John O’Sullivan is a former Chairman of Cork City FC who went on to work as CEO at both Athlone Town FC & Limerick FC. In a two part series on Extratime.ie, John looks at the current league structures and proposes where the league can go in the future.
In 2010 the FAI surveyed the 22 League of Ireland clubs on the future structure of the League. Seven questions were asked;
1) What do you feel would be an appropriate number of teams in a new Premier division?
2) What do you feel would be an appropriate number of teams in a new First division?
3) What do you feel would be an appropriate number of teams in the A Championship?
4) Should an U19 league be mandatory?
5) Are you in favour of a reserve league?
6) Which do you favour, Winter or Summer Soccer?
7) Does your club wish to participate in the A Championship in the future?
Some regional discussions were held prior to meetings in Abbotstown with the FAI. It surprised me when some clubs failed to return an opinion or attend meetings. Less surprising was the 22 clubs returning 22 different responses; largely driven by self interest [I include myself in that criticism] rather than the greater good.
The strongest impression made in the first Abbotstown meeting was Mick Wallace having the bravery to put Wexford Youth’s league future at risk, for the right reasons. He called for a single sixteen or eighteen team league, even though at the time his Youth’s team was ranked nineteenth. For the good of the domestic game he wanted a solution based around sporting and licencing meritocracy, even if clubs were lost to the league in the short term. His fear was that without change, clubs would be lost anyway and that the league was heading towards collapse.
Ultimately, the feedback and meetings led to a twelve team Premier Division and a ten team First Division, from ten and twelve respectively. The A Championship was scrapped, though no reserve league replaced it. The U19 was made a mandatory licencing requirement.
In recent years we’ve lost Sporting Fingal, Monaghan United, Kildare County, Cobh Ramblers and Galway United. Other clubs have come close to joining them. We’ve seen Cobh and Galway return, though the latter’s return saw the loss of Salthill Devon and Mervue United from the league in 2013.
There are many diverse reasons for the loss of the named clubs, but I’m going to put prize money, marketing, interest, mismanagement and such factors to one side. I’d like to look only at league structure. There are fundamental structural problems which have to be addressed, some of which are driven by clubs themselves, some by a lack of FAI leadership.
The Premier Division has three rounds of eleven games. It switches year on year but in sporting terms to play an opponent twice at home and once away [and vice versa] is neither balanced nor fair. In financial terms, it’s worse. To facilitate a 33 game season some teams have sixteen home games, some seventeen. With home games a vital income stream for all clubs, an extra home game advantage over an opponent is ridiculous, it allows a club to budget for extra income which can be put directly into areas that can lead to a sporting advantage e.g. a better player.
Those 33 league fixtures have to be accommodated within 36 weeks, one of those kept free for summer holidays. Not an issue until you factor in FAI Cup, EA Sports Cup and Setanta Cup matches. This is already overloaded before you factor in the disruption for European fixtures, Cup replays and occasional postponed games. It leads to too many midweek fixtures for a semi professional league with semi professional players. Midweek travel can be an issue for away players; midweek fixtures aren’t welcome for a home side. A Tuesday game will usually require some supporters to pick and choose with respect to the home game on the preceding or following Friday. Every club can document the drop in attendance and income associated with moving from your designated home night.
The First Division has been struggling badly for a while. As I write, seven teams are signed up for 2015 leaving only a few options; 24, 30 or 36 games where you play opponents four, five or six times respectively. Over 35 weekends, 36 league games are unworkable in the largely amateur First Division. 24 are too few and would see the division finish, even allowing for play-offs, in September. 30 games raise problems of unbalance highlighted above.
One of the issues of the First Division is that familiarity breeds contempt. Playing the same side four or five times in a league just doesn’t capture the imagination; I’ve witnessed that first hand at both Cork City and Athlone town in the First Division.
The major concern of a seven team league is the fact that each match series, someone has to take a week off. These ‘gap weeks’ create issues on a couple of fronts, primarily on the finance front. Every League of Ireland club knows that the biggest financial issue they face is cashflow, the money on hand [or not] based on your income and outgoings over the short term. A seven team First Division cannot avoid a situation where one club will have ‘gap week’ immediately preceding the mid-season break [and one immediately after it]. This time of year also brings the FAI cup; an away draw or a poor home draw, with split gate, could mean that a club go four to five weeks without any meaningful income.
The First Division isn’t attractive; not to the clubs in it, not to the clubs trying to avoid relegation, not to clubs as a home for a ‘B’ team and certainly not to potential new clubs. It’s important to note however, that First Division clubs looking for a single division need to understand that the Premier Division is not a magic bullet, it requires more work and more investment. Ask any promoted club in recent history and they’ll tell you that those home games against well supported and famous sides really don’t make a bit of difference to your income once you factor in the additional costs.
So those are the structural issues, where do we go? To paraphrase to my opening paragraph, 1000 people will offer 1000 different opinions. Part two of this piece will give my own solutions.