The long, bleak, football-less nights are starting to draw to a close, the moss is being cleared from the ground and the seats dusted down in football stadiums up and down the country; it can mean only one thing…the new League of Ireland season is upon us!
The fixtures have been released, the online buzz among domestic football fans is picking up traction while transfer story after transfer story are being printed this time of year.
However, spare a thought for the forgotten members of this league. The seven, the graveyard division, call it what you want, the fact is with just seven weeks to go until the big kick-off, First Division clubs find themselves without a fixture list to prepare to and not even knowing if their will be seven or eight participants in what has now become a comical division.
Year after year, clubs struggle to survive during the outrageously long off-season with no gate receipts meaning the only source of income is often off the back of supporters generosity through the club lotto, members schemes and so on.
That’s why, when Christmas comes it is a crucial marketing event for League of Ireland clubs who get the rare opportunity to push merchandise and of course season tickets in the local area.
However, if a club can not budget for how many home games they will play next season, how on earth can they possibly give supporters the best possible value on season tickets and will fans even buy them with the threat of just six other teams to play against hanging over the league.
Well, this is the very situation Athlone Town, Shelbourne, UCD, Wexford Youths, Finn Harps, Cobh Ramblers and Waterford United currently find themselves in and despite growing calls for action by the governing body, we appear no closer to discovering who or if there will be an eighth team for 2015.
In an attempt to see just how this uncertainty is effecting First Division clubs and their players, BackPageFootball spoke to Waterford United goalkeeper, Robert Birdsall ahead of the new campaign.
I can’t speak about it from my clubs point of view because I wouldn’t know, but from a player’s point of view it hasn’t made it difficult for me.
I’ve spent the off-season training and getting ready for the new season, but it is disappointing when you see the Premier Division fixtures being released and see the buzz it creates and you don’t feel apart of it.
You almost feel left out until your fixtures are released.
It is that lack of belonging and coverage that many feel is putting off potential new members from joining the league, especially when the potential to be a big fish in a small pond seems a more attractive alternative to some club chairmen.
However, for Birdsall the main issues lie elsewhere with high entrance fees and lack of prize money in return a main point of contention.
I saw a stat recently that between entrance fees, players fines and other costs that League of Ireland clubs actually paid out more money than the amount of prize money that the winners received. That to me doesn’t make sense.
I don’t fully know or understand the economics of the whole thing but if there was a successful non-league team were interested in joining the LOI, I would presume the only things on their list of cons would be financial costs.
I played for Tralee Dynamos in the ‘A’ championship when I was a teenager and they tried to give the LOI a go, but financially it was hard.
It’s a pity because with the amount of players you see that have come from Kerry, and other counties like Kilkenny, that have to travel to other counties or settle with junior football.
Should the FAI ultimately fail in their ‘attempts’ to bring in an eighth team for 2015, the financial struggles faced by clubs during the off-season will become a thing of reality during the new season as bye weeks will see clubs left with no gate income while players and coaches will be left looking elsewhere to stay sharp.
However, former Blyth Spartans ‘keeper, Birdsall feels that even with eight members the First Division has gone stale.
I personally hope there is another addition to the First Division. It’s looking unlikely but even at eight teams that’s still not enough. You play every team four times and by the end of the season you nearly know what color underwear the opposition is going to wear.
But to be reduced to seven teams is something that has to be addressed. Seven teams being an odd number means a team is going to have a week off every week, which is going to result in the team off having to organise a friendly of some sort to keep the players ticking over.
I have no answer myself as to what to do but the First Division definitely has to addressed and improved.
2014 saw the return of Galway United to the League of Ireland after a long running saga in the county. However, despite the ultimate success of the GUFC project, the removal of Salthill Devon and Mervue United meant that the last two clubs to come up through the ‘A’ championship and into the League of Ireland have now vanished.
The close links of clubs such as Tralee Dynamo’s, FC Carlow and Fanad United to the First Division have been totally destroyed and the there lies the problem, a lack of linkage between regional leagues and the national League of Ireland.
Having played in the non-leagues in England as a teenager, Birdsall is well aware of the benefits of a pyramid structure within domestic football and has called for similar to be introduced here.
The pyramid system seems to be working well in Northern Ireland, it would be an ideal structure for LOI. Again I don’t know all there is to know about it (the Northern Ireland league) or if they have less running costs, entrance costs etc., they definitely have less travel costs.
In my opinion when the LOI had the Premier Division, First Division and A championship (split into two sections) that was the best structure.
With the pyramid system there seems to be more ambition. With clubs not being able to get relegated from the First Division it leaves place for complacency if you aren’t doing well.
If there was a tier to get relegated to under the First Division you would see clubs fighting week in week out to stay up. Again all this is hypothetical as right now we can barely run a two tier league.
Putting all the politics behind, Birdsall finds himself preparing for new challenge this season with Waterford United having moved over from local rivals, Cobh Ramblers in the off-season.
Having added well to the squad in the past few weeks, some were surprised to see the goalkeeper depart St.Colmans Park.
Waterford United are a really big LOI club with really good facilities and a good set up. The moment the opportunity came up to sign for Waterford it was a no brainer for me to take it and I’ve not one regret about it.
I genuinely can’t wait for the new season with Waterford but I’ve a feeling I won’t be liking the running track at the RSC too much in pre season.
2014 was an awful year for the ”Blues” both on and off the pitch with financial issues once again dragging down the famous old club.
However, Birdsall has no doubt in his mind that 2015 will be a much better year for the Munster club.
I think this year there has been lessons learned from the previous seasons and you will see a big improvement on last year. To be honest the aim is to go out and win every week, highly doubtful? yes, but that’s the aim, it has to be.
If you go out on the pitch and your aim isn’t to win then you might as well take your boots off and go up into the stand and watch the match because you don’t deserve to play the match if your aim isn’t to win and do well.
It is that fighting spirit from Birdsall that ”Blues” fans will be hoping the rest of their squad shows throughout the new campaign and the 23-year-old was in bullish mood when asked about his teams First Division rivals for the coming season.
With Athlone Town announcing that they will be maintaining a competitive budget following relegation back down to the First Division and with Shelbourne appearing to buy well in the past few weeks, they will be hot favorites to contest for the title.
However, Birdsall feels this years league will be wide open.
To be 100% completely honest and straight forward with you and without sounding too blunt, I’m genuinely not thinking about the mentioned clubs or worried about them and their bigger budgets.
They aren’t worried about me and I’m not worried about them. There is not one team in the division I would fear, but I do think the First Division is wide open this year and I think it could be up for grabs.
The clubs coming down from the Premier Division last year have been weakened and First Division clubs have strengthened, so in my opinion it’s wide open.