The close season in Irish domestic league footfall may be long but rarely is it uneventful. Throughout the years League of Ireland fans are treated to transfer gossip, the odd glamour friendly and invariable league format shake-ups as clubs, sometimes quietly, sometimes quite shockingly, depart or join the league structure. This close season looks no different with the amalgamation of the Galway clubs Mervue United and SD Galway who will form a new Division 1 senior entity to be known as Galway F.C. and who have just appointed former Cork City boss Tommy Dunne as manager.
Another new entry that has caused a little controversy is the proposal for a Shamrock Rovers B team that will also join the first division. While B teams are a common sight in various leagues around the world, and many large clubs such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona operate reserve sides in lower competitive leagues, the emergence of a Shamrock Rovers B team is something of a departure for Ireland. That is not to say that reserve or B sides have not existed in the past, reserve or B divisions operated in Ireland for decades, often such leagues featured second string sides from major clubs as well as a smattering of teams just below League of Ireland standard like Dalkey United or Tullamore Town. However the Rovers reserve side will the first such team to play in a competitive League of Ireland division. Shamrock Rovers B will also be subject to certain restrictions; they will not be eligible for promotion even if they top the division and they likewise will not be entered into draws for the FAI or EA Sports Cups.
This surprise announcement has some merits. As mentioned it is not uncommon for larger teams in other nations to have reserve sides play in lower divisions as a way to develop young players. Also Shamrock Rovers are one of the few teams who feel confident enough financially to take on the cost of featuring a second side (estimated to be approximately €80,000), and should at least provide competitive league opposition for other sides in Division 1. However the promotion of a Shamrock Rovers B side does raise some other larger questions about the viability of the League of Ireland as a two tier entity as well as issues around the growth and geographical spread of the game in this country.
To examine these issues further I thought it might be useful to look for historical trends, comparing the current 20 team, two division format with the first season that two senior divisions were introduced (1985-86 season) and then to compare this further back again. I chose the 1957-58 season because it was roughly as distant in time from 1985-86 as that is from 2014 to give a historical frame for analysis of almost 60 years. I’ve included tables and maps below.
One initial statistic that jumped out at me is the relative stability of the number of clubs in Dublin, which has maintained at a constant of six, while the six clubs are not the same the number has remained. There are often statements made that the League of Ireland is too Dublin focused, or increasingly Dublin focused however the numbers do not seem to bear this out. Indeed it was only in the 1934-35 season that traditional football bases such as Dublin, Cork, Dundalk and Bray were added to by the election of Sligo Rovers and Waterford F.C. to the league while the very earliest leagues in the emergent Free State were almost completely Dublin affairs.
Also by the 1957-58 season the regional spread had become quite fixed, the six Dublin sides, two from Cork (in this instance Evergreen Utd. and Cork Hibernians), and one each from Dundalk, Limerick, Sligo and Waterford. These were by the time the established footballing strongholds in the country but they would be added to in the coming years.
When looking at the 1984-85 season (the last season of the single division format) we see a much more geographically diverse league with the return of the Republic of Ireland’s oldest football side Athlone Town, who had been absent from the League for over 40 years between 1928 and 1969, finishing 3rd that year. Along with the midlanders Ulster was represented in the form of Ballybofey club Finn Harps, there was also a second Louth side in Drogheda United and Longford Town had been elected to the League the season before. Importantly there was another Connacht side in the shape of Galway United who joined the league in 1977, this meant that the state’s fourth most populous city was finally properly represented at the top footballing table. As mentioned the end of the 84-85 season saw a restructuring of the league, with the sides who occupied the bottom four spots in the league (Sligo Rovers, Drogheda United, Finn Harps and Longford Town) being relegated to the new second tier where they were to be joined by a number of newly elected sides, namely Bray Wanderers, Cobh Ramblers, Derry City, E.M.F.A (later Kilkenny City), Monaghan United and Newcastle United. Significantly all of the sides who joined the newly created lower division were from outside Dublin. In fact most were from areas new to league representation, the most notable being Derry City who since the early 70s had been playing junior football and had to receive special dispensation from the IFA and FIFA in order to compete in the League of Ireland. However it should be noted that hurling stronghold Kilkenny now felt able to enter a team, as did the town of Monaghan, the county of Limerick entered a second side in the form of Newcastle United and county Cork returned their compliment of League clubs to two after Cobh Ramblers joined.
The difference in geographic spread is marked, even a casual glance at the footballing maps of the 1957-58 season in comparison to the 1985-86 season shows this. Not only had league clubs increased in number but now every major city had a side and every province had at the very least two representative sides. It must have been heartening for the League and the FAI to witness the growth of football outside the traditional strongholds of the garrison towns into areas where the GAA was the dominant sporting force.
The comparison with the League’s two divisions as it stands for the 2014 season offers some further insights. In the near 30 years that the two division format has existed one of the things that jumps out first is that the number of teams competing has declined by two from 22 to 20. Dublin has not lost its total of six teams if one includes the proposed Shamrock Rovers B side, in fact the Dublin sides have a level of consistency unmatched by other areas with the five other clubs; Bohemians, Shelbourne, St. Pat’s, UCD and the Shamrock Rovers “senior” side also present in the 1985-86 sample. Present in the League going back to the 1950-51 are the four other Dublin sides excluding UCD. This is not to say that there have not been “boom and bust” clubs in Dublin, there certainly have, with Sporting Fingal being only the most recent example, it just shows that the sixth Dublin team tends to be in a bit more of a precarious position and a position that has not always been filled in the most recent seasons.
Another geographic trend worth noting is that the only club that’s competing from a new area when compared with the 1985-86 season is Wexford Youths, while in the intervening time the League has lost representatives from Monaghan and Kilkenny. Also county Limerick’s period of having two teams represented in the league had come to an end with Newcastlewest F.C. (formerly Newcastle United) withdrawing from the League in the early 90’s. Odd as it may seem the recession hit, pre- Charlton era League of Ireland of the 1980’s had a more diverse spread of clubs than the current incarnation which has shrunk both in team numbers and geographic spread. Only 13 counties out of a potential 27 have a team represented in the League. For the lark those not represented include in alphabetical order; Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Leitrim, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon and Tipperary. Many of these counties have never had a League side.
A question this raises is whether we are being unfair by using counties as a geographical indicator? Although favoured by the GAA this demographic denominator was not traditionally used in either Football or Rugby. Perhaps the use of major urban population centres would be a better indicator, after all football is an urban game and a concentration of teams in urban areas is hardly uncommon, with the nature of local derbies a strong possible reason for vibrant footballing towns and cities. With this in mind we could reason that perhaps the Meath area is served by having Drogheda United nearby, could a similar case could be argued for Roscommon given their proximity to Athlone? However simply focusing on urban areas rather than county boundaries tells another story, looking at the latest CSO figures for urban area population a different picture starts to emerge. In theory CSO stats are used to influence key decisions around planning, such as the provision of public transport or health services, or the drawing of political constituency boundaries. If one looks at the figures and tried to use population size and growth trends to pick the optimal location for a new League of Ireland club what sort of conclusions might be drawn? Looking at the stats the largest urban areas without a League side already in situ are Navan, Ennis, Kilkenny, Tralee, Carlow, Newbridge and Portlaoise, each with an urban area population of over 20,000. Apart from Tralee (which showed a 1% decrease) the populations of each of these towns is either static or growing, in Portlaoise’s case the population has grown 9% between censuses. An engaged town of this size can support a League side, a perfect example is Sligo which has a population below any of the towns mentioned above and is also somewhat more isolated from other population centres of significant size but has a well-supported and successful League club in the form of Sligo Rovers.
From a purely demographic point of view the towns mentioned above would be ideal for expansion, in Navan’s case even bearing in mind its proximity to Drogheda there is sizeable population growth in other Co. Meath towns like Ashbourne with the county population increasing by over 13% between the 2006 and 2011 censuses. But examining the footballing history of each location does not give great cause for optimism. Both Kilkenny and Newbridge were home to League of Ireland clubs but both Kilkenny City and Kildare County have withdrawn from the League in recent seasons, by their last season Kildare County were averaging attendances of less than 250 per game. The mathematical and demographic data is let down here by sad footballing experience, growing towns with decent populations in Leinster should be able to support a senior team at first division level but could not. Why this is remains to be answered, though there are a number of possible explanations. The few that I would like to posit are ones that have often been mentioned to me, and in many ways are regular reasons put forward as to the difficulties encountered by League of Ireland clubs. They range from the idea of identity; clubs by their nature are associated with a town or in the case of Dublin sides with a certain section of the city and in that way identify with a more narrow hinterland than say a GAA county team or Rugby Province. In this way they narrow their appeal and reducetheir potential live audience, Kildare County’s naming suggests a direct attempt to appeal to a wider area than just footfall fans in Newbridge but as mentioned above this project was ultimately doomed to failure. Another possible reason is the make-up of these towns, although populations in counties like Kildare, Meath and Laois have increased rapidly in recent years many of these new residents are Dubliners pushed out to satellite towns because of the Celtic Tiger property boom, any footballing affiliation or loyalty of these new residents may remain with the local club that they grew up with. One anecdotal example of this is the number of Dublin clubs that have supporters’ banners with slogans like “Ashbourne Bohs” and so on.
The other obvious reason is the broader change since the expansion into two divisions in the mid-80’s, the unceasing rise of televised football. While the 1980’s was not a high watermark necessarily for the League, European victories were rare, attendances uninspiring, the league still offered football fans a rare enough chance to see live football. There was sufficient demand that the League system in Irish football could be truly national for the first time with the introduction of many clubs from non-traditional footballing hotbeds. This expansion offered fans in Kilkenny or Monaghan an opportunity to see live games most weeks. Although the advent of Match of the Day is often highlighted as the beginning of the end for the “golden years” of the League of Ireland it is worth remembering that there was very little televised football during the late 80’s and 90’s and the away day trips to Old Trafford and Anfield were far less common, similarly the idea of globally marketing and promoting what was then the English first division to international audiences was unheard of. Today in many cases the desire of the populations of regional Irish towns for live football can be met by a decent TV package, for many Irish football is now limited to the national team and perhaps participation as a player in local junior leagues.
The other key point focuses of failures and missed opportunities for the clubs and the FAI. Despite the windfall benefits of major tournament participation and record number of people playing the game in Ireland the FAI has failed to develop the sport sufficiently to allow large regional towns to support a League side, this seems disappointing when compared with the 1980’s expansion of the League and increases in the level of participation in the sport whether as players or club members and volunteers. Association football can legitimately claim to have player participation levels of approximately 300,000 adults. With participation at this level it is dispiriting that this only converts into an average weekly League of Ireland attendance of just over 23,000. In fact the Sporting Intelligence table on attendance shows that this converts to only around half a percent of the total Irish population and only makes up about 1 in 13 of those adults involved in playing football in Ireland. There is a critical disconnect between those people in Ireland who play for a club, even to a quite high level and the idea that there is such a thing as football as a spectator sport in Ireland. While participation levels in the game are encouraging, the inability of the FAI to transfer player enthusiasm into a footballing pyramid where League football sits at the pinnacle shows a systematic failure which further reinforces the view of many football fans in Ireland that the development of the League is of minor importance to the association. Simply put this disconnect means that top junior sides in regional urban centres do not see senior League football as a real or worthwhile aspiration.
It is with this in mind that the promotion of a Shamrock Rovers reserve side to pad out the first division seems like a lazy afterthought. With a total prize-fund for the first division of only €74,000 and the various financial obstacles of club licencing to be overcome by any prospective club means that the first division was never an appealing option. The failures and withdrawal of clubs like Kilkenny, Kildare County and Monaghan United provides a cautionary tale for any other clubs willing or able to take on the financial burden of league membership. Until a logical and supported progression route exists for clubs to gain entry to the league, until such a time as a reasonable local support can be encouraged and mobilised the League of Ireland will continue to shrink and shudder. Only with hard work, investment and changes in attitudes can the League grow into something that can once again be truly described as a League of Ireland.
||County||Nos. by county|
|St Patrick’s Athletic||Dublin|
||County||Nos. by county|
|Cobh Ramblers F.C.||Cork|
|Derry City F.C.||Derry||1|
|Finn Harps F.C.||Donegal||1|
|St Patrick’s Athletic||Dublin|
|Newcastle United F.C.||Limerick||2|
|Longford Town F.C.||Longford||1|
|Drogheda United F.C.||Louth|
|Monaghan United F.C.||Monaghan||1|
|Sligo Rovers F.C.||Sligo||1|
|Bray Wanderers A.F.C.||Wicklow||1|
|Club||County||Nos. by county|
|St Patrick’s Athletic||Dublin|
|Shamrock Rovers B||Dublin||6|