So, once again, we have an Irish side, in the form of Dundalk FC, guaranteed Europa League football and one tie away from the holy grail of the Champions League group stages. They could be joined in Europe ‘proper’ by Cork City in a few weeks. Surely, it’s time to get excited. Hang on though, we’ve been here before haven’t we? Remember Shels vs Deportivo in 2004 or more recently, Shamrock Rovers European exploits in 2011.
I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd to witness ‘the hoops’ against Spurs at White Hart Lane and I remember the level of excitement I felt. Seeing old team mates and old adversaries fighting it out against the household names of the Premier League. I would have loved to have been out there testing myself against the best, albeit in a Rovers jersey. However, that envy stretched only to European nights. I wouldn’t have traded my position in England’s League 1 to return to our domestic league. Why? The League of Ireland is the same now as it was then and always has been. There’s been no investment and no improvement in structure. If anything, it’s declined. Where’s the desire to keep aspiring Irish footballers in Ireland.
Despite many trips to Turners Cross as a kid, the League of Ireland failed to inspire me. A combination of poor weather, poor style of play and the pull of English football. What’s changed? A shift to summer football has to a certain extent improved conditions for play and supporters but as a footballer, England will always be the place to be. That needs to change and investment is much needed. We’ve been saying it for years. Of course it’s a tall order, but any sort of attempt by our home association would be nice. We now have, like we’ve had in the past, teams in positions where they are capturing the imagination of the footballing youth in Ireland. Teams that are fighting it out to dine at Europe’s top table. These clubs are actively promoting the league at a time when they have the nation’s undivided attention due to the English close season. They are showing what our league could be and it could be great.
Sadly, our domestic league is seen as nothing more than a skidmark on the underpants of Irish football by our home association. To use their own words, “a problem child”. Right now, we should be excited, dare I even say it, optimistic. However, both Cork and Dundalk are playing in a league, governed by a national association, that oversees the common practice of professional footballers training for six weeks without pay in pre season and then sign on the dole as soon as the final whistle blows at the final game.
Here, we have Dundalk, a team on the cusp of Champions League qualification and the strongest domestic side over the past few years, who must play European games miles away in Dublin as their home ground is inadequate. Where’s the investment? The sad truth is, many League of Ireland grounds wouldn’t look out of place in England’s non-league Conference North.
For starters, the winners of the Airtricity Premier League wins a measly €110,000, but I suppose they can always rely on the €350,000 a year FAI chief’s €5000 ‘strategic plan’ loan proposal. Such a proposal is pitiful and a prime example of the contempt shown to our domestic league by our own association. When real measures need to be put in place, what we get is nothing more than a patronising rub of the hair for our league, followed by a “here you are, go on away and don’t be annoying me”.
Unfortunately, aside from the clubs concerned in Europe, nothing will change. They will earn their money and continue to dominate, while the rest of the league ambles along in disguised, or worse still, deluded professionalism. Irish clubs are doing their best and undoubtedly deserve better. I hope I’m wrong, but like every other League of Ireland success story, time will pass and the forays of Dundalk, and hopefully Cork City tomorrow night, will be consigned to nothing more than memory and the FAI’s ‘problem child’ will remain as problematic as ever.
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