“We cannot have people running clubs who are not fit to run them or who run them in a cavalier way that ultimately affects the community…”
– John Delaney, December 16, 2009
Underneath the surface of the recent FAI debacle, the Irish football community are struggling.
Struggling to make sense of it all, to come up with solutions. Struggling to explain to friends and family what all of this means and how it will all end. Underneath the surface of Irish football, League of Ireland clubs have always been struggling.
Struggling for survival, for acceptance, for respect.
That struggle continues today. News of Limerick FC’s demise and its removal from the league, is just the latest sad chapter in the tale. There will, of course, be serious consequences for the players and fans in this proud footballing city. Noel O’Connor, owner of the long-established Pat O’Connor and Sons butchers in Limerick’s William Street, is well placed to consider the fresh carcass of Limerick FC.
Having managed Limerick’s League of Ireland representatives during two periods (either side a stint spent at Cork City in 2003 and 2004 where he was assistant manager to the mercurial Pat Dolan), O’Connor is well placed to assess the impact.
“This will hit not just those who go to the games, but a much wider cohort of fans of football in Limerick. It is a disaster. Having said that, not that much has really changed from when I was last in the club in the mid-noughties when we were firefighting week to week just to stay alive. Pat O’Sullivan (the Limerick Chairman) took the club upwards after that for a while and it is very sad to see that all fall down now.
“When I’d first got involved with the club in 1995 I was trying to boost the underage section. We’d been through a period where I felt, we had too many players from Dublin who didn’t care enough about the jersey. So we brought in younger players from Limerick and did quite well, even winning a League Cup in 2001. It was a better model for Limerick football, playing younger, local lads.
“I feel that some of the current problems have been caused by moving away from that model that had worked for us. Too much money has been spent, ambitions were too high.”
That some of the wounds at Limerick were self-inflicted seems to be generally well accepted. But what role have the FAI played in all of this?
I suggest to Noel the lack of proper support by the FAI for the League of Ireland may have played as important a part in Limerick’s demise as it did when Cork City were in trouble in 2009.
“Anyone who has an alternative view to that view doesn’t have a clue about soccer in Ireland. The FAI’s attempts to boost the League have been laughable, at best. For example, what other semi-pro or professional league in Europe doesn’t have a TV deal that brings revenue to the clubs.
“It hasn’t been an issue for Limerick these past few years while in the First Division, but if a Limerick side got back in the Premier Division, then revenue from a TV deal could be crucial to allow the club to grow and prosper.
Current Cork City assistant manager, Joe Gamble, played at Limerick from 2012 to 2014 during a successful time for the club, and is another saddened by Limerick’s plight while also seeing it as a blow for the whole league.
“It’s not just sad for Limerick, it’s terrible for the League and the reputation of the League. There was a great buzz when the club returned to the Premier Division and to the Markets Field. Limerick is such a big soccer city, junior clubs are very strong there too. But a city like Limerick needs to be involved in League of Ireland football.
“But this can’t keep happening to clubs in Ireland…it’s terrible for everyone, the fans, the players, the chairman.
“And ultimately it undermines the league itself. Something has to be done. But we’ve been saying this for a long time now.”
Somewhat predictably Limerick chairman Pat O’Sullivan has been quoted recently taking umbrage with the FAI: “It is scandalous the way the FAI has treated me. No other club has been put through the process of having to jump all these hurdles before we get an opportunity to apply for a licence….The FAI have put every obstacle in the way of the club and ultimately what will happen is that the club will have to just fold.”
It’s nearly 10 years to the day that John Delaney appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee to explain how it was that Cork City FC had found itself in a dire state and how it was being run in a ‘cavalier manner’. While he may have been correct (at that moment in time) in relation to the latter, he was also able to convince the committee that the FAI were doing all they could for the league.
At the same time, a finger was pointed at players’ wages: He told the committee that: “Full-time football is sustainable in this country but with a proper wage structure rather than the crazy figures I have just outlined. Five clubs work on a full-time basis. It is affordable but only when the correct wages are paid…”
Pay the correct wages? How true. In my opinion, this has been the extent of the FAI’s advice in relation to the professional game in Ireland. The FAI weren’t interested in the radical reform of the league. They preferred to keep firefighting, to assign all blame to the owners and player wages (whether merited or not), and to continue on, head in the sand. And so the league has remained impoverished, with most clubs on or near the brink every season.
The last ten years since that appearance in the Oireachtas has seen Sporting Fingal and Monaghan United leave the league, and now another one bites the dust.
As the stink from the current FAI debacle keeps rising, the general public are coming to realise that there’s been something toxic in the water all along. League of Ireland people knew, have always known. They’ve seen too many dead fish.