Let's be honest about this, professional soccer in Ireland in its current form just isn't working and it's time to start planning for the future.
When the Republic of Ireland bowed out of the Euros and most of the senior officials of the FAI were winding down their activities in Poznan, Monaghan United were winding up. The decline of Monaghan is another sad story in the pitiful recent history of the league of Ireland. To the outside world, it's unfortunate news but to those at the epicentre, it’s more than that. It means unemployment for the good people at Gortakeegan, no role models for youngsters playing soccer in the Farney county and another reality check for professional football in Ireland.
The stark reality is that until those at the top start getting their heads out of the sand, this trend will continue. In the past many big clubs like Drogheda United, Cork City, Galway United and Bohemian’s to name but a few have all been hit by financial difficulties and many other clubs are struggling weekly to make ends meet.
Let's be honest about this, professional soccer in Ireland in its current form just isn't working and it’s high time to start planning for the future. A future that is real and lasting. One of the only ways professional soccer in Ireland can work is by following in the footsteps of the IRFU. Ireland is too small to facilitate a domestic professional league and when the turnstiles fail to ring with the sound of punters, clubs begin to feel the pressure.
This leaves us with matches in predominantly empty stadiums that are an injustice to the efforts of all concerned at the respective clubs, players and officials. But from a commercial point of view this is not very marketable and is far removed from the glitzy shiny product that can be viewed on satellite television in the comfort of your own sitting room or a warm pub. John Delaney reassures us that the association is “continuously reviewing” and that it is far more professional now than before he took the reigns of power. On some levels, that is perhaps true but one cold hard look at our domestic product makes that statement less than believable.
The winning club receives around €100,000 prize money and although that is a significant amount of money in general terms, it is but a drop in the ocean of a club’s outgoings. Add to that grounds that must be maintained and the efforts that are made to make conditions inviting for supporters and you are left with short change.
So what can be done to plan for the future? Would the FAI consider setting up four professional provincial teams that would be commercially strong and viable and would be able to compete at the highest level? Surely it is worth thinking about. Yes, this raises other issues with the IFA up North but perhaps it is now time to have a look at that elephant in the room as well. I'll get back to that. The four provincial teams would be made up of the best players in our current league and the league of Ireland clubs would contest an amateur league that would be highly competitive. That league would then be used as a feeder system for the provinces. But where do the provincial clubs compete?
A Celtic league is now a serious possibility with the demise of Rangers but I think that the FAI should seriously consider asking the English FA if the provinces could compete in the English leagues. Why not? These new clubs would be commercially sound with most definitely a large fan base that would be attracted by the top sides coming over here week in week out. One of the biggest reasons for the failure of top quality professional soccer in this country is that we lose our best players to the English leagues. By going this route, the Irish players would be competing in the English league but would be on an FAI contract. As much as I love the domestic game, it is naive to think that we could ever have a league that will attract the amount of bums on seats needed to make it viable. This way we could.
I think this new set-up would strengthen football in Ireland in every way. There would be a good domestic league where pride in playing for the jersey would be augmented and communities would start coming back to the terraces to support their local team. Young players would have something to aim for which would encourage continuous quality in the domestic matches and guarantee a high level of player being drafted into the provincial team and staying in Ireland.
While the threat of our best players being sought by the top English clubs would still be there, this set-up would afford those players the choice to stay longer. We must also consider the amount of money being pumped into the top Premier league sides now by foreign investors and foreign players arriving in England is making it harder for Irish players to make an impact. They are rarely getting a look in anymore. Just take a look at the amount of Irish players in the top four teams and it is clear that this is what is happening.
In a time when television and media is king and new angles are always sought to try and boost ratings, I believe bringing the Irish element into the British leagues would be a smart card for the FAI to play when seeking entry. In Spain’s La Liga teams leave the mainland to play matches on the islands. It is easier to get to London from Dublin now as it is to get from Wexford to Galway for example. Leaving the football benefits aside, this new merger would reap massive rewards for tourism with the guarantee that our domestic airports, hotels, B&B’s and hostelry’s would be busy with travelling fans. In 2009, an economic impact study conducted by BDO Simpson Xavier revealed that the Heineken Cup quarter final between Munster and Osprey’s was worth a phenomenal €10.5 million to Limerick city & region. Imagine the amount of jobs this would create in all four provinces.
Now back to the IFA question. There is no love lost between both associations with the recent player poaching controversy being well documented. Our performance at the Euros and Northern Ireland's failure to ever qualify for that competition or featuring at a major tournament since 1986 should really hammer home the fact that combining our powers could possibly be a way to really compete at the highest level. From a stadia point of view, the FAI and the IRFU already have an understanding in terms of the Aviva and we have seen Ireland play friendly’s in Thomand Park so this should not be an issue.
As Bob Dylan once said "the times they are a changin' and as a modern society we should try to move with the times. We've shared so much as an island and have been divided for so long. Recent political developments have illustrated how far we have come and although I agree that politics and sport should never be mixed, sometimes they are hard to separate.
Britain is our nearest neighbour and has welcomed our greatest players for decades. By creating four powerful professional provinces we bring Irish football to the next level and it would mean a better chance of qualification to major tournaments which means more money for the FAI to help the domestic clubs. Some may say this is a crazy proposal, others may agree with me. Sometimes, we must think outside the box and see what is right in front of us and at least have an open and frank discussion. The time to take drastic measures is upon us and if those at the top don't see that, then for sure the cat most certainly is not in the sack.