It was telling that as Dundalk celebrated a famous Europa League success against Maccabi Tel Aviv last Thursday night – the first Irish team ever to win a game in the group stage of a European competition – the chief executive of the FAI was nowhere to be seen.
Even if John Delaney had made an appearance at Tallaght Stadium, his presence may not have been entirely welcome. Whatever his strongest suit is, promotion of the domestic game certainly isn’t it. This is a man who has labelled the League of Ireland a “difficult child” in the past. Well, if the child is difficult, then perhaps it’s because the father’s priorities are askew.
Delaney currently has an annual salary €360,000. In the meantime, the prize money awarded to the winners of this year’s League of Ireland is just €110,000 or less than a third, which is why qualifying for Europe is so important – nothing in the league at the moment compares to what clubs can actually earned from involvement in Uefa’s competitions.
In just three hours of football Dundalk have won €3.08 million so far in this year’s Europa League. That’s the equivalent of winning the domestic league non stop for the next 28 years. In total, they have already made a sum in the region of €6 million from this year’s European run. Undeniably, the incentive to qualify and do well in Europe for every Irish club is paramount. If more sides were successful in Europe, it would pretty much guarantee their financial future. But where is the ambition on the FAI’s part to ensure that something like this happens?
Recently the FAI set aside €100,000 for strategic plans for each of the League of Ireland clubs. Many of the clubs in the league assumed they would be getting €100,000 each to fund their own development, a figure that is not inconceivable when you consider the revenue FAI generates (€38 million for example in 2014). However, they were shocked to find out their cut was actually only €5,000 each.
Both Derry City and St Patrick’s Athletic refused the money on principle, with the Inchicore club scathingly remarking that the FAI had “utterly failed in its responsibility to the domestic game”. Brian Kerr then went on RTÉ’s Soccer Republic television programme to voice his concerns in the presence of the FAI’s Director of Competitions, Fran Gavin. In a passionate defence of the League and attack on the powers that be, Kerr claimed “the frustration levels across the league are remarkable. All around the country, there are ferociously bad facilities, and nothing has been done about it for years and years.”
However, how far the League of Ireland can actually grow is open to debate. The giant elephant in the room, as always, is the monolith structure of the English Premier League lurking in the background. But even if the LOI will never reach such commercial heights, the very least it should be striving for is a level of self-sufficiency. In the 2000s, there was lots of money thrown around at certain clubs in the league, Shelbourne and Drogheda United in particular, in a bid to win the league. And yet, despite their success, it was only a few years later that these clubs were going bankrupt.
The inspiration for Dundalk, and the League of Ireland in general, will come from another over-achieving white shirted team in northern Europe. Rosenborg rose from being a part-time club in Norway in 1988 to one that reached the Champions League quarter final by defeating AC Milan in 1996-97. While the success of the club is not as strong now, they still operate in a league with modern stadia, a good television deal, and can command decent transfer fees for their top players.
Sligo Rovers, on the other hand, had to sell prized asset Seamus Coleman for €60,000 in 2008. Imagine what Coleman could be sold for now? Or, more to the point, imagine how much Sligo could have pocketed if they had inserted a sell on/Irish caps clause in the contract with the Toffees? But given the weakened financial state of all Irish clubs, bargaining in transfer deals will never be easy.
While aspersions will always be cast against the quality of Ireland’s domestic league, it’s worth noting that eight of Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad started out playing there, not to mention the likes of Roy Keane and Paul McGrath who starred there in the past. From a player’s point of view, it seems that regular football in a competitive league is much more valuable than the endless cycle of youth and under 23 football in England. Of the current Dundalk squad, only two players even attempted the English route. It is a truly homegrown success. But how high is the ceiling for a purely domestic player?
Dundalk’s goalkeeper Gary Rogers has already received a number of call-ups to the Irish squad. Winger Daryl Horgan, who has been viewed numerous times by Martin O’Neill in the recent Europa league run, may also have been considered if it wasn’t for his side’s heavy schedule at present. Given the makeup of the Irish squads and the success of the Louth side, you’d have to deduce that there are plenty of quality players in the league. So why is this not being reflected in the crowds?
Well, it’s important to state that there is a massive cultural part to play here. The fact remains, the vast majority of Irish people are just not that interested in the League of Ireland. If a typical sports fan attends a domestic event here, it’s much more likely to be a rugby or GAA game than an Irish football encounter.
The average attendances at League of Ireland Premier Division games register around the 1,000 mark. Meanwhile, around 120,000 Irish fans flock to the Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford or elsewhere each year to watch their favourite English side play. Of course, it’s unarguable that the quality of the Premier league is much better, but without any support from Irish fans, there’s no way of addressing the balance.
Is it equitable to support the billionaire’s paradise of the Premier League, when there are clubs fighting for survival at home? Some fans deduced that it would be unfortunate for Dundalk to be in the same Europa League group as Manchester United as “they’d be humiliated”. Well, now they have a better record.
Of course, as regards attending games, the public can still be swayed by a big event or supposed “Bandwagon effect”. For example, over 30,000 attended the recent Dundalk Champions League play-off against Legia Warsaw at the Aviva Stadium. For a high quantity of those, it may well have been their first time seeing a League of Ireland side in action and they would have been surprised to see the high quality of Dundalk’s play. However, there needs to be some knock-on effect. If only half of those fans were to attend their local club’s fixtures each week, it would drastically change the reality of the domestic league.
It’s very easy to mock the standard and status of the League of Ireland. We have all been guilty of it in the past. But rather than lambaste, the onus is on Irish football fans to contribute to a better future. Dundalk’s success shows what can happen when players and manager work together with a bit of belief. It’s a truly outstanding success. But it needs the public and the FAI’s support in order for it to be a lasting one.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena