Saturday 24 March 2018

Rovers 'B' squad set to play in First Division

Garry Doyle

The FAI are on the brink of reaching an agreement with Shamrock Rovers to allow Ireland's most successful club enter their reserve team into the League of Ireland First Division.

The move is expected to be completed within the next seven days, with a formal announcement scheduled for the early part of next week.

If all the loose ends are tied up, and there is no reason why they will not be, then Rovers will become the first Irish club to have two senior teams competing in the League of Ireland.

Negotiations between the two parties started in August, when the FAI approached Rovers to see if they were still interested in the concept of fielding a second XI at elite level, two years after Rovers saw such a plan rejected by the League.

This time, however, there was a willingness on the FAI's behalf to do business, based largely around the fact that two Galway teams, Salthill Devon and Mervue, will not be in next year's First Division, with a newly formed club, Galway FC, taking one of those places and Rovers' second team occupying the remaining berth.

Aware that Rovers have the financial capacity to cope with the pressure of running two semi-professional teams, the FAI have concentrated on addressing the legal complexities of one of their member clubs having two sides in two different divisions.

For starters, the new Rovers reserve side will not be allowed enter the FAI or League Cups, nor will it be eligible for promotion.

What still needs to be clarified, however, is the precise number of players who are allowed to move from the first-team to the second XI on any given weekend.

There is also uncertainty about whether Rovers will continue to have an U-19 side – which is required in order for the FAI to grant any club a licence to participate in the League of Ireland.


Ideally, given the financial cost of running this extra team – the club have set aside €80,000 of their budget to facilitate its creation – Rovers would prefer not to.

Rival clubs in the league are likely to object to their absence from the underage competition, though.

These issues aside, the deal is close to being finalised, which from the FAI's perspective, would not only see a gap filled in their First Division numbers, but filled by one of the league's most financially stable clubs.

For Rovers, though, this project is part of their long-term strategy to not just make the club successful on the park, but financially secure off it.

While the fielding of reserve sides in lower leagues is common in Europe – especially in Spain, the inspiration behind this bold Rovers move comes from Sweden, where they have built a close relationship with the Allsvenkan's current champions, Malmo.

Aware that Malmo's current title-winning squad have an average age of 21.75, Rovers are openly considering copying their successful model and applying an Irish accent to it.

And key to this plan is the addition of a reserve side operating at First Division level.

Unusually, for a club which places such high demands on itself, success will be immaterial, the priority will be on developing players, as the club plans to identify and headhunt the best 16-year-olds in the country and pitch them the dream of playing professional soccer on home soil.

Supplementing the youthful edge to the side will be a number – probably four but no more than five – first-teamers who are on the fringe of Trevor Croly's side. Croly's old team-mate from St Pat's, Martin Russell, is the favourite to become this reserve team's new manager.

Currently in charge of UCD, Russell's experience in nurturing young talent has not gone unnoticed throughout the league.

He, along with Croly's assistant, Colin Hawkins, are the front-runners to fill the post.

Beyond this, what Rovers will really want is to fill is their playing roster with elite teenagers.

Again, by working off the Malmo template, they are aware the Swedish champions rarely spend more than €500 per month on individual youth team players, believing that incentivised schemes to reward those who make it to first-team level, produces hungrier players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic being their most notable graduate.

From Rovers' viewpoint, the aim is develop a player pathway, with this new side the key component of their new-look structure.

Irish Independent

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