Last Monday, as a nation waited with mounting anticipation for the anointment of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, the more select core of fans who owe an allegiance to the domestic game were reminded of the disdain Giovanni Trapattoni held for the Airtricity League.
“In Ireland, there is no league,” he was quoted as saying at the start of the MNS programme’s quite brilliant montage of the season that ended with an engrossing FAI Cup final last Sunday. “Maybe you don’t know, but I know this.” The three minutes and 30 seconds that followed, stuffed to the brim with goals, was as eloquent a counter as you will find.
Yet Trapattoni’s attitude towards the game played on this island was one reinforced, no matter how unintentionally, when it emerged that the engraver tasked with fashioning the legend on the medals presented to this year’s cup winners had somehow managed to spell ‘Sligo’ wrong.
Here again, was a rod created by the FAI for its own back, another symbol of the half-hearted manner in which it has addressed what should be the blue riband tournament under its care. Yet the people who used to work behind that famous green door on Merrion Square are hardly alone in such levels of neglect for such a critical component.
In Ireland, we like to talk about the Big Three: soccer, GAA and rugby. In terms of participation, coverage and their ability to lure readies from the corporate sector, there is no denying their status yet all three have questions to answer.
The Airtricity League’s difficulties are no trade secret. Sparse crowds, poor infrastructure and limited financial input have allied with the pull of England to rob the domestic game of the oxygen needed to thrive.
The deteriorating performances of Irish clubs in European football, even since Shamrock Rovers made the pool stages of the Europa League, have been alarming and it remains to be seen how accurate are the suggestions that O’Neill and Keane will attend League of Ireland games and coach some coaches.
The suspicion is that such a compelling double act will merely divert what little heed being paid to the domestic game back towards the bright lights of the senior international game, where the ever-expanding net that is the European Championships should leave sufficient room to reel in the Republic of Ireland.
Events in Dublin tomorrow, when O’Neill is officially unveiled, will be the start of that and much the same situation will unfold later in the day when Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team take to the field for the first time against Samoa.
The IRFU, like its stadium partners, knows only too well the headache that the domestic game can be. Countless tweaks to the structure of the AIL have come and gone but nothing can pull the game back from the abyss of financial meltdown and irrelevance.
The IRFU has at least sought to address this apocalypse via their ‘Club Engagement Process’, a root and branch consultation with those units across the country, but there is no evidence yet to suggest that anyone has come up with a way to stem the fading role clubs have to play in an era of professional provinces and academies.
Again, this is something the rugby union recognises. Strategic documents bear graphics on the virtuous circle that is, or should be, the relationship between the club/schools games, the provinces and the national team but the GAA is further proof that a pyramid would be a better analogy for such structures as those at the bottom are clearly suffering.
The very mention of the ‘plight of the club footballer/hurler’ (© the GAA) is enough to make the most dedicated of that association’s members cough nervously and back away lest they be entangled in the most intractable of issues Irish sport has to offer.
The problem here, as it is with the FAI and the IRFU, is the lack of political will. All these issues are, for their respective organisations, sport’s equivalent of the Department of Health brief: everyone understands its importance but ignoring it or shuffling it on to someone else’s desk has always been viewed as the only commonly held policy.
It’s an issue that will fill endless inches in our newspapers this winter and maybe even deep into the New Year but they will be empty gestures.
Coaches, managers and championships come and go. It is surely time now for most systemic problems to be addressed.