, progress was slow, with the vexed topic of financial transparency integral to any concessions afforded by the side of the clubs.

Still, a decision on the composition of the two divisions was pressing due to Conroy's timetable and yesterday's traditional date for releasing the fixture list for the new season put a deadline on any accord.

As yesterday proved, however, some decisions succeed only in worsening a two-tier system.

Now that the decision has been unfurled, all eyes turn to January 16 when Cush resumes his talks with the association's top brass.

Although Pat's and Derry City were the only two clubs to criticise the governing body for their paltry grant gesture in July, highlighting disquiet about their overall handling of affairs in the process, it is understood the vast majority are expecting a substantial investment jolt in time for the upcoming season.

Last year's prize-money increase was attributable solely to the income stream generated by betting companies' live streaming games to their customers, putting the onus on the FAI to drop a dollop of cash into the pot this time around.

Whatever about pacifying a cohort of major clubs, pitting the leading pair against each other in the same week as Ireland's next World Cup qualifier in March beggars belief.

The first league meeting of champions Dundalk and nearest rivals Cork City is scheduled for the day after Wales visit Lansdowne Road.

There goes any prospect of trumpeting more "occasions", as Conroy described the top-level fare which supposedly the Premier Division badly needed more of to improve the competition's profile.

Irish Independent

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