Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ten realistic ways we can improve the League of Ireland

Shamrock Rovers manager Pat Fenlon walks off the Dalymount Park pitch after sections of it were deemed unplayable by referee Tom Connolly. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Shamrock Rovers manager Pat Fenlon walks off the Dalymount Park pitch after sections of it were deemed unplayable by referee Tom Connolly. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

What can be done to make the League of Ireland better? It is a recurring question, with a familiar array of answers: more investment, better facilities, a higher calibre of player.

As the end of another campaign draws closer, those long-held ambitions are no closer.

The reality is trying to make the best of imperfection. And, while the bigger picture problems remain, there are still practical adjustments that could be made to ensure that 2015 runs smoother.

Instead of just pointing out the ills, here are a few suggestions:

1. Make the season longer

This is a vexed cry at this stage really but there comes a point where a strong line has to be taken.

Clubs want 40-week contracts for cost reasons, but the long pre-season is becoming counter-productive on so many levels. By September, there are teams with nothing left to play for: Bohs are an example of a club that now have to wait until next March for a game that will attract floating fans.

That's a six-month wait to get punters back through the turnstiles.

A two or three-week extension to the year would spread games out, help player recovery, ease the strain on fans who have to pick and choose in congested runs, and ultimately lead to a better product.

2. Suspension reform

After some pressure, the ludicrous scenario where a player could pick up four bookings across an entire season and end up missing the FAI Cup final no longer exists.

It shouldn't stop there. The same trapdoor exists when it comes to the final weeks of the league where it is entirely possible that players could miss title or relegation deciders for picking up just four yellow cards in 30+ matches.

This is unfair, and clean behaviour should be rewarded. If a player starts five games in a row without a penalty, then one yellow card should be removed from their slate. This would encourage fair play, while also punishing persistent offenders.

3. One last Setanta chance

The cross-border competition is on its last legs. Various ideas have been thrown around, including making it just a four-team tournament.

Scheduling is a consistent worry, though. Perhaps moving the opening round to the summer and using it as preparation for European fare could make it more attractive for the Northern Irish clubs, even if they would only be returning from pre-season.

Regionalising an eight-team affair at that phase would ensure a level playing field with two teams from each section going forward into an autumn conclusion.

If next year is a repeat of the 2014 renewal, and the top Northern sides dodge it again, then scrap it.

4. Tinker with the TV plan

The extension of the TV deal with RTE until 2018 which ensures the future of 'Soccer Republic' is positive.

There are arguably too many live games clustered at certain periods of the season with inconvenient kick-off times. TV matches hit the gates and they are broadcast when a good number of potential viewers are watching their own clubs.

In the interest of fair play, Friday has to be the choice on the run-in with leagues at stake. But in the summer, where there's a shortage of live shows, it's worth tinkering with the schedules to try a new slot even if it's Saturday or Sunday. Home European matches should be broadcast at the expense of run of-the-mill league encounters.

5. Make all cup ties €5

The cup competitions are losing their allure until the semis or even the final because of economic realities. Part of the complication is that clubs do not include cup games in the price of season tickets and that is a turn-off, along with the aforementioned fixture backlog.

Some clubs have looked at concession prices for cup ties; unless it can be factored into season ticket prices than drastically reduced admission as a nationwide initiative is worth trying.

6. Tighten amateur/pro rules

The increasing number of players registered as amateurs in the league has to be a concern. It doesn't sit right when established Premier performers are down in that category; it breeds suspicion.

With youngsters, it is becoming murky territory with the practice of lining out as amateurs until they are suddenly about to secure a move cross channel - which leads to the rushed confirmation of pro status - damaging relations with the feeder clubs that nurtured them.

One solution would be introduce a minimum amount of pros/semi-pros for Premier clubs.

7. First Division time limit

Uncertainty over whether the 'B' team idea will be continued by Shamrock Rovers or adopted by others means that we again have no idea of how many sides will form the graveyard league next year.

For the regional clubs stuck in limbo, it's unacceptable. The better outfits want a smaller top flight but we are reaching a point where it is worth targeting a 16-team Premier and a less intensive and regionalised amateur structure below it. A deadline must be set.

This is a tough one for the FAI.

8. Make Leinster Senior Cup an underage competition

This old event is by now an irrelevance, yet some Premier clubs commit first-team players, and Trevor Croly even tried to group it in with the Setanta Cup and EA Sports Cup as he listed his Shamrock Rovers achievements.

The Munster equivalent is merged with pre-season and is less of an irritation. LOI participants should be forced to treat it as an U-23 or U-21 tournament, especially if 'B' teams are doomed.

9. Monthly pitch reviews

'Divotgate' at Dalymount brought to light widely held grievances about general pitch standards. In an ideal world, clubs would be told to employ their own staff as opposed to using an outside company but that's not viable.

What should be encouraged is monthly reviews of ground standards, with the possibility of sanction for clubs where the surface is consistently below par, or alternatively a helping hand if a portion of the affiliation fees could be laid aside for maintenance.

10. Make U-17 league LOI only

The FAI has sought expressions of interest for the national U-17 league, which kicks off next August.

This invitation has been extended beyond the League of Ireland clubs to the top schoolboy nurseries which is totally unsatisfactory.

A major problem for the league is that LOI sides do not work hard enough to produce their own talent and then merely pick up the best of what is left when they outgrow underage level

This is an ideal chance to put pressure on senior clubs to take control of this area. Once compensation terms with the feeders are ironed out, it could be a game-changer.

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