Can League of Ireland finally square the old vicious circle?

The full house signs on the approaches to Dalymount Park for tonight’s derby meeting of Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers sit comfortably with a domestic game that is once again allowing itself to embrace a guarded sense of optimism. 

Can League of Ireland finally square the old vicious circle?

But crisis and controversy has rarely been far from the League of Ireland’s door.

It’s way too soon yet to tell if that vicious cycle has been abandoned.

The last decade has, even by the domestic game’s standards, been an epic of drama and disaster but, ultimately, a rousing tale of survival against the odds.

So, it’s no bad thing now to recall the landscape as it presented itself when the 2008 campaign dawned and the good times seemed to be endless.

The league, like the country at large, was flourishing. Or appeared to be.

Wages were rocketing, with Cork City, Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletics among the biggest spenders in the race to catch Louth’s reigning champions. Drogheda United, that is.

Dundalk? They were languishing in the First Division but then full-time rosters weren’t unknown at that level either.

This was also the first season played since the league and FAI’s merger and encouraging noises were emanating from Abbotstown, then as now, about the league’s potential and the likely trajectory it would take now that responsibility for its well-being had been assumed by those closer to football’s throne.

The league’s street cred had recently been boosted by the moves to the UK of players such as Kevin Doyle, David Forde, George O’Callaghan and many more again.

The sense that the League of Ireland was a product that merited attention was heightened again when Stephen Kenny swapped the dugout at Derry City for Dunfermline Athletic.

That said, it may actually have been Dave Mooney’s signing by Cork City that spoke loudest for the bright new dawn.

Mooney had finished the previous season as the Premier Division’s top scorer with Longford Town and then ignored the come-hithers from the English Championship to relocate to Leeside instead.

A new direction on what had always been a one-way street. Adding to the giddiness was a new weekly highlights show, named ‘Monday Night Soccer’, to be aired on RTÉ.

It was actually one of the chief talking points at the official launch that year so who could have known then that John Caulfield would be bemoaning four-second clips on the national broadcaster’s news programme ten years later?

John Caulfield
John Caulfield

Like the country at large at the time, the league was mostly heedless to any warning signs.

The FAI was party to the full-steam ahead approach when bumping up their share of the prize money for the league champions, from €225,000 to €250,000.

The runners-up would take in €100,000, a figure only ten grand off the sum for this year’s winner.

And all the while the warning lights were flashing red.

Longford had finished the 2007 season with a six-point deduction for their failure to comply with some licensing requirements and by the end of the next campaign both Cork City and Drogheda United – two of the supposed Big Four that season along with Bohs and St Pat’s – had been docked ten for going into administration.

For pretty much every club mentioned in this piece so far, and more besides, there would be much darker days to come and the spectre of the poor house continues to be such that there was an air of triumphalism from some clubs this month when announcing that they had been granted their licences for the months to come.

It’s understandable really when the season just gone threw up worrying storylines with the difficulties experienced by Bray Wanderers and Athlone Town.

Add in Limerick’s quandary over its ownership situation going forward, a situation still not resolved, and the thin margins between surviving and thriving are clear.

Still, the new season will lift anchor with considerable wind already in its sails.

Dalyer tonight aside, Cork City’s rebirth continues apace with the number of season ticket sales sold ballooning and the return to the top tier of Waterford, allied to Dundalk’s strength and Derry City’s return to a new and improved Brandywell next month, proves that the game is alive and kicking far beyond the Pale.

The European runs of Dundalk and Cork City have also raised awareness.

The work being done on infrastructure, academies and with the national underage leagues should all feed into an ever-improving product – as long as the economy doesn’t falter again.

The news that the FAI has opted against upping the prize money and instead put it towards operating costs for the underage leagues suggests an attempt to pull away from the boom-and-bust environment and, with the Republic of Ireland’s next competitive qualifier a year away, the League of Ireland is the only game of football in a town near you right now.

The future looks bright. For now, anyway.

PaperTalk Extra League of Ireland Preview podcast: Cork City's siege mentality, Waterford contenders and Liam Miller's legacy

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