Merged national leagues — pie in the sky?

If you accept that full-time clubs were essential for the future of Irish football there’s an obvious follow-up question: how do we create sustainable full-time clubs in Ireland?

Merged national leagues — pie in the sky?

Examining the past is a good place to start. Full-time football in Ireland is linked with reckless mismanagement, financial difficulties and has been the killer of many League of Ireland clubs. We need only look at the near demise of Cork City, Shelbourne, Derry City and Drogheda to see why there’s such a mistrust of full-time football on this island.

The Cork club is nearest my heart. Looking at Cork clubs over the last 100 years offers another, subtly different, explanation why League of Ireland clubs fail.

Full-time football may not be entirely to blame. Looking at Cork United, Cork Athletic and Cork Hibernians reveals a distinctive pattern; remarkable success quickly followed by extinction. Current League of Ireland leaders Cork City FC would have followed a similar path into extinction had the fans’ trust FORAS not stepped up to save the club in 2010, just a few years after Cork City seemed to be enjoying its most successful period yet.

Success it seems may be a real killer in the League of Ireland.

Success? Surely not. But in the above examples it led to better players being attracted to the club and more trophies, but also increased wages.

That’s all well and good for a while. But it seems that Cork clubs have found it difficult to maintain high wages for longer than six or seven years. The relatively stable success of Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland throughout the 20th century would seem to challenge this theory. However, Cork clubs face greater travel costs than Dublin clubs. Thus any Cork club would face a threat to its finances much sooner than a Dublin club with equal wage costs.

On the other hand, Sligo has not had the same amount of problems as Cork clubs despite similar travel costs. Sligo Rovers have not had the same amount of success as the combined Cork clubs over the years who suffered from a cocktail of consistently high travelling costs combined with regular, often fatal, periods of success.

The tipping point always comes when too much success leads to disaster. This suggests a structural problem within the league that doesn’t reward growth. Given these difficulties many will argue, quite rightly, that full-time football in its current guise is unsustainable. But if it is necessary, where does this leave us? There may be hope around the corner.

The spectre of an All-Ireland league back in the 2000s excited and repulsed fans in equal measure.

Despite its eventual demise into the black hole where ideas for improving Irish domestic football reside, the premise of an enlarged market for our best clubs was a good one. It was rumoured that, outside of political issues and historical grievances between the FAI and the IFA, there existed football-related barriers to its creation. These included the loss of allotted club European places and the respective association’s seats on Uefa committees. The threat of Northern Ireland losing its national team may also have played a role.

And yet these latter concerns may not be well founded. The creation of a cross-border league between European countries may not involve such sacrifices. I say this because it has already happened. The BeNe League between the women’s leagues of Holland and Belgium was created in 2012. It provides increased competition and a greater market for the Holland and Belgium teams without any of the footballing related sacrifices mentioned above.

The highest placing Belgian team in the combined league qualifies for the Women’s Champions League as its country’s representative. The national teams of both sides are also preserved.

The concept is not new. Representatives from European clubs outside the top four leagues, (such as from PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, FC Copenhagen, Celtic and Rangers) who felt isolated from the spoils of a re-jigged Champions League attempted to form a cross-national ‘Atlantic League’ in the early 2000s without success. At the time Uefa were strongly against the idea and revamped the Uefa Cup into the Europa League to appease them. National associations also reacted byoffering increased prize money to deter any break-away.

More recently, before the recent political crisis, there was much rumour of a joint Russian/Ukrainian league emerging with huge financial support backing the idea.

The latter plan will, most likely, now be scuppered. But the recently created Uefa Nations League indicates it is becoming innovative. As a member of Uefa we need to put our case forward for a combined league to help progress our domestic game.

The cynic might say it is all pie in the sky. There is no combined league now and there never will be. But if rugby had taken that cynical approach I wonder would an Irish club have appeared in the European Cup semi-final last weekend, and would Ireland be current Six Nations champions? More importantly, would we have full-time professional rugby in this country? I don’t think so.

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