There has been regular tinkering with the format of the League of Ireland since it was incepted. Some of these changes have been more popular than others but most are akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
While those who frequent football grounds in Ireland are some of the most passionate supporters around, the majority of the population prefer to watch foreign leagues from afar. The advent of Friday night Premier League matches shown live on satellite TV is a roadblock to our clubs attracting more floating support.
Every night of the week there is football on television and many don’t see the attraction in attending a local game in real life.
Many solutions have been argued, such as reducing the amount of games to increase the importance of individual fixtures but this under-cuts the main source of income for the clubs and the increase in attendances is not likely to make up for the loss of home matches.
Long has it been suggested that a play-off system would bring out crowds as it does in the Belgian league and in Guinness Pro 12 rugby. This writer does believe that a play-off system is required but that it must reward regular season performance as much as possible.
The quality on display is also cited as a reason to stay away from local matches. Whether a valid reason or not, given some of the fine players to have graced this league, the simplest way to increase the standard of team in a league is reduce the number of clubs.
The league was reduced to ten teams in the last decade and should never have reverted back to twelve. For people who think ten sides is too small a league for a country our size, it is the same amount in the Austrian Bundesliga – a country with a greater population than ours and a league whose teams regularly feature in European group stages.
Instead of reducing the amount of fixtures this would actually increase them by three to 36. To offset this slight increase, this writer would propose abolishing the League Cup as it is a competition with minimal prize money and less public interest, which serves little purpose in a league as small as ours. In order to increase the importance of all fixtures this writer would propose adopting a play-off system based on the performance of teams in every series of fixtures (nine games).
The system would place high importance on regular season performance as opposed to the approach in the MLS or Guinness Pro 12, where the only aim is to finish in the top few places. The system would operate as follows; The team with the highest overall points after 36 games will qualify directly for the league final, which will be played in their home ground, they will also be guaranteed a place in the Europa League.
During the course of the season the best performing team in each series not already qualified will be awarded a place in the quarter-final. The teams that qualify in the first and second series will have home advantage in the quarter-finals with the winner of the tie involving the first series qualifier receiving home advantage for the semi-final. The two winners of the quarter-finals will also be guaranteed a Europa League place.
The winner of the league final will be awarded the Champions League place and the Premier Division title. All prize money will be allocated in the same manner as it is presently with the play-off system only determining European places and the title holder.
The increase in prize money in European fixtures will insure that these fixtures are still worth a great deal to clubs financially as well as giving them a boost from bumper attendances. The beauty of this system is it rewards performance in the regular season to a greater extent than traditional play-off systems while also generating huge interest in the post-regualar season games.
As well as this, mid-table clubs, who might not have a lot of interest in the last series of fixtures in the current format would stand a great chance of qualifying for the play-offs, as theoretically the four best teams will already be qualified. The interest will also still remain with the top clubs battling it out for 1st place and automatic qualification for the final with home advantage and a guaranteed place in the lucrative European fixtures.
The season could continue under the current 40-week schedule, finishing in October but a great idea that this writer has heard suggested is starting the league on St. Patrick’s Day to create a connection between our national holiday and pride in your local team.
The first series of fixtures would include a match between the league and cup holders and double as the President’s Cup as there is no sense in this being a stand-alone fixture. It would generate more interest as a league fixture with a cup element, similar to the Bledisloe Cup in rugby.
This would cause the season the run into November where conditions in Ireland are better for football than in early spring. The FAI Cup final should be played on the October Bank Holiday weekend as there is no need for it to be played after the league has finished aside from blindly following the English tradition.
For those who are confused as to how this system would work, this writer will use the 2009 season as an example, as it had ten teams who would closely resemble the sides we could expect to play in this suggested format.
Bohemians, as league toppers would qualify automatically for the final to be played in Dalymount Park. The top performing teams, not including clubs already qualified in the four series, were in order: Shamrock Rovers, Derry City, Cork City and St. Pat’s. The quarter-finals in this instance would be Shamrock Rovers vs. St. Pat’s and Derry City vs. Cork City with the winner of the first tie to play the winner of the second in their home ground.
This system would result in an improvement in attendances in our domestic league and increase the quality on display. Though an avid fan of the league and a staunch defender of its quality, it is not reaching its potential.
Instead of dreaming of huge investment or blaming the FAI for their shortfalls, we should take a pro-active approach to creating the best product for LOI fans, TV companies, sponsors and casual supporters alike.
Seán Murphy, Pundit Arena