Friday 23 February 2018

Small-mindedness that drove me out of Irish football

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

It was a level of exposure that money can't buy. Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid debut was to happen on Irish soil in a League of Ireland ground.

Although most people would tune in to see Real Madrid rather than Shamrock Rovers, the fixture presented an opportunity for the domestic game to figure in at least the conversations of Irish football fans all over the country for the first time in a long time.

However, a request from local rivals Bohemians the month before left me stunned. It was the phone call which brought about my decision to quit the League of Ireland.

In a staggering display of small-mindedness and self-interest, I was asked to lend my support, and that of St Patrick's Athletic, to a formal objection by Bohs against the game going ahead. Their concern was that the game would affect the attendance at their Champions League game two nights later if they were drawn to play at home in the first leg. St Pat's were due to play in the Europa League the night after that (though we could also have been drawn away first) and they figured I would be of a like mind.

Due to dealings with both of last season's Champions League finalists, domestic football made it on to the back pages again last week. Manchester United are lined up to play an Airtricity League selection on August 4 in what will be the first football game at the Aviva Stadium. Contracted to bringing their big-name players, the game will surely sell out. Barcelona, on the other hand, have been denied permission by the FAI to play Limerick four days earlier in Thomond Park. Limerick are now believed to have initiated legal correspondence with the FAI as a result.

As ever, the FAI have their reasons. Firstly, they say the date just doesn't suit. The claim that such fixtures cannot be played on dates which clash with domestic games can be dismissed out of hand when you consider what's going on the week the Manchester United friendly has been given the go-ahead. The semi-finals of the League Cup are due to be played two nights before, Bohemians could be involved in the Champions League the same night, up to three clubs could have Europa League fixtures the following night, while all clubs have league fixtures the night after that. The Barcelona friendly, meanwhile, would have clashed with Sligo v Dundalk, a game which attracted 1,800 fans five weeks ago.

Secondly, they're objecting to the involvement of a third party, believed to be a UK-based agency. No such objections existed when Platinum One arranged last summer's friendly between Real and Shamrock Rovers, so that's utter nonsense.

And finally, they say they have been in negotiations to bring Barcelona to the country themselves. That the national association would put profit for themselves ahead of a money-spinner for a club which almost went out of business last year beggars belief. They say it is "regrettable", though shameful would be nearer the mark.

Having said that, you would think their decision to invite a selection of the best players in the league to play against Manchester United would excite domestic clubs and fans alike. It seems you'd be very wrong. Message boards and forums have been filled all week with fans venting their rage that the League of Ireland would be demeaned by playing a meaningless game designed to please 'bar-stool fans' of the Premier League. Managers are concerned their players will pick up injuries, CEOs are annoyed there was no formal consultation at any point in the process, and the lack of clarity on ticket allocations has infuriated everyone. Clubs have yet to be told if any will be available to sell directly to their fans, with one club being told last week it would be very unlikely. And you can imagine how Limerick feel about it.

Nonetheless, the fixture represents an opportunity for league players to perform in front of more people on one day than the total number of fans who have watched their 14 league games so far this season. No trophies are at stake and the result is irrelevant, but the game will attract more attention than any they have played in before. Promoting the League is an ongoing struggle for all, but the reality is the big crowds stay away until foreign opponents arrive. There is no likelihood of that scenario changing any time soon, so maximising the PR and financial gains from all such opportunities is essential for everyone involved.

Whether the FAI do the right thing and reverse the decision on the Barcelona game remains to be seen, but they have somehow arrived at a juncture where making the correct decision will make them look even worse.

If enough managers withhold their players from the Manchester United game due to the immediate needs of their own, the capacity crowd will come away with even less of an opinion on the domestic game than they had before they arrived. Both scenarios are hard to believe possible.

Sunday Independent

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