The following is the first part of an article I had previously planned to be included in a Lovely Left Foot project, which has since not come to pass. With some rewriting to make the overall content more current (the bulk was written a year or so ago), I present it now in several sections, which I will publish in the lead-up to the 2014 seasons kick-off at the beginning of next month.
The League of Ireland is in trouble.
It has been in trouble for a while. Those who follow clubs in Ireland know this and have known this for some time. We struggle on and always will, but it is painfully obvious to all and sundry that the entire footballing system in Ireland, on a club level needs radical, near total, change.
Clubs are going bust every other year. Attendances and interest are at low ebbs, as is confidence in the leadership of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). Players struggle to make ends meet, fans struggle to muster enthusiasm.
Look into any League of Ireland (LOI) forum, or eavesdrop on any conversation between fans at games, and you will constantly find the topic of conversation moving to what needs to be done to improve the league, to fix its myriad number of flaws. The subject has many facets and many differing opinions. In this piece I will outline what I believe to be the most serious faults in the current system and what I believe to be the best responses to those problems. They fall, for me, under five main headings.
The current organisation of the League of Ireland needs significant change. At the time of writing there are only 20 teams in the League of Ireland, split into 12 teams of the Premier Division and eight of the First. One of them is a “B” team of a club in the top tier, meaning there are, in reality, only 19 clubs operating. The embarrassing situation in Galway has, it appears, come to a measure of resolution, which is to be welcomed, but it is important to note that such a resolution has resulted in the net loss of a club (but, this could not have been avoided). One of the primary short term aims of any reform needs to be a restructuring of the league and the expansion to include new clubs.
The FAI routinely ask for “expressions of interest” for upcoming seasons, in a desperate bid to fill out the ailing First Division. But interest is rarely strong from most potential applicants. The reasons are obvious. To enter the League of Ireland is an expensive process, one with no guarantee of success and a depressingly high likelihood of financial failure. The likes of Cobh Ramblers, one of the latest clubs to enter the league, are doing so under a shoestring budget, with no realistic aspirations of success for many years.
If the FAI is to attract new clubs into the league, there are some positive steps they can take. Making the league more attractive can be done in line with some things I will suggest later, especially in regards media engagement, but under this strict heading one of the most important things the FAI could do is to reform the registration fee that all clubs must pay in order to enter into the league.
Currently standing at 19’000 euro per annum, this charge is money most clubs do not see again, not through the grossly disproportionate prize money meted out to the league participants, not in income from season wide commercial activities. For example, the bottom clubs of the league will receive less than 7’000 euro in prize money at season’s end, a fraction of what they have paid in order to compete.
This fee should either be reduced, or the prize money system should be changed in order to allow an increased or more even share of the spoils down the line. 19K is no trifling amount for the clubs outside the League of Ireland. While some like the aforementioned Cobh Ramblers are happy working on a practically amateur basis while going nowhere in competitive terms, most clubs who have aspirations of entering the LOI hope to actual try and progress. They can only do that by maintaining a financial level close or equal to the other LOI teams. That means at least semi-professional players and decent infrastructure (more in a second).
For teams like Tralee Dynamos, the non-league sort who have indicated some interest in the past, that 19’000 is a total dealbreaker, the kind of money they are unhappy risking when it comes to the LOI. In paying that, they will enter a division where gates are down along with incomes. That way is dangerous financial territory. Some clubs, like Portlaoise for example, nearly went broke just entering an U-21 team into a national underage league, with little income against all of the associated costs: coaching, transport, facilities.
The FAI could, in line with money saving ideas on other fronts (FAI Oversight, below), try and set up a system similar to Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which offers grants and loans to low level clubs just setting up or struggling to get by. The GAA can be viewed, in terms of attendance and national interest, as a far more successful organisation than the LOI, despite its almost total amateur basis, and its methods of operation should be a prime target for replication.
Any kind of fund set aside for financial assistance to new clubs, whether it is for temporary upgrades to stadia, advertising, travel costs etc, would be a gigantic boon to that level of club that may be thinking about life in the LOI, or for those in club-less areas who may consider setting up a new entity. Enough to get those places started and running somewhat smoothly.
Because those places exist. Large swaths of Ireland, like the counties of Kildare, Kilkenny, Kerry, Clare, Mayo and Tipperary contain towns and populations similar to, say, Athlone, Longford or Bray, all of whom have had long running LOI clubs in existence, operating with several hundred punters a week. With less harsh financial conditions just to play in the league, with assistance on hand for start-ups, there is potential in Ireland for clubs to be created and join the league.
The First Division needs that kind of help. Suffering badly in the last few years due to its low number of clubs and familiarity in fixtures (each team playing the other four times) an injection of new blood is badly required. Clubs like Tralee, Carlow, Fanad, Castlebar and others could be prodded into applications if they were in a better position to assume some sort of financial success. In order to have a viable second tier, more than eight clubs must be in place. The perfect number without going too crazy is the same as the top tier: 12. That number can be reached, but only if the FAI is willing to forgo some of their extremely harsh taxes. The introduction of a Shamrock Rovers B side is an obvious stopgap, one that has brought some grumblings from other clubs that were not approached about the possibility. The LOI is not La Liga, and should not to accommodate such entities in the long term within a simple two-tier system.
In the meantime, while new clubs are courted into the system, there are reforms that the FAI can implement in the current tiers to help things along. The suggestion of changing the LOI into a single division for a period of time while changes are made elsewhere is a divisive one for the league’s fans and the idea has its merits and negatives.
Those who advocate such an approach point to the inherent problems facing such a small First Division, with interest and attendances waning. The boon of more diverse opponents, big games against the likes of Sligo, Shamrock Rovers and St Pats, and the travelling support those clubs bring to away games could all make a big difference to the bottom line of “lesser” clubs. There would be little need for teams to play each other three times a season, evening out the home/away quota. Such a league could spark short-term media interest due to the “rebranding” nature of it.
Those who disagree with such an approach look to the pointlessness of putting poor quality teams in with the “better” squads. There is the inevitable lack of excitement and competitive football in the lower reaches of such a division in the latter part of the season (with no relegation to worry about). An argument can be made that any club that would depend on away support to survive has deeper problems it needs to sort out. FIFA are also not very keen on leagues with no promotion/relegation system and there is no guarantee of lasting media interest in such a reformed division.
My personal opinion is that a single tier would be appropriate for the short term, perhaps up to five years. I think the gap between most clubs in the Premier and the First is not quite as large as people think it is. I think the lack of excitement due to non-existent relegation already exists in the First Division, and has been tremendously damaging in terms of gate receipts. Bigger opponents at home may help with that. This is an issue of doing what is best for the entirety of the league, not just for the higher ranked clubs.
And there are other things that could aid competitiveness in such a system. Following the Dutch model of play-offs for European qualification for example, or the Argentinean system of judging relegation based on results over several years (as a single tier should only be a short term option to alleviate some problems). Play-off’s for lower placed teams, perhaps with the reward being a place in the Setanta Cup, could also be included as a motivation for continued competitiveness.
The bottom line is that such a single tier system would be designed only for the short term, before being divided up again. In the meantime, the FAI should be doing everything they can, like the things discussed above and below, to create a viable pyramid for Irish football. Otherwise the single tier idea is pointless.
That pyramid should have a 12 team Premier and First Division. It should have a Second Division, akin to the defunct “A Championship” filled with those clubs good enough to be beyond “Senior” football in Ireland, but still prepping for entry into the higher tiers. Such a division, like the A Championship and the lower Spanish leagues, could be supplemented by reserve and underage teams from the clubs of the higher divisions, at a point where it is more viable than directly under the top tier. With the right marketing, approach and the correct licensing conditions, a third tier can be a worthwhile reality, that higher clubs should have no opposition to.
But it should go further than that, if at all possible. The “Senior” game in Ireland, in Dublin, in Cork, in Limerick is very strong (in a relative sense) with teams that are of decent quality with decent support. While such an endeavour is easier said than done, any kind of move the FAI could make to incorporate the better leagues of this level into the pyramid, on a regional basis like the system in Germany and the lowest levels of England, would be to the utmost benefit of football in Ireland. Give the best teams of that level the opportunity to move on and try their hand at national football. Perhaps, like the GAA’s hurling and football leagues, such promotions can be on an entirely voluntary level, with teams opting out if they do not feel it would be in their interest.
Talk of such a pyramid is pretty pie-in-the-sky of course, but is far from impossible. If the prospect could be made attractive to those kind of clubs, why not? By connecting up the various levels of Irish football, by enhancing the attraction of the league to clubs outside of it, the FAI can make the organisation of the league better. But there are things that the FAI can do within itself in order to spearhead reform of the league, which I will discuss next week.