Richard O’ Donovan discusses the current state of schoolboy soccer in Ireland, a topic that is very close to his heart.
“Legitimacy is based on three things:
(1) The people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice – if they speak up, they will be heard;
(2) The law has to be predictable (i.e. it should be the same or similar from one year to the next);
(3) The authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.”
Malcolm Gladwell (citing Tom Tyler, David Kennedy & Lawrence Sherman) in his new book David & Goliath
The legitimacy of the rule making, or perhaps more accurately the rule administering of the FAI may about to be tested at the grass root level of Irish football, and yet despite its gravity, the story thus has largely been unreported across the country.
As of this weekend (8th/9th February) 24 of the 25 qualifying teams (11 clubs) from the Cork region of the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland’s (SFAI’s) National Cup Competitions will, as things stand ,refuse to fulfil their fixtures at the current stage of the competitions – the stage where the nation’s 8 regions begin to interact.
If this turns out to be the Cork club’s decisions, the SFAI, will in almost all likelihood award the ties in question to the Lee sider’s respective opponents and in doing so, they will quickly seek to brush what has become an ugly episode in underage Irish football under the rug.
However if this is what is actually allowed to happen, and no light is shone on the actions of those around the country who are supposed to be guiding and governing our young players then that would be a great injustice.
For now we can still hope that an amicable solution will prevail before the impending fixtures arrive, but if things go as expected then at least we can hope that this shameful episode does not go under reported.
Make no question, the conduct of the FAI as a whole should be in the spotlight here, this is not just a small issue to be dismissed.
How we got here
To fully understand how we have gotten to this point it is perhaps best to rewind to a vote taken by the SFAI at their AGM a couple of years ago. At the meeting, a rule was initiated that stated that schoolboys clubs in Ireland could only draw players to play for their teams who went to school within a 49km catchment area of their club’s base. (I am not specifically arguing for or against the rule in this piece, I think both sides have merits, instead for now I am merely arguing against the blatant ignoring of legitimately established rules, and under the guise of doing what’s best for the development of the Irish game).
At origination (regardless of its other implications) the rule in question was designed in order for rural teams to have a better chance of retaining their players when the bigger clubs from Dublin in particular, but also Cork and other big population centres came calling. (Again for now, I am not arguing for or against the rule I am just reiterating that it was legitimately enacted).
In early 2013 however the enforcement of the rule in the U15 division of the Dublin and District Schoolboys League (DDSL) left Tallaght based Kilnamanagh FC being banned from fulfilling the remainder of their season’s fixtures for repeatedly playing a player from Kildare who fell outside the SFAI’s 49km radius.
It is generally believed and accepted that Kilnamanagh were far from the only offending club in the DDSL that season (the DDSL is in fact rumoured to have facilitated the ignoring of the rule by its clubs), however unfortunately for their squad of players, Kilnamanagh were by chance to be held up as the poster boy victims for either the ridiculous enforcement, or the blatant non enforcement of the radius rule – depending on your point of view
(It’s always nice when kids are the collateral damage in the quarrels of those who supposedly know best.)
The ironic part of that particular episode was that a former Kilnamanagh resident who at the time of the sanction was living in Kildare was said to have lodged the complaint with the DDSL.
A subsequent outrage ensued as the club was seen to have been overly punished by the SFAI by having their season ended so prematurely (I agree, it was). But knowing that their decree was being blatantly ignored by the DDSL, the SFAI stubbornly refused to back down on this occasion.
And so over the summer close period, the DDSL upset with having part of their power source threatened, began to initiate moves to remove themselves from SFAI affiliation and instead looked to come under the banner of the Leinster Football Association (LFA) which had no such catchment area rule.
This would of course have been a blow to the SFAI (in spite of what they said about the threat) who would have lost their most successful league at club level for contesting the SFAI National Cups and their most successful league at Inter-League level for their Inter-League tournaments – the most famous of which being the annual Kennedy Cup held for the U14 age group.
The FAI however blocked this unprecedented attempted move by the DDSL and appointed a mediator to try and resolve the ongoing issues between the two sides – including the small matter of a reported €30,000 in unpaid fines that had accumulated for repeated rule breaches by the main Dublin league.
Fast forwarding to the beginning of the 2013/2014 season and following a period of unsuccessful mediation between the two warring factions, the FAI sought to address the bumbling issue by creating its own rule with an expanded catchment area at an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM). At this point the decision taken by the gathered delegates of the FAI was to restrict players under the age of 16 from travelling distances of greater than 80km from their usual place of residence in order to play for another club –an increase of 30km on the SFAI’s rule. Absent CEO John Delaney, had supported and encouraged the eventual decision in a recorded message prior to the vote.
Notably, however the SFAI lobby voted against the measure having ratified their own 50km limit (extending the previous limit by 1km) at an EGM that had followed the contentious Kilnamanagh ruling. As part of their EGM, the SFAI believed they had addressed the overly draconian nature of the Kilnamanagh ruling by reducing punishments for similar future infractions to a fine for club and league and the forfeiture of offending games. Understandably therefore the SFAI committee were not pleased by the move by the FAI which sought to undermine their authority on the issue.
And so at this point with the DDSL and the SFAI still at an impasse, the SFAI National Cup competitions started their 2013/2014 season with the DDSL still as an affiliated league and as such, due to the size of the league, being one of 8 regions that would have local qualifying before the draw becomes national at the last 32 stage.
However while all of the other 7 SFAI regions had complied with the local SFAI draw made in late August and completed their qualifying by the time of the national SFAI draw that took place on December 14th, the DDSL had yet to kick a ball in the competition despite several requests from the SFAI to do so.
(At this point, it should be noted, that regardless of the ambiguity around the 50 or 80km nature of the rule, that the DDSL was still popularly believed to be blatantly facilitating the ignoring of both forms of the rule by its members.)
The SFAI therefore proceeded to go ahead with the draw for the last 32 without representatives from the DDSL on this date.
It was at this point that the SFAI’s parent body, the FAI, decided to further intervene and seemingly contradict its own previous ruling (what 80 kilometres?), with the Board of the FAI declaring the SFAI’s December draw null and void.
A directive was then issued by the Board of the FAI to the SFAI to redraw the last 32 and include 4 slots for the DDSL teams.
Next, on the 8th of January in Abbotstown (where the headquarters of the FAI and DDSL both reside) the FAI facilitated a seeded draw (seeded draws are also against SFAI rules) by the DDSL for their area of the SFAI cups, and ignored the original unseeded draw made by the SFAI.
At this stage the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the SFAI were strongly encouraged, with the threat of ramifications for the SFAI, into complying with the FAI’s decree. The SFAI council therefore ultimately agreed to comply with the FAI albeit under protest from several members. (The Cork Schoolboys League, the league of the 11 Cork clubs outlined their own position at this meeting and abstained from the vote).
It is worth mentioning that the DDSL draw, although it had happened on January the 8th, was not publicised until after the SFAI council meeting which took place on January 11th. This was probably a wise move, as such a publication could have potentially made an already contentious vote even more difficult to pass, even with the backing of the SFAI Chairman and Vice Chairman
Ultimately, the somewhat enforced compliance of the SFAI, as well as permitting the revised DDSL area draw, also involved the SFAI carrying out a second last 32 draw for each of the competitions.
At this point the FAI, one would assume, largely hoped that the contention had been postponed for a couple of months, with the unfortunately placed DDSL players released to compete in the competition having been held back previously by their league delegates and coaches.
However perhaps unsurprisingly, by now the 11 Cork clubs still remaining in the various competitions had had enough. Upset with the ability of the DDSL to ignore rules and draws that the remainder of the SFAI’s 31 leagues had complied with, the clubs joined together to formally seek an explanation from the SFAI and the FAI as to both the need for a seeded DDSL draw, and the planned redraw of the last 32 for the 5 competitions. However having wrote to both bodies, without even an acknowledgment of receipt of their letters in the first instance, and later having been informed that the redraw had taken place, the 11 clubs ultimately decided that enough was enough.
Eventually after the clubs formalised their plans not to complete their fixtures, an audience was granted to representatives of the clubs, with the FAI, in order to air their grievances.
Which brings us to where we are now, with the 24 CSL teams teetering on a decision that really doesn’t seem to have a correct answer. If the clubs finally decide to draw a line in the sand and call out the FAI on its conduct and governance, then it leaves the kids it represents as the main losers in the piece. However if it acquiesces and fulfils its fixtures then we are likely to be back to where we started next summer, with a non compliant DDSL loathe to give up some of it’s immense power. The stickiness between the rock and the hard place doesn’t seem to be going away.
A moral dilemma
Ultimately if pressed, I’m not sure I would agree with a decision by the Cork clubs to walk away from the competition this year, however I would also unquestionably understand it.
In his notorious “pieces with inches” speech from Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino states that, “In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to fight and die, who’s going to win that inch.” Now while that may be true, in the context of his teams job on a football field Pacino spoke of a fair and noble fight.
That is not what we have here.
But if we don’t have that, what does it say then about these fighters? What does it say when the same tactics and ferocity are being brought to their fight, a fight with the potential for such unjust consequences?
In my opinion, what it has to say is that some of those responsible for the alleged governance of the game have lost touch with what they are supposed to be doing and forgotten who they are supposed to be running football for.
As it is under the current structure, it is impossible to ignore that the people who matter the most in all this (the young players) are going to be the collateral damage for the fighting regardless if it comes to a head now with a Cork withdrawal, or down the road when the fight on catchment area resumes.
For me it starts with the DDSL (but spreads quickly). After all, in this instance it is undeniable that the DDSL made the first aggressive move with their young players as their political pawns. Why then should their willingness to implore such tactics guarantee them a favourable outcome?
And better yet why should the FAI allow them to circumvent even the FAI’s own authority when it is their remit alone to govern Irish football at all its levels?
Personally, I cannot get myself past this.
There is a historical truth that says that when one side chooses to back their weaker opponent into a corner – and leave that opponent with only drastic and dramatic options – that inevitably that opponent will come out fighting. That is what we have here.
And if the weaker side does come out fighting should we not be blaming the bully who backed them into a corner in the first place?
After all, there is only so much illegitimacy that can be tolerated.
Pundit Arena, Rich O’ Donovan.
FOOTNOTE 1 – Personally, I cannot ignore my own biases here, my father is heavily involved in one of the clubs who will be penalised (Corinthian Boys), my uncle is the schoolboy secretary of the club and my brother plays for one of the teams that will potentially forfeit its games.
If that isn’t enough, a similar injustice befell my own Corinthian Boys team 10 years ago when we were thrown out of the National Cup for refusing to complete a fixture in Dublin that had been delayed for months due to a dispute between two DDSL clubs. On that occasion once the DDSL in fighting had been resolved, we were asked to travel to Dublin in the middle of our Junior Cert exams to fulfil our fixture, an unreasonable request we politely declined.
What had been the exact cause of the delay on that occasion?
Two Dublin clubs warring over the eligibility of a player from Derry, Northern Ireland to play in the competition for their club.
(For the record the player in question has only ever represented Northern Ireland internationally and so the argument that DDSL clubs are only trying to advance Republic of Ireland football with their recruitment policies falls down a little here).
FOOTNOTE 2 – Since the writing of this article, the 11 Cork clubs (24 teams) released a statement unanimously announcing their intention to withdraw from the SFAI National Cup competitions for the 2013/2014 season in a decision fully supported by the Cork Schoolboys League.
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