The 2016 League of Ireland (LOI) season should have been one looked back on in years to come as the season that Irish domestic football finally set itself up for its big break through.
From Dundalk’s historic European run to Cork City’s emotional cup success and the heart-stopping play-off drama involving Drogheda United and Wexford Youths, this season had it all.
Throw in the fact that the national team’s success at the European Championships was in large thanks to the major contribution of ex-LOI players then you really couldn’t ask for an easier sell.
However, instead of shouting about these events from the roof-tops and trying to entice a new breed of supports to LOI grounds, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have once again made a mockery of the domestic game thanks to Jonathan Gabay’s child-like branding report and the associations ridiculously unpopular decision to revert to a ten team Premier Division for 2018 onwards.
No matter what decisions a football association take there will always be opposition from some quarters, that’s just the nature of the sport.
However, when you see social media timelines full of unhappy footballers and coaches involved in the league itself surely the penny must drop with somebody at FAI HQ that perhaps we’ve got this call totally wrong?
For those of you perhaps not totally familiar with the structures and politics of LOI football, currently we have two divisions split into 12 top-flight teams and 8 First Division outfits.
While no concrete reasons have been given for the change to just ten top-flight teams it is believed the FAI and some of the league’s elite clubs feel it will improve the quality of the competition.
With more and more of the Premier Division clubs slowly turning towards the direction of professionalism it is felt by some pundits that the smaller semi-professional outfits in the league are just happy to survive in the top league and are not looking to push themselves forward.
Only a couple of weeks ago PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness stated in an online column his belief that Wexford Youths and clubs of that stature had no business being allowed compete in the Premier Division.
Only founded back in 2007, Wexford Youths have competed against the odds on a largely amateur budget with minimal attendances to climb to the top table of Irish football.
However, following a heart-breaking play-off defeat to former LOI champions Drogheda United, the Youths now find themselves back in the “graveyard” of domestic football in Ireland.
Had a club like Wexford Youths managed to climb to the top-flight in any other country, they would have been toasted as miracle workers and a credit to the league.
However, in Ireland they were treated as a nuisance who the top clubs would rather not deal with and the FAI’s decision to allow only one First Division team into the Premier Division for 2018 will greatly affect the South-East outfit.
The tagline “Graveyard division” may seem extreme to those of you unfamiliar with the leagues conditions however, it is far from an overreaction.
Dire attendances, minimal media coverage and a poor standard of football make it an achievement in itself just to see out one season to the next for most clubs.
The only saving grace for competitive second tier teams at the end of each season was the riveting play-offs system and with the FAI denying them that right for 2017, it will be no shock if one or more First Division clubs go to the wall by this time next year.
The FAI will point to the fact three big name teams will be coming down from the Premier Division meaning a stronger First Division for 2018, however how are the likes of Athlone Town and Cabinteely supposed to survive if there is a run-away league leader in 2017 and attendances totally dissolve across the league as a result?
The play-offs were the only dangling carrot of gold to keep punters interested outside of the title itself and with that now gone, we very well could see the lowest attended First Division season in recent memory.
Perhaps the change in league structure will improve the top-flight you say? Maybe it will but you must know that it is only five-years since a ten-team Premier division was last used so clearly the top brass felt it wasn’t ideal given they changed it to 12 teams in 2012.
Many critics of this move have stated their belief that it is simply a decision for the sake of making change to seem like the FAI are trying to do something with the league.
The lack of reasoning behind this decision would support that view point and at the end of the day it hasn’t cost the FAI any money to make this change.
Anyone with any idea about the LOI will tell you it is investment the domestic game needs and while the FAI will point you in the direction of their ridiculous and measly €5,000 grant so that clubs can develop five-year strategic plans, any club who has already parted with their grant will now find themselves left with an out-dated report thanks to the FAI changing the goalposts with this change in league structure.
What investments can the FAI realistically make in the league to improve it you ask?
Again, realising many of you may not be familiar with the LOI set-up let me explain the costs clubs incur before even kicking a football.
To play In the LOI Premier Division clubs must pay an entrance fee of €19,000. With just €110,00 on offer to the champions, that means only the top six clubs in this seasons twelve-team league will make back their money.
By the time fines are deducted from that prize money at the end of the campaign, and trust me these fines soon rack up, more than half of the leagues clubs will probably find they have lost out financially.
While some supporters of the league want to see money just handed out to clubs, I personally would argue against that given the fact many LOI clubs have shown in the past they cannot be responsible with endless pots of cash.
Like in all sectors of life in Ireland during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ wages went through the roof at most LOI clubs and many ran into major financial issues later on down the road.
While it is clear the FAI need to increase investment in LOI prize money to levels where clubs will at least break even and more importantly invest in stadia and training facilities, the clubs themselves must also hold their hands up and admit they need to do more to promote themselves.
Cork City are a prime example of what good social media campaigns and self-promotion can do for attendances, while the facilities at Turners Cross help to attract more and more families out on match days.
Even though social media is only a small part of where many clubs are failing, it is a major player in modern-day sport and advertising and clubs should be investing more time in this cost-free sector.
A strong online presence is also key with professional looking online club shops and websites important.
What is important to remember at this moment in time, despite all the negativity surrounding the future of the LOI and its members there are so any positives we can focus on.
The establishment of a proper player pathway from schoolboy to senior football continues to grow with the introduction of a national under-15 league coming up quick on the heels of last season’s newly established under-17s divisions.
This pathway should see League of Ireland clubs tapping into local talent at a far earlier age, while also helping to break the stranglehold of junior clubs who sell these young talents on for substantial fees to British clubs time after time.
As mentioned earlier, there is the Dalymount Park redevelopment to look forward to while champions Dundalk have finally settled the issues regarding the lease for historical home Oriel Park and their European jackpot must now surely be used to bring the County Louth venue to acceptable standards.
Simply put the message is clear from League of Ireland supporters and those involved in the domestic game, the potential is there for success stories such as the ones we’ve seen this season to become a regular theme but without sensible yet ambitious thinking from the powers that be we are going to fall from comedy to comedy and back into the sporting wilderness for decades to come.
The switch to two ten-team divisions is as opposite as could be to ambitious thinking, it is change for the sake of change and it is gambling with the delicate financial situations many of our leagues clubs find themselves in.
With reports suggesting that only four of the league’s 20 members voted in favour of this move, many are asking how such a decision could even be forced through and it does little to dispel the notion that the FAI are not transparent enough when dealing with the domestic game.
That lack of transparency has led many to call for a breakaway by the leagues clubs and go it on their own.
However, prior to the FAI taking control of the league, many clubs ran up huge financial disasters while in-fighting and political rankling threatened to tear the league apart at times.
Given the FAI’s many responsibilities which of course include the national team, it makes perfect sense that a separate organisation be established, i.e. the Premier League in England being separate to the Football Association.
This association would be charged solely with the smooth running of the LOI and promoting it appropriately. This would allow the league to negotiate it’s own TV and sponsorship deals and pool those monies together to create a fair prize pool for its members.
At this moment in time league clubs find themselves in the ridiculous and totally unjust situation of not receiving any compensation for their games been shown live on TV, despite the fact attendances are dramatically effected by live TV games.
While it is important to publicise the league on TV, it should not be allowed to affect the end goal of increasing attendances and helping clubs to become financially stable and self-sufficient.
In conclusion, it is time for both the FAI and LOI clubs to stop selling themselves and the product as a whole short. The European runs of Dundalk FC and Shamrock Rovers over the past five-years have shown the wider sporting public that the LOI can compete on the big stage.
However, with realistic yet ambitious thinking and most importantly fair and sustainable levels of financial investment, these events will be nothing more than a flash on the pan.
For the LOI to become a viable sporting option for your average punter on the street on Friday and Saturday nights there needs to be more investment made in facilities, advertising, reaching professional standards and finally making it easier for new clubs to enter the LOI through the reduction of entrance fees so that more of the country is covered by LOI teams.
Under the current conditions however, more and more LOI clubs may be forced to withdraw from the league, ala Monghan United in 2012, and that would prove to be a fatal blow for the integrity of our already smaller than ideal league.