Monday, December 18, 2006

TWO BECOME ONE

Both the FAI and IFA are in the process of reconstructing their respective domestic leagues as of now, and hopefully this heralds the birth of a saviour; word on the bough is that he will definitely not be named Maxi.

The FAI are further down the road with their plans, and are currently sailing their oft troubled vessel through some polluted water. Traces of an oil slick, Lilywhite corpses and homeless Limerick natives signal the wake of the FAI's partially feathered regime. The brains trust have settled, initially, on a 12 and 10 divide for the Premier and first division respectively.

The mathematically gifted amongst you will already have ascertained that, in a country of approximately 4 million people, we will have 22 senior teams. According to my calculator this breaks down to an average of one club per 181,818 of population.

I am very p'ed off by this figure as it just looks all wrong on the page, but I've doublechecked, and it's correct. The IFA are creating an 'invitational' league; and it is expected that the 'invitational' prefix will circumvent the rantings of the great unwashed who won't make it to the Promised Land. Clever move.

With the current count of 16 clubs in the top division of a nation of approximately 1.5 million we are looking at one club per 93,750 of population. Yes, almost double the density- no pun intended - of their Southern colleagues. To achieve parity with the FAI's new arrival, we would be looking at a top league of eight teams up North.

Realistically, any eight-team division would generate as much excitement as a new Enya album; and such a notion is readily discarded. So why mention it? Simple mathematics.

Domestic football in Erin's green valleys is the relation you're hoping doesn't call at Christmas. For too long now it's been a loafing, sponging and generally boring entity in the disinterested eyes of the populace. It's been poorly administrated, poorly attended and supporters are considered to be plastic raincoats, like the one your Granny used to have.

When measured, inevitably, against the HD whoosh of the Premiership, it looks cat! Empty grounds, shabby stadia and poor playing surfaces combine to project a miserable package. Those of us who love these leagues know it can be better.

Post match pints oil oft repeated conversations about what needs to be done. If we are to preserve our leagues, it won't be in the current formats. They need sexing up. Honestly, if every club were to allow free admission to a game over a weekend the crowds would not increase hugely, because people are generally disinterested.

But the sexiest thing to happen in the game of late has been the Setanta Cup. It has captured the imagination of followers north and south with it's unique fixture list, and the possibility of a team being crowned Champions of Ireland. Setanta's TV coverage has been great, helping to raise the profile of the competition to a level where even the 'great disinterested' may hazard a sideways glance. Essentially, the competition benefits from a novelty factor.

And isn't this just what we need to draw new supporters into our games? What Seth Godin calls the 'Purple Cow ' factor- a product with the novelty element inbuilt. People want to see it, without having to be sold it, and there are few football fans on this island who haven't at least heard of the Setanta Cup competition. And it's only two years old.

Surely, a blind man in an FAI or IFA blazer can see that this is the way forward for Irish football. A top league consisting of the island's top teams, backed up by a first division and two regional leagues. We've already had the likes of Waterford United and Cork City travelling to Derry City in the eircom Premier, and Cobh Ramblers journeying as far as Finn Harps in the eircom First Division; so the travel factor already exists.

The gap between the top sides from both leagues is minimal; further integration will help to raise the levels. Recall the arrival of Derry City to the eircom League; the huge novelty factor it invoked. True it has waned, but the Candystripes are probably the best-supported team in the land. Fans love rivalry, tribal loyalties, and football.

This is the 'radical change,' which is needed to drag Irish domestic football into the viewfinders of the lost fans. Many will argue that nothing will drag these people away from their plasma partners. Those are not the only people we're chasing. What about the thousands who desert their sofas to follow GAA? Many of these are soccer fans also, yet they don't attend domestic league fixtures.

Professionalism is slowly creeping into our game, presenting us with better, more skilful, players. Players who if given a chance, can retain the interest of fans and become role models for children who will dream of playing for Rovers or Linfield, rather than being shipped onto the Premiership conveyor belt and being spat out.

There have been rumblings of a possible UEFA ruling, which will limit the numbers of foreign players at clubs; this will make it even harder for Irish youngsters to make the grade across the water. All the more reason for us to ensure then, that we are in a position to offer them a livelihood in the game closer to home.

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