Thursday 22 March 2018

Raising the bar raises issues that need to be addressed

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Before St Pat's played Steaua Bucharest in a Europa League play-off two years ago, I notified the FAI that we were facing a potentially costly situation if we were to progress past that round. The fixture list of the group stages is at odds with the domestic season, with the final two match-days coming after the completion of the league.

Obviously, only players contracted to the club at the time would be eligible to take part. The contracts of all but four of that squad were due to expire in early November, or "end of season" to be exact. The wording is deliberately vague to accommodate clubs competing in the FAI Cup final which can be up to two weeks after the completion of the league, but it refers to domestic games only. The players would have been ineligible to compete in the last two European games, and with the final squad list already formally lodged with UEFA, replacing them with new signings just wasn't an option. Twelve months was the minimum term for deals lodged with the FAI, so no six-week contracts would have been permitted to tide us over.

We were well beaten over the two legs so never had to negotiate our way through it all, but the players could have held us to ransom knowing we had no alternatives available. Anyone who believes that to be overly cynical on my part should consider the actions of the current St Pat's squad in attempting to maximise their share from the club's European run this summer, or the actions of the players who recently represented the Airtricity League in the Dublin Super Cup. Both cases involved advice from the PFAI, and strike action was considered each time.

Of course, Shamrock Rovers have now succeeded where St Pat's and every other Irish club before them failed.

It is quite simply the greatest achievement by any Irish football club in the history of the game. After years of near-misses and the financial carnage that came with it, the Airtricity League will be represented for the first time in the group stages of a major European competition. And to add more incredulity to the whole thing, Rovers have achieved it a mere six years after nearly going to the wall themselves.

The contractual issue with their players is one of many considerations they now face. Depending on the negotiating stance adopted by those they wish to re-sign, they may face some tricky talks of their own. It remains to be seen whether the FAI will soften their stance on the length of contracts permitted or what exactly they consider to be "end of season", but hopefully common sense will prevail.

I would assume the Rovers players will take a more reasoned approach, knowing failure to agree an extension would mean leaving the biggest, best-run and best supported club in the country. They've been well rewarded for their stunning performances in getting this far and will soon have experiences and memories of a level of football that none before them have had.

Progress in Europe is planned for by every club each year, but after the financial turmoil of recent years very few considered the group stages to be achievable. Rovers have raised the bar now for everyone, so maybe others will dare to dream again. But if they attempt to achieve it by repeating the spending of the recent past, then receivership will be more likely than what Rovers managed this week. Enough clubs have risked it all by doing just that, so it mustn't be allowed to happen again.

I recently passed by Tallaght Stadium in a taxi driven by a man who said he was a fan of Shamrock Rovers. I began to rave about the place, but he said he had yet to see it. He lived in the area, was football-mad, but had never once gone to watch them. I resisted the urge to ask him how he considered himself to be a supporter at all, but Thursday's result will surely bring him and others along to Tallaght, and hopefully many other grounds around the country too. I suspect not everyone will fully appreciate their arrival though.

Go online and check fans' forums. It won't be long until you come across scathing words about barstoolers and blow-ins, about people who don't care about Irish football and haven't a clue. When they go to the Europa League games, rather than any welcoming words they'll be mocked for their absence from games against the likes of Bray and UCD. As ever, the bigger point is missed, because real progress cannot be achieved without them. If attendances don't change, nothing will change. And that goes for every club.

So what impact will this all have on the league itself? Irish domestic football has been praised in the last few days by people who normally have nothing to say about it. Or nothing positive in any case. If average attendances don't start to increase everywhere, then Rovers will indeed be the sole beneficiaries of their recent success.

I've been hearing for years that progress to the group stages of a European competition would transform the credibility of the Airtricity League and the public's interest in it.

Finally, that theory is about to be put to the test.

Sunday Indo Sport

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