Unrest at new structure hangs over League of Ireland launch
"We are where we are." League of Ireland chief Fran Gavin kept returning to those five words at the official launch of the new campaign at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
It seems that every season kicks off with questions about the overall direction of the league. Seasoned managers and administrators are always trying to figure out where they are now, and where the game is going.
'We are where we are' is unlikely to be a line that new marketing executive John McGuinness will be adopting, although it's still preferable to branding expert JJ Gabay's 'It's not that bleak' soundbite from his memorable pre-Christmas presentation.
Bleak is a word that could be used to describe life in the First Division, though, and Gavin was put on the spot after the main event when pressed on the controversial changes to the league's structure.
The reversion from a 12-team top flight to a 10-team league from 2018 means that three sides will go down automatically this term with just one coming up from the second tier.
It has caused anger in both divisions, especially as the current First Division sides were not consulted and only a small number of top-flight teams were in favour of the move.
"The decision is made and that's it, we're all moving on," said Gavin, after referencing recent meetings between the FAI and clubs although some of those have taken place with a delegation from the Premier Clubs Alliance and their legal representative Michael Cush.
"There's a lot of communication around what's happening. I'm not going to go back over any decision. We are where we are, the decision is there; in 2018 we'll have two ten-team divisions. That's where we are. All the clubs have accepted that."
The viability of the First Division remains a serious talking point, especially given the fact that two of this year's participants - Wexford FC and Waterford FC - are new trading companies that have taken over the licence from Wexford Youths and Waterford United respectively.
With only one team going up this year and no play-off, fears have been expressed that struggling sides will hit the rocks again.
Gavin refused to discuss the optics of debt-ridden clubs just being able to start afresh - a common occurrence in recent years - or how Wexford managed to get a First Division licence when news of the Youths' winding-up order only came out after the original deadline for applications.
"The licence committee made their decision, an independent committee, and they are satisfied," he said. "That's where we are at the moment. Anything else ... Whatever you want to make of it, we are where we are. A new entity in Waterford applied. A new entity in Wexford applied and they've both met the requirements of the licensing committee and that's a rigorous process to go through.
"I think it's important we have two divisions. Relegation and promotion are very important in a competitive league. It's an important league for players to develop and also for clubs - like Shamrock Rovers and Cork - that have gone down and come back stronger."
Gavin said that an update on prize-money levels will be delivered next week, while a new Marketing Group will include representatives from the clubs, sponsors and FAI.
He also announced that Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers will compete in the 2017/'18 staging of the Scottish Challenge Cup after receiving an invitation from the Scottish authorities.
The competition which used to be for league teams below SPL level has been expanded to include two teams from Wales and Northern Ireland, the U-20 teams from the Scottish top flight and representatives from the Highland League.
Sligo and Bray were selected as the two highest-placed league finishers who didn't make Europe and any travel costs will be covered by the Scots. They will join at a later stage of the competition.
"I think it's a good thing," said Gavin. "We felt that with the absence of the Setanta Cup, it was a chance for two teams out of the European positions to get a flavour of a cross-border competition."