Time, I think, to start calling it ‘Lexit’, the accelerating move towards separation of the League of Ireland and the FAI.
On the eve of a new season which, if all goes according to plan, would be the last with the FAI behind the steering wheel, the association’s Director of Competitions, Fran Gavin, yesterday gave an update on the state of play in discussions with the clubs of SSE Airtricity League which, it is hoped, will ultimately lead to an amicable divorce.
“The favoured position is that we would have a hybrid system as a company, in which we would have a small ownership but the clubs would run the league and have the staff and offices to do that,” he explained. “It’s something the clubs have wanted for the last while, more control, and that comes with responsibility. I think we’re heading down that road, and the target is 2020.”
Longer term, the goal would be for clubs to take full running of the league — “eventually you might see the FAI moving aside,” is how Gavin puts it — but, in the shorter term, he sees the association’s main role under the new system as “making sure it’s a smooth transition because it is quite a sizable task to move from running a club to collectively coming together and running a league itself.”
But even before the clubs get down to hammering out the nitty gritty of self-governance, there is the hurdle of overcoming contrasting opinion on the move within the league itself.
“I know some clubs will have their own views on it,” Gavin conceded. “It’s always been difficult to get a collective agreement with the clubs. I think that’s where they are at the moment, trying to sort that out amongst themselves.” Time, he suggested, is of the essence.
“We’ve made it clear to everybody, in our last discussions, that decisions need to be made now,” said Gavin. “If it is 2020, then the transitional period and plans need to be in place, and that’s going to take a lot of preparation, a lot of planning, so there is a requirement for a decision. It’s coming to a crucial point. Clubs need to have those discussions amongst themselves and hopefully have a united front. We don’t want a vacuum. We need certainty.” If the move does get the green light, it should see no change, at least in 2020, in the current make-up of the league, meaning it would remain two divisions of 10 and that, at the end of the new league campaign which kicks off on Friday, the existing European qualification and promotion and relegation formats would still apply.
One notable football figure outside the talks who has been brought up to speed is Niall Quinn, whose recent public proposals for a stand-alone League and associated academy system, prompted Gavin to get in touch with the former Ireland international. “I actually met Niall a few weeks ago,” he revealed.
“I know Niall a fair long time and he’s a football guy but from some of the stuff I heard I don’t think he was fully informed and I just wanted to inform him of exactly what we do. Because I felt there was an impression there that we don’t do anything with the government and that sort of thing. We’ve actually worked very closely with the government over the years and we are at the moment around facilities and making sure that they’re involved and fully aware.
“I also outlined to him exactly what we’ve been doing, over the last several years, with underage development, national leagues, coach education. He explained to me what he is trying to do and at the end of the meeting he said he’d get more details on it and put more meat on the bone, basically, and we’ll meet again. We’re always open to meet anyone who wants to improve Irish football.”
Meanwhile, on foot of the announcement yesterday that all 20 clubs have been awarded licences for 2019, Gavin said the FAI have been working closely with all the relevant parties in a bid to ensure that there is no repetition of the financial problems which afflicted a couple of clubs last season.
“We don’t want anything like what happened last year with the Limerick and Bray situation,” he said. “In Bray, Niall O’Driscoll and Tim O’Driscoll have come into the club and shown us they have focused on building that club up again and putting it back in the community. They are shrewd business people and we have confidence — they’ve shown us the figures — what they say they’ll do, they’ll do.
“We all want football in Limerick. They’re important for the league, for the development of the game overall, they have very good youth structures. It’s important Limerick focus on stabilising the club. If they are going to get back into the Premier, I think they’re going to need further investment. Pat O’Sullivan has been trying to get that and you’d hope people would come in and try support him because he’s done tremendous work in that area to develop the game and has put his money where his mouth is.”