Tuesday 24 April 2018

Ten years after make-or-break time, we're still refusing to face the facts

'The most notable aspect of Declan Conroy's report is its failure to identify the scale of the problem, making its recommendations seem woefully inadequate'
'The most notable aspect of Declan Conroy's report is its failure to identify the scale of the problem, making its recommendations seem woefully inadequate'
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

So it seems there isn't a silver bullet. There's no course of action available to clubs in the League of Ireland that would make them relevant in the eyes of most Irish fans. Most people knew this before the Conroy Report was published last Monday, but there are still too many who think the league is in a healthy position. It's hard to get anywhere if you can't first accept where you're really at.

The process was undertaken to "seek views on how the clubs and the league currently operate", and to "hear views on how best the clubs and the league can move forward". That was the stated mandate. If people were expecting a new bold initiative, they were always going to be disappointed. This was a harmless preamble ahead of negotiations next year to renew the participation agreement between clubs and the FAI. Seeing it as anything else shows a lack of understanding of how Irish football works.

The most notable aspect of this report is its failure to identify the scale of the problem, making its recommendations seem woefully inadequate. The League of Ireland is cherished by the people who attend games, but they are dwindling. Average attendances are put at 1,700 for Premier Division games over the past three seasons, slightly less than 2005 levels when the Genesis Report said the following about the league: "By any rational analysis it is clear the eircom League is not working. In our view, the league in its current format is unsustainable."

Back then, the clubs generated an annual turnover of approximately €14m. Current figures, according to this report, are €1m less. The UEFA co-efficient of the league, a comparative ranking system of the performance of each country's league in European competition, was 40th in 2005. Today it is 41st.

Some tinkering is suggested by Conroy, but that's all it would be. Proposing the re-introduction of two 10-team divisions, the most headline-grabbing idea contained in the report, will do little or nothing to change the standard of the football, the quality of the facilities, the attractiveness of the product or the potential of the league. Conroy himself wondered whether this idea was "too radical, too soon" but it's been done before. And considering how it went last time, it's a surprise it's been mentioned at all.

A review of the League of Ireland was undertaken in 2009, and 72 percent of managers, players and club officials reportedly believed the 10-team set-up was flawed. There was too much repetition of fixtures in the Premier Division, and First Division clubs felt isolated. Conroy's report, however, suggests it's a step in the right direction.

In 2005, the following targets were described as realistically achievable by 2010: Average attendances of 4,000-5,000, top 20 in the UEFA rankings, clubs consistently competitive in Europe and appearing in the group stages of the Champions League, and a range of 5,000-10,000 all-seater stadia. There were others, but very few of those have been achieved either.

The Genesis report concluded that the league is "trapped in a vicious downward spiral," describing it as "make-or-break time". "In our view", it said, "tinkering through a number of small changes will not produce the required transformation in the fortunes of the league and its clubs. There is a need for a radical overhaul." Given the position of the league as it was then and is now, it's a shame this latest report came nowhere near saying the same.

This isn't rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's moving around the seats of a lifeboat that's somewhere on the shore. Nothing will change, and the perception of domestic football among the people who currently ignore it won't alter one bit. The league will bob along under the radar of most Irish football fans, occasionally making waves, although usually for the wrong reasons.

There are supposedly 275 professionals employed in the league, which suggests to me that the people who counted them don't know what professionalism involves. It's hard to make progress if you can't even identify the thing you're working towards.

In any case, there are too many clubs. Suggest the merging of clubs and you'll be accused of not understanding the nature of fandom, but the pool is too small to sustain them all. Culling the numbers involved would be the first place to start.

No doubt there'll be a new report commissioned in another few years (Conroy suggests one should be produced in 2020). The 2005 targets weren't reached, and the content of 2009 seems to be ignored. Given how things have been managed over the past decade, you'd wonder what's the point.

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