“You see the coverage that the league is getting and I think they need to break away from all of it.”
Karl Sheppard has said that the League of Ireland needs to break away from the FAI and the national broadcaster, RTE. The Cork City forward feels that neither institution is serving the best interests of the league.
In a wide-ranging interview with Pundit Arena, in which he reflected on Cork’s difficult season, his battle with arthritis and his experiences of playing in England, Sheppard said that the League of Ireland, and Irish football, would be better served by severing ties with the two organisations.
According to the striker, the league has been “treated terribly” by the FAI and RTE.
The former Shamrock Rovers striker also criticised RTE’s flagship football show Soccer Republic, labelling it “disgraceful.” Sheppard stated that clubs in the country need to look to secure a more favourable television deal.
“It needs to be overhauled,” he said.
“For the first time this year, I watched Soccer Republic, and I thought it was disgraceful. Then you see the coverage that the league is getting and I think they need to break away from all of it, really. Try to get a proper investor. Sometimes Eir’s coverage is very good for matches. But I think they look to break away from them too really and get a proper structure in place.”
Sheppard said that the unique selling points of the league – the atmosphere at games and authenticity – have not been adequately articulated by those responsible with promoting it.
“The Shamrock Rovers, Bohs game, Cork, Dundalk – there are games that are absolutely electric,” he said.
“These are big games, but then you look at the coverage they get and a lot of those games won’t be on TV. If they are, people are getting player’s names wrong. It’s just a very dull atmosphere that they are building up. Whereas if you actually go to the game, if you sit in the stands, you’ll see that it is absolutely electric.
“I remember there was a Copa90 video, and they were saying that that game was up there in the top 10 of derbies they had been to. I think that just goes to show that a lot is right, even if, as I said still a lot is wrong.”
Sheppard has been playing in the League of Ireland since 2010 when he joined Galway United after three years with Everton’s underage sides. Spells with Shamrock Rovers, Reading and Accrington Stanley followed before the 28-year-old joined Cork ahead of the 2015 season, where he has won the league title and two FAI Cups.
The striker’s experiences in Irish domestic football have led him to believe that the first priority should be improving facilities – something he feels will occur if the league receives more funding.
“You look at some of the facilities around the place and stadiums, they’re run down, dilapidated, poor really,” he said.
“Even some of the surfaces you play on, they have an effect given all the Friday, Monday games – people are trying to cram the league into a short space so it doesn’t cost as much. I think it just needs more financial backing and you can get that through a good TV deal, which isn’t in place at the minute.”
Sheppard also spoke about the perception of the league held by some Irish sports fan. Football is the most widely played sport in the country, and the Cork forward believes that the sport was backed financially the way the GAA is, the league would be a much better place.
“I think if you look at it, half of the time, (the League of Ireland) it’s almost frowned upon. I think that’s the way some people would look at it,” he said.
“If you look at the GAA, and the backing that they get and the stadiums that they play in, if we could just get even half of that back. GAA is only played in Ireland, pretty much. Whereas football is worldwide and football is the one that is shunned here, it’s strange. But, look, it’s something you’ve just got to get on with. I think 10-years ago, it was worse, people would talk down it a lot. But obviously with Shamrock Rovers doing well in Europe a couple of years ago, and Dundalk have done it as well, so I think the reputation of the league has grown. But it’s still got some way to go.”
After almost a decade in Irish domestic football, Sheppard is better placed than most to identify what needs to change. Nothing he said was delivered with any sense of him having a chip on his shoulder. He’s just someone with a lot of experience in the sport, and strong opinions on how it can be bettered.
Sheppard speaks calmly and clearly, with a sharp understanding of how Irish football needs to improve. Experiences from inside and outside of the sport have left him with a finely-tuned perspective on things. The 28-year-old recognises the importance of Irish domestic football because he was one of the many Irish players who left school early to go to British football only to return home a few years later.
Sheppard left home in Portmarnock to sign for Everton as a teenager, rejecting interest from Tottenham, Celtic and Middlesbrough. The striker was living the dream of every young Irish footballer. However, the novelty soon wore off as homesickness kicked in. Reflecting on the experience 12-years later, Sheppard is convinced that the path of Irish players signing for British clubs can be detrimental to the sport as a whole in the country and the individual.
“I went over at 16, I was going over at 14 and 15 for trials and after a week you’re going, ‘Jesus, yeah it’s great to be around big-name players, but I don’t know if this is for me’. You go, ‘right, I can’t turn it down’. And you go over and you’re pretty much crying every time you’re going back. You’re not really ready for it at that age, I don’t think.
“That’s something that clubs certainly don’t sell to players anyway. ‘Look, you’re going to be terribly homesick here, you’re going to be in a room on your own and finish training at three o’clock and it’s staring at the walls’. When you’re just used to going to school and being around your mates. I’d always encourage people now to finish their studies, play in League of Ireland and do as much as you can back home. If you’re good enough, you’ll go.
“Maybe three, four, five per cent of players will actually make it, the rest will not even be playing. I know so many players, even better players than me that have gone over, that aren’t playing anymore because of what the knock does to them.”
Experiences outside of football have also given him perspective on the sport. Last year, he was diagnosed with arthritis, something he found difficult to comprehend at the time.
“You’re going, ‘I’m not 60 or 70’, this is when you normally tend to hear about people getting arthritis,” Sheppard said about his diagnosis.
“No-one in my family has it either. You’re thinking, ‘this can’t be right.’ I kept on saying to my physio, ‘No, you’re definitely wrong, no way I’m not even going for the tests’. But then he was like, ‘look, it’s gone on for a few months now, you need to go in’. So, I went in and she just said, ‘it’s arthritis, we’ll get you on these injections.’ It’s a lot to take in, obviously, taking a weekly injection whereas six months before I was flying fit, never had a back problem in my life.”
After being Dundalk’s main rivals and winning three trophies in two seasons, Cork City have struggled this season. They replaced their double-winning manager John Caulfield with John Cotter at the start of May and are currently third from bottom in the Premier Division with 23 points from 20 games. Sheppard’s own season was almost cut short by his condition but he has got back on track recently.
“After eight games of this year, I was in a bad, bad way,” he said.
“Sometimes after the matches, the day after, I wouldn’t be walking, I was literally saying to the girlfriend, ‘I can’t get up today, I have to stay in bed, my back’s that painful’. Then I was saying to her, ‘look, if it stays like this for the year, I’ll back it in’. I couldn’t keep going on like that, but look, thankfully the change of medication and I’m feeling myself again. Look, it’s just life really, you just get on with it and it’s the hand I’ve been dealt.”
Sheppard’s experiences have taught him how precarious the life of a professional footballer in Ireland is, and what needs to change for the sport to thrive in the country.
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