It’s been an incredible 2016 for League of Ireland football.
Dundalk’s historic three in a row and amazing European adventures, Cork City’s continued rise from the ashes, which saw them claim a first FAI cup title in almost a decade, to Drogheda United’s simply sensational play-off final triumph over a brave and battling Wexford Youths, this season has had it all.
However, it wouldn’t be a domestic football campaign in Ireland without its fair share of turmoil and that was provided in spades from First Division clubs over the past twelve months with Athlone Town, Waterford United and Shelbourne FC all hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, Lee Power’s takeover at the RSC should see the “Blues” leave their previously on going financial concerns in the distant past but it was the failure of Athlone Town FC to field a team for a league meeting away to none other than Waterford earlier this year that really shook the league at its foundations.
Months have passed since that dark day for the League of Ireland’s oldest club and yet the bitter power struggle engulfing the club continues with no end in sight which has only led to more questions than answers.
Elsewhere, Shelbourne’s hardcore fans continue to vocally oppose the “Reds” decision to leave long time home Tolka Park for arch rivals Bohemians newly refurbished Dalymount Park.
Those protests came to a head in October, when a number of Shelbourne supporters threw flares onto the Tolka Park playing surface while unfurling banners which made their feelings known.
So while all the glitz and glam of Dundalk’s historic efforts this season have added prestige and honor to a league that struggles for respect or acknowledgment for the majority from the mainstream sporting public, events such as those outlined above should not be forgotten about or paved over.
In saying that, the extra publicity and interest in League of Ireland football generated by Stephen Kenny’s men this season was viewed as the perfect opportunity by followers of the league for the FAI to really push the league forward and make a big break through.
However, the perceived lack of marketing and/or promotion surrounding November’s FAI Cup final disappointed many a neutral, although the supporters of both Dundalk FC and Cork City made it their own with some passionate and colorful pyrotechnic displays at the national stadium.
If the average League of Ireland fan was disappointed by the FAI’s efforts surrounding that event, those disappointment levels reached whole new levels earlier today with Jonathan Gabay’s ‘League of Ireland Brand Report‘.
The name Jonathan Gabay is not a familiar one among the League of Ireland community, nor should it be.
The Englishman charged with compiling said report is recognised as a brand consultant who blends marketing experience with psychology and has written his own book on the sector.
However, after today’s simply comical events at the Aviva Stadium it is unlikely League of Ireland fans will forget his name for quite a while.
Social media was instantly ablaze as the ninty-minute long report kicked off with well respected League of Ireland reporters Neil O’Riordan and Daniel McDonnell struggling to fathom what they were seeing right before their eyes, as they relayed the main talking points via Twitter.
Gabay was never going to endear himself to the League of Ireland public after he dropped a line of praise for controversial FAI CEO John Delaney in the opening segment of the discussion but that was only to be the tip of the iceberg as the ‘expert’ delved into the world of bus stops and a good bag of chips.
This report really had it all, but in totally the wrong sense as laughter turned to anger and anger turned to a deep sense of worry among the League of Ireland faithful who are now asking where the league goes from here under the stewardship of Delaney, Gavin and co.
Some of the language used in Gabay’s report baffled those in attendance, not due to its complicated nature but in fact the opposite with school boy like sayings such as “empty vessels make the loudest noise” in reference to supporters who openly and vocally criticise the FAI’s leadership, while Gabay also described the league as being “cool”.
In recent months the FAI have openly criticised supporters for the use of pyrotechnics at League of Ireland games and despite his independent nature, Gabay seemed to follow that line of fire (forgive the pun) before criticising clubs who bashed the FAI over the controversial €5,000 long-term plan offer stating: “We’ve got to grow up irrespective of whose right or wrong.”
Surely things could only get better after that dark start to proceedings? Sadly not.
Gabay’s next headline comment was that “The League is not that bleak”, as the former Google employee stated over 366,000 people had attended League of Ireland games throughout the course of the 2016 season.
Skipping the segment on sponsorship which honestly put made absolutely no sense, Gabay then moved on to the “ideas section” as he threw out some real crackers to the crowd, who could be forgiven for thinking they were at the Apollo Live for a moment.
League of Ireland scores displayed at bus stops which would be painted in the local clubs colors may we add, friendly matches with Major League Soccer/North American Soccer League sides and GIANT (emphasis on giant) screens at grounds which could host half-time EA Sports tournaments.
One area League of Ireland fans have seen huge improvements in this season is the professional and dedicated TV and social media coverage thanks to Eir Sport.
However, the broadcasters of live Irish football were not spared either in Gabay’s report as he commented that some of the angles made the games look boring, dreary and dull.
I mean what is a scoreless draw from the Tallaght Stadium without some super-slow and goal-cam footage?
While Gabay should be commended for thinking outside the box (or should that be outside the bus stop), his report offers little to nothing in the way of real answers as to how league clubs go about building their brands on an individual basis and within financial constraints.
For all the suggestions of League of Ireland bus stops and historical walkways at the entrance to stadiums, there was no mention of how clubs could finance such plans or even go about completing such projects.
While a flashy new league logo and the suggestion of a name change to the ‘League of Ireland sponsored by SSE Airtricity’ make short-term sense, they are far from the ground breaking brainwaves needed to transform the League of Ireland.
Stepping away momentarily from the madness that was this report into the League of Ireland, there are huge positives for those associated with the league to focus on going forward.
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 seasons 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.
Elsewhere the likes of Cork City and Cabinteely continue to fly the flag for investment in self publication and promotion, particularly across free to use social media platforms, an area where a number of our clubs are totally failing.
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.
This is simultaneously the greatest day of my journalistic life and the most worrying as a League of Ireland fan.
— Neil O’Riordan (@noriordan) December 15, 2016
It’s over now. I know FAI will think some of these tweets are just typical media moaning but that was extraordinary, just extraordinary.
— Daniel McDonnell (@McDonnellDan) December 15, 2016