The following is the third 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 first part, on League Organisation.
The second part, on FAI Oversight.
Internal Club Issues
So, what about the clubs themselves? Apart from the aforementioned responsible financing, there are other things that they could do in order to help reform the LOI.
A perception exists among the Irish public that the infrastructure of the LOI is not attractive, that is, that the various stadia used by its membership don’t measure up the facilities of other Irish sports and those in England.
Being brutally honest, this is not an unfair assessment. Irish football is still reliant on concrete terraces to provide much of its spectator room, with other amenities – toilets, food, covered stands – being in short supply or varying states of disrepair. This is not an across the board issue, many stadiums in the LOI being perfectly fine, if a bit on the small side.
But there are plenty of clubs out there (it would be, perhaps, unfair to point them out) who could put serious work into this aspect of their operation. Such improvements in stadia, not just in capacity but in cleanliness and presentability, are not cheap endeavours, but would come in line with other reforms of the LOI system that could be achieved. A simple matter of having more acceptable bathroom options would banish some of the stigma that LOI currently carries.
Another major problem with public perception is that of hooliganism. We are long past the days of mass brawls being a regular occurrence outside of football grounds in Ireland, but the perception remains from some that the LOI is a sporting area wherein inhabits the more undesirable type of football fan. The police deployed during every Bohs/Shamrock Rovers match, the flares that you routinely see being ignited in stands and the negative press that accompanies such things invariably damages the league as a whole.
It is a reality that certain clubs suffer from this problem more than others. Those clubs could do a more pro-active job of rejecting those elements, of barring them from entering grounds and ruining the matchday experience of others. Given the low numbers that you see at LOI, clubs are, almost understandably, reluctant to actually tell some to not turn up, but sights like the final league game of the season being wreathed in smoke are not ones that should be repeated. I suppose its all fun and games when you’re in that crowd or in the bar beforehand getting into a fight, but the long term negative effect on the league should be a consideration. In a time when FIFA and UEFA are pushing harder and harder for more “respect” and acceptable fan behaviour to be a part of the game, this is something that the FAI and the clubs of the LOI can work on.
The last point in relation to internal club matters is the supporters themselves. It is an unhappy reality that the health of an Irish football club can vary drastically from year to year, and extinctions are not uncommon. But in the last few years several efforts by fans have shown the power of the supporter in these kind of situations, as groups of fans have banded together in order to pool financial capital and save their clubs (albeit, technically creating new ones) from economic catastrophe.
Cork City is the real success story in that regard; back in the Premier Division only a couple of years after coming close to shutting its doors for good. The fans stepped in and organised an effort to save the club, and the current success is the reward for that. Similarly, the GUST group in Galway has maintained the presence of Galway United in Irish football. Despite significant problems there, a Galway club is now back in the LOI.
Such examples serve to show us that the fans of the LOI can wield considerable power within the game, the use of which can overcome even harsh financial difficulties. In any kind of reform effort, the creation of supporters trusts for every club should be a requirement, even if it just to be an organisation of last resort in the unfortunate event of money problems overtaking the running of the team. Prevention is better than a cure.