Questions to answer if our league really is to progress

Cork City supporters make their feelings known.

With the new season fully into its stride and the Conroy Report still under discussion, former Cork City player Neal Horgan argues that some of the most crucial issues facing the League of Ireland have yet to be properly addressed and that action is required to improved things.

When the FAI announced they were commissioning a report into the League of Ireland in 2015, I was hardly alone in warmly welcoming the news. And by the time Declan Conroy published his findings last September, I really hoped that I was about to read a serious and progressive plan for reform of the Irish game.

First impressions were of a substantial undertaking, many of whose recommendations have indeed been well received — such as an increase in prize money, the re-introduction of marketing personnel specific to our league, and the introduction of club ambassadors and a league ‘champion’ to promote the senior game in this country.

More controversially, there was also a recommendation in respect of changing the format of the two divisions, but, as Conroy’s stated purpose was to start a conversation about the league, you could argue that he succeeded in that respect too.

However, all that said, it’s my opinion that his report failed to address some of the biggest challenges facing the League of Ireland. And, whatever does eventually emerge from ongoing discussions on the document between the FAI and the clubs, I believe that the most fundamental questions about the future of the domestic game have still to be tackled.

Why in a league of its own?

Those of us who have a serious ambition for football in Ireland, have long pined for the progress and status enjoyed by leagues of other countries with a comparable population and size to our own.

The fact that, in the Conroy Report, no comparison was made with any other country’s league seemed to me, at first, to be a blatant oversight but, when asked about this omission shortly after publication, Conroy explained that it was not part of his remit. The question then should be, why not? The ‘Genesis II’ report, 10 years earlier, carried out a comparison with other leagues, including those of Austria and Norway. So why not an updated version? Does our league compare so badly to other countries that a comparison would not be helpful?

Despite the lack of comparative analysis, the Conroy Report still insists on setting out what it calls the “unique” environment in which our league finds itself, at one point stating: “The Irish sporting landscape is uniquely different from most of its European equivalents.” It is difficult to understand how it can be proposed that we are unique in any way in a report which does not offer a comparison with even one other country. And I am not being pedantic here. I feel this is an important issue as there’s a danger that if we accept we are “unique”, then we might be more inclined to accept that we should be judged only by our own standards.

The full-time question

There is another important omission in the report — the subject of full-time football in Ireland.

Nowhere is there any mention that full-time football between 2004 and 2009 brought better results in Europe, improved crowd attendances, attracted bigger transfer fees for our players, and increased the production of more players for the Irish national team than ever before from the League of Ireland.

Nor, on the downside, is there any analysis of the considerable problems that full-time football (in its ad hoc and uncentrally planned format) posed for a number of clubs.

The current predicament of some of our top players, who are effectively full-time from March until November before becoming unemployed from December to February, is something that needs to be considered as a matter of priority.

It seems to me that there are two possible ways forward: Either the league reverts to a purely part-time game, with afternoon training allowing these players to hold down full-time jobs or, challenging though it may be, we seek a transition to a full-time game.

The blame game

There were other troubling aspects to the Conroy Report. For example, in the event of a club experiencing financial difficulty, it seemed to preclude the idea of any responsibility whatsoever falling on the heads of the FAI.

In Chapter 4.2, page 10, under the heading ‘Roles and Responsibilities’, it states: “While not a universal view, it has become, for some, a conveniently held position... that issues affecting a club’s operation or viability are the responsibility of the FAI.”

But surely at least some of the issues which affect the operation or viability of a club operating under the authority of the FAI are, by definition, the responsibility of the FAI? And responsibility is the crux of the matter. The health of our national league clubs should be one of the FAI’s most important responsibilities, given the crucial position of the League of Ireland at the top of the pyramid above intermediate, junior, and schoolboy clubs.

Beyond reruns of the old blame game when things go wrong, we need an association that understands it plays a crucial role in deciding how clubs are run and how the league should position itself going forward. In short, an FAI that is really part of the league.

A way forward

I think the SSE Airtricity League, in a strategically reformed or (ideally) merged state, has the potential to become a fully professional and well-respected league as appropriate for our population, environment, and resources. The reasons why this is currently not the case are due, principally, to our poor performances in European competitions, the league’s low co-efficient, a lack of stadiums of quality, and an inability to offer full-time football.

In my opinion, we need the FAI to make the attainment of professional football in this country a priority. I would prefer if there was a concerted effort by all of those involved in the game to plan for this, rather than a concerted effort to try to stay positive about the league as it is — with all its defects. I’m sorry if that’s deemed to be negative but that’s how I feel — and I hope nobody needs to be convinced that I write as someone who loves the League of Ireland.

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