Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Platinum Bullet

A couple of seasons back we were awaiting the dawn of the FAI's impending stewardship of the eircom League. Despite the misgivings held by many giving the ruling body's inglorious past, the promise of increased prize money and wider TV coverage proved a horse's mouth not to be looked into.

Effectively, the FAI's offer was the only one around and the ailing league had little to lose. Did the FAI know what they were facing into? Currently, keeping to the equine analogy, the ailing beast needs lead in the head; in the eyes of many. Notably, the same many are those who follow football but view the eircom League with disdain.

Whether or not we like to admit it the league as it stands is a soiled product. Our league champions have no main shirt sponsor - this is unheard of in modern football - Barca excepted - and points to everything that is wrong with how the league is viewed by potential sponsors.

I want the league to succeed; I want the youngsters of Ireland to grow up sporting Rovers, Bohs, Drogs etc. shirts. I want them to torment their parents top bring them to a game, to buy them everything in sight with a club logo on it. I want them to buy sticker books with photos of Tadhg Purcell, David Cassidy, Fabio, Joxer et al. But it's not going to happen.

We are taking welcome, incremental, steps to improving standards on and off the field. Necessary steps and the FAI must be complimented for their efforts to impose sturdier criteria upon participating clubs. The five-year participation agreements are, I believe, in their second year of existence. Clubs are feeling the growing pains; stories of financial meltdowns permeate the psyche of our target market.

Our target market is over 4 million strong - the people who don't attend live games. Usually, their interaction with anything eircom League comes via the latest bad news story relating to players not being paid or clubs going to the wall. I firmly beli8eve that if we threw open the gates at every eircom League game next weekend we would not struggle to cope with the extra numbers. Outside of our 20, 000 hardnuts, people are not interested.

We are regarded as freaks, cultists and saddos. We are. But there is a new show in town.

When a man like Fintan Drury attempts to become involved in Irish football we must welcome it. Drury brings a lot of kudos with him; beneath that svelte media friendly exterior beats a heart of platinum. This is not a man interested in dealing in sentiment - unless it can put buttocks on seats. Preferably big fat buttocks carefully cultivated at food outlets in football grounds up and down the island - obviously that rules Michael Keane out. Everyone is entitled to one cheap shot.

There is a sediment of good sentiment towards the halcyon days of Drums, Shels, Rovers and the packed stadia of the black & white era. But we have left those days behind us, surging past Skyplus to HD and Wii.

We are being offered the opportunity to start anew with 10 handpicked clubs from across the island. This may smack of franchise and elitism to traditionalists - gaudy bangles sell. Elitism begets aspiration. Put it on a pedestal, make it special. With the deepest respect to the so-called lesser clubs, there is a huge difference in the atmosphere at a Rovers / Derry game when compared to say, Rovers and Bray Wanderers.

A few eggs would have to be cracked, a few noses put out of joint; the dust will settle and our soiled product will have been replaced by one which would hopefully have sponsors clambering to be associated with the new dawn. Of course, the grounds will have to be vastly improved.

There cannot be a top club who do not privately welcome the opportunity presented by the Platinum One proposals. John Delaney has been hiding behind the IFA's intransigence. The Irish League is in even worse condition than its Southern cousin; they are introducing an invitational Premiership for the coming season. Linfield's resources dwarf even those of close rivals Glentoran; their annual Boxing Day (St. Stephen's Day to the Fenians amongst you) derby game attracts crowds of 12,000. Look further down and crowds are regularly in their hundreds as clubs struggle to exist and in some cases resemble progressive junior outfits.

What club board would turn down the chances of attracting 5 figure crowds for league games? Irish domestic football is the poor relation of sport in this country - here is someone offering us the chance to raise the profile of the game wearing a suit of new clothes fit for a king - hopefully not an emperor, though.

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