It says in the papers and on the podcasts - hometown heroes and the state of the First Division

Wed, Sep 27 2017

Hometown hero Kenny Browne. Credit: Eoin Smith (ETPhotos)

Those hoping for a return to the normal round of moaning about refereeing/the FAI/league reconstruction and an end to betting scandals were to be disappointed this week.


Dermot Keely’s Wednesday column in the Sun expressed concern that recent events may have seriously harmed the league’s reputation, while the same newspaper informed us that Athlone Town’s Jason Lyons had been banned for seven games for gambling on First Division matches.


The original story noted that Lyons’s sentence had been a good deal less than the 12-month suspensions given to Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfjrijan in order to reflect the lesser nature of the offence as Lyons was not involved in the games concerned. However, the following day’s Sun carried an update which informed us that Lyons had actually played in three of the games.


It is not clear if this revelation will cause any further fall-out but Athlone Town FC were unavailable for comment. Perhaps understandably so. The lads from Lissywollen have been charged with 'bringing the game into disrepute' following their trenchant reaction to the verdict in the Labuts and Sfrijan case.


The constant stream of bad news from the Midlands would make you fear for the future of Athlone Town FC. It is to be hoped that these fears are unfounded for Athlone really does have a great tradition. Even now. The current manager of the Premier Division leaders, John Caulfield, and the man whose late goal denied Caulfield the title on Monday, Robbie Benson, are both from in or near the town.


One does wonder what both Caulfield and Benson would have made of Waterford Uni…., sorry, FC defender Kenny Browne’s interview with Paul Buttner in Friday’s Mirror.


Waterford native Browne, who has won both major trophies and the Setanta Cup, asserted that his recently secured First Division winner's medal "will be right up there with all the others" as "nothing beats winning honours with your hometown club." This is easy for him to say now, but his effusive praise for all aspects of the club really showed a genuine hometown pride.


This is almost always a good thing in a footballer. Although, as Brendan Clarke described to the LOI Weekly podcast, it can sometimes pose problems for a professional player. Clarke recounted how he had taken the decision to leave St Pats during last winter as, having grown up supporting the club, he wanted his departure to be his own decision.


Of course, amidst the discussion of on-field matters there was a certain amount of moaning about league reconstruction this week. Des Curran joined Johnny Ward on LOI Weekly and the two lads had a reasonable discussion about the state of the First Division and the possibility of a 16-team league.


Both men know the league well and this piece was far more balanced than the nonsense that has spewed forth from several managers during this season. Johnny Ward seemed to think that the First Division is unsustainable and the best solution was to try and get all the better supported clubs into one division of 16.


Obviously, Johnny was speaking off the top of his head, but its worth noting that, having praised the strength of the Leinster Senior League earlier in the show, he then proceeded to exclude three LOI teams from Leinster (UCD, Cabo, and Wexford) when asked to name his 16 preferred clubs.


Personally, I’m not sure that it is true to say that the First Division is a completely hopeless case. In recent years both Longford and Athlone have found that better support is to be had at the top of the second-tier rather than when struggling in the Premier.


Even Cork City, who, contrary to what David Kelly wrote in the Independent, did survive two seasons in the First Division, drew larger crowds during their promotion chase of 2011 compared to when they were becalmed in the middle of the Premier two years later/


This highlights the major issue with any notion of 16-team league: the fact that meaningless mid-table fixtures aren’t much of a draw. Emmet Malone in the Irish Times noted the attendance (2,500) at the LUAS derby on Monday, and stated that “the bottom line is that this league can ill-afford to relegate clubs [Pats] that can attract that number of people to a game on a Monday night.”


However, its only 12 months since some low, three-figure crowds at Richmond Park were attracting publicity. What the league can really ill-afford is a lack of competition. The Premier Division needs relegation to function properly. For that we also need a functioning First Division.


Achieving a balance between top and lower-tier by moving to two divisions of ten, rather than the current structure of 12 and eight is not elitism. It is not fair to compare this move, as Malone did, to the recent changes to European competition which are designed to push teams from smaller leagues further to the periphery.


Daniel McDonnell wrote a brilliant piece in the Independent, recalling the clash between ‘Coad’s Colts’ and the ‘Busby Babes’ in 1957. At the kick-off of that match the League of Ireland champions, Shamrock Rovers, were four two-legged rounds away from the European Cup Final. This season’s champions will now be the same distance from the last 32.