It’s been a grim old time for Irish football fans. We weren’t just beaten at EURO 2012, we were stripped naked and run down the main street with all of Europe laughing at our flabby bits. Meanwhile, back at home, we lost yet another club from our domestic league. But while Ireland Inc. will live to fight another day, Monaghan United are gone and they won’t be back any time soon.
The departure of a League of Ireland football club is hardly news, it having become something of an annual event in recent years. A brief roll call of the most recently fallen includes Kilkenny City (2007), Cobh Ramblers (2008), KIldare County (2009), Sporting Fingal (2010), Galway United (2011) and now, Monaghan United (2012). We should also add Cork City and Derry City who both folded in 2009, before reconstituting themselves as new entities the following season.
The reasons behind each of these club’s demise are many and varied, though it all comes down to money in the end, or the lack thereof. Kilkenny and Kildare simply couldn’t get people to go, while Cobh were hopelessly in debt and split at board level. Fingal were built on foundations of sand, Cork and Derry were each ruined entirely from within, and Galway were bled dry by years of mismanagement.
So Monaghan are just another body lost to the harsh realities of economics. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last. But there is a significance to Monaghan’s situation that deserves closer attention. For a start, Monaghan were a very well-run club. Despite meagre resources Gortakeegan was a pleasant place to go. It wasn’t glamorous, or polished, but it was friendly and clean, and it had its priorities right.
For years Monaghan prospered on the lean pickings of the First Division, building a squad under Mick Cooke that was good enough to compete with the likes of Cork, Derry Limerick and Shelbourne for promotion to the top tier. They continued to cut their cloth and did what they had to do to make ends meet. Only when Roddy Collins delivered the dream, and the club became a part of the Premier Division, did it all prove to be too much. On 18th June, with half a season played, Monaghan made their excuses and left. But - and this is important - they didn’t go bust.
Monaghan withdrew from the money pit before they went out of business and the club lives on with its key assets intact and numerous successful underage sides still operating. They just won’t be competing in the League of Ireland. Why not? Because it costs too much. And that needs to change.
There was a time when the League rightly pursued a more ambitious financial existence. Chasing the dream of a fully professional league, and guided by licensing criteria that pertained to the whole of Europe, Irish clubs were pretty much whipped down the road towards the kind of professional governance that had the nod and wink brigade shivering with indignation, but pulling their administrative socks up nonetheless.
But that was then, a time of milk and honey, when if you weren’t regularly taking a tumble on your four poster bed in a shower of newly minted bank-notes, then you weren’t really trying. What the league needs now is not the stick, but the carrot. However the FAI do it, they need to make competing in the league more affordable.
With too many clubs having already tumbled out of the league and several more teetering on the precipice, grand ambition must be shelved in the interest of more immediate practicality. We are used to clubs fighting tooth and nail to stay in the League. We are used to clubs racking up enormous and unpardonable debts, leaving local businesses out of pocket, stripping well-meaning investors of their life’s fortunes, and generally laying financial waste to all around them; and all in the cause of maintaining their League status. Monaghan have suddenly asked the question, why?
Some people argue that the smaller clubs within the League structure are unnecessary, that they contribute nothing and that the League would be better and stronger without them. Perhaps they are suffering from delusions of grandeur. The domestic league is not big enough, in any of its four corners, to be overly judgmental in terms of any club’s worth as defined by their size.
The League of Ireland needs to make room for small clubs, for regional clubs, for clubs that don’t bring an established core of supporters. The alternative is a small conclave of traditional teams centred heavily around Dublin and an even more isolated League fanbase than we have now.
And what of the League’s responsibility to represent the country as a whole? To be truly national? We have already seen the demise of the A Championship and the failure of Tralee Dynamos, Cobh Ramblers and FC Carlow to gain entry to the league via this route. Castlebar Celtic and Tullamore Town gave up on the chase for League status a couple of seasons ago. It cost too much.
Is the message of austerity that, sad as it may be, there is no room for a club of Monaghan’s limited resources? And what about Wexford Youths, or Longford Town? Finn Harps and Athlone are finding things tough at the moment too, what about them? Are they to be left to the discredited laws of natural selection, the law of the market, that defined the boom years?
The football government need to remember their wider responsibilities and they need to do something, not just to help clubs avoid going bust, but to persuade those clubs that the battle to remain in in our country’s national league is one worth waging.
Simon O'Gorman began reporting for Extratime in 2010. He remembers Milltown and Flower Lodge and, back in the mists of time, saw Diego Maradona play at Lansdowne Road. He now lives in Co Kildare and reports on Shamrock Rovers among others. Simon can be contacted at email@example.com