Thursday, January 31, 2008


The word is a boon for dreamers, fantasists and those who have just realised that they are not going to succeed in their task. From Derry to Cork, Dublin to Galway and within and beyond those points eL football is alive and fighting.

Back in the aftermath of the 2006 season we were left with a sour taste as the newly-crowned eircom League premier Division champions collapsed under the weight of their financial commitments. Shelbourne had bought the dream, but couldn't afford the payments. Unlike Dublin City in the previous year, the aged club did not sink into oblivion but managed to slow down the ingress of water in the First Division.

A far cry then from talk of Champions League group stages and international recognition for domestic football. Some of our best players crossed the water to ply their trade in England & Scotland; lands were professional football appeared to on a firmer footing; a place where wages would be paid each week, or fortnightly, or monthly. Drogheda United went on to win the subsequent Premier Division title - a famous first for the Drogs, but they were the main beneficiaries of a league which had seen the standards of the top sides slip a little. The Louthmen managed to hold their ground while others slipped back and were duly rewarded.

Our exploits in Europe disappointed, nobody was capable of building upon or even matching, the efforts of Derry City in 2006. But for 2008 many of our Flying Geese have returned. Jason Byrne, Bobby Ryan, George O'Callaghan et al are eL footballers once more. Cynics and professional sneerers will be quick to point them out as failed pros who are returning with their tails up their tails.

But each one returns having added further to their footballing education. Training and playing with and against a better quality of player can only have improved their ability, although in some cases, their perception of that ability. Added to the signings of players like David Partridge, Joe O'Cearruill and Joe Kendrick to name three we are to be gifted a significant improvement in the quality of player on show in Irish football. The players they have displaced will strengthten the squads of sides further down the food chain.

These players command significant outlay on the part of their respective employers and their presence would not be possible without the presence of deep-pocketed benefactors - of course this is a revenue stream under greater scrutiny as part of the ongoing 65% wage cap saga.

We must allow ourselves the time to applaud the steely vision of the clubs who are strenuously striving to take our game onto the next level. It's a slow and painful journey on a difficult road. The effort required to convince investors that there is a future for the game here cannot be underestimated. We've all looked around us from time to time at a ground and wondered why.

Incremental steps - sometimes forward, sometimes back. But progress no matter how minute is still progress. Even then, while some clubs advance and prosper others flail. There will be victims - Kilkenny City have not been able to keep apace - others ail.

Upon reflection, last season can be deemed a transitional one, 2008 brings forth the promise of increased quality, better competition and incremental progress.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Our Heroes

Have the FAI discovered the spirit of Glasnost? They opened their bunker to 30 or so extraordinary members of the public recently; extraordinary in that they were that rarest of things, eircom League fans. Lovebombed into submission by Fran Gavin, Noel Mooney and Padraig Smith this proved to be a polished presentation on the wonderful world of the FAI's eircom League leadership.

Cynicism is inevitable from jaded sufferers of Irish football once that acronym is mouthed and most who refuse to take off the blinkers, but there continues to be no other horse to back. The All-Ireland league proposals are sexy under dimmed lighting; but there are many unanswered questions and may be better suited to the future. Our professionalism is still in development and I believe the FAI are doing a fine job of supporting our early steps.

Each negative event is greeted with plates of snide and bowls of derision. The demise of Kilkenny City is a case in point. Had the Cats continued for 2008, then collapsed mid-term, what a cockery it would have made of our league - or have the memories of the tumult caused by Dublin City's implosion been forgotten? Yes, Brother Gavin's comments regarding his hope that other clubs take the same action as Kilkenny were open to misinterpretation; reasoned observers can extract the true meaning from his words.

Any entity which has been run in a cowboy fashion - as the League of Ireland was - is going to take some whipping into shape. Generally the bottom is the best place to start. The brown envelope years, the shoddy player welfare, poor training facilities (recently a hugely successful LOI player from the mid 80's into the 90's recalled running a circuit through the dressing rooms and out along the pitchside at Dalymount Park for a night's training; pre-season entailed chasing skirt around the Isle Of Man during the wee island's summer tournament).

Things have moved on hugely since then, mainly in the Premier Division although not always incrementally. That said, clubs like Finn Harps and Galway United have sprung from the First Division, Dundalk may be about to. The new leaders are setting in place structures; a dull word I know, but much paddling has to go on beneath the water for the swan to glide gracefully. The basics must be right if we are to attract investment into our game.

Even without the completion of this, John Delaney has managed to groom a sugar-daddy for Perennial Crisis FC down Limerick-way, and this should be seen as a coup on a par with the Granny-rule successes of the Charlton era. A city that oozes footballing potential may finally have it realized again almost 30 years after their last slowdance with success.

Increased TV exposure has been extracted from the national broadcaster in the form of an improved highlights package - hopefully a professional presentation almost on a par with the Premiership highlights programme - broadcasting at a time when most viewers are actually awake.

Of course, we must not leave the minnows behind. It's difficult to envisage the likes of Monaghan United capturing the Premier Division title; but their existence is crucial to the development of our product nationally. Strategically placed clubs can offer youngsters across the nation the possibility of top class football close to their own doorstep. Inevitably the best of the crop will be hoovered up by the big clubs, such s the survival of the fittest - football thrives on its elite.

Of the current crop Rovers, Bohs and Cork amongst others have the potential to appeal to longlost football supporters. The two Dublin clubs are heading out to new stadia in the coming years - the Mammies like nice toilets and will be pleased to bring their demanding offspring to
the shiny new temples and spend copious amounts of cash on overpriced food and drink, not to mention souvenirs.

Sounds uncannily like an English Premiership experience I know, but if we want to progress our game we need to fill those seats and empty those wallets in order to increase turnover enough to line the pockets of better quality players.

Much as we love to hate the English elite league - it's really jealousy - it's a slickly run cashcow adored by millions. OK, we'll never reach those heights, but as a model there is much to be taken from its operations.

As fans we continue to rail against every edict from Abbotstown, feeling that big brother is breathing down our arses. It is crucial that we follow the mantra; John Delaney may have his faults, it's widely agreed that he's a capable administrator. Let us bare our holes to his powers for a while longer.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Management

I believe last season can be deemed a success - the first year of the new golden age of domestic football under the chauffeurship of the FAI passed almost uneventfully by. Longford Town received an asterisk - however it was not a controversial ruling. There were no registration horror shows, as the administrative strands of the game were being put into some order.

Possibly the biggest grinch that supporters could have with the new regime was the sometimes inexplicable and often amusing array of sanctions imposed on clubs throughout the 2007 campaign. For sanctions read fines - for the clubs deemed to have broken the rules by allowing supporters to support were invariably hit in the pocket. So much so that it was becoming a nice little earner for the FAI.

Cynics would support such an assertion; although poor pitches, unruly supporters and bottle throwers do not conspire to attract families to football matches. Possibly the most tyrannical application of disciplinary prowess has come in the form of fines for flares - no not a punishment for fashion faux-pas, but a levy on clubs who allow supporters to light such fireworks within the confines of an eL venue.

To most onlookers these objects certainly add to the atmosphere & excitement, lending spice to the prematch build-up. The smoke produced can provide a temporary distraction - especially for TV cameras - but the positives outweigh the negatives. There may be crowd safety issues, but it would seem possible to cordon off a small area at either side/end of a ground where they can be ignited safely.

The early stages of change are often uncomfortable and rarely without teething problems. For years we have bemoaned the lack of organisation; the disjointed attempts at promoting the product; the incestuous infighting amongst club representatives, and the rest. Out came John Delaney's whip to bring a perceived shimmer to proceedings and it has worked.

Yes - problems remain - mainly on the financial side. Strict constraints and checks are making it more difficult for clubs to muddy their financial affairs however. In theory this prevents the possibility of a club drowning in a sea of well-hidden debt; it inflicts the need for good habits and better procedures in the approach to off-field affairs.

The biggest embarrassment of last season was surely the strip debacle at the Cork City v Bray Wanderers televised fixture (the visiting side were forced to play in an old away strip belonging to the hosts, complete with blacked out sponsorship logos and blacked out player's names) - my assumption is that there will be no repeat in 2008.

CPO's proved their worth - it's all still in its infancy. Ground improvements must follow - Mammies want to bring their precious cargo to nice shiny McFootball venues. It's not a vista beloved of hardcore fans but it points the way to survival and success. Bums on seats mean fuller stadia. Fuller stadia will look better on the impending highlights show on RTE; a more polished presentation makes it more difficult for the gripers to knock.

Such growth breeds interest; breeds improved sponsorship; breeds better players. The importance of instilling in youngsters - and the world of schoolboy and junior football - that the eL provides a viable stepping stone, better still a viable career for young footballers, cannot be overstated.

We must hold our nerve for a few more seasons; support the efforts of the professional clubs to advance themselves; support the efforts of the FAI to solidify their framework while lending polish to the image and reputation of League of Ireland football.

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