League of Ireland – What’s the Plan?!

Cabinteely

When the news broke that Cabinteely FC were set to join the League of Ireland First Division, many pundits and supporters of the domestic game were up in arms about the decision to allow another Dublin-based outfit into the already struggling league. In recent years many of the city’s newer clubs have come and gone while regional sides like Kilkenny City, Monaghan United and Kildare County have disappeared. With the existing teams in Dublin struggling to attract support as it stands, the logic of accepting another team from the capital into the league is rightly being questioned.

In recent times, St Francis, Home Farm, Sporting Fingal, and Dublin City were all erased from the registry while Monaghan United pulled out mid-season in 2012. Mervue United and Salthill Devon from Galway both participated in the First Division before Galway FC took the mantle of Galway United in the west of Ireland. In Kilkenny, local junior league side Newpark United now use Buckley Park, the home of the defunct Kilkenny City FC.

A proposed ground share between Shelbourne and Bohemians in Phibsborough is on the cards with Dublin City Council in talks to purchase both clubs’ stadiums and have the teams become tenants of a redeveloped Dalymount Park. They plan to lease it back to Bohs and Shels and build apartments on the banks of the Tolka River in the crumbling home of the Reds.

The dire financial statuses of thirteen-time champions Shelbourne and eleven-time title holders Bohs puts the groundshare into perspective. A few years ago fans of both clubs would have been enraged at the prospect of moving in with their closest neighbours but now the plan would seem to make the most sense for the two northside clubs.

The announcement by Shamrock Rovers not to field a B side in the First Division was made before Christmas and the decision to allow Cabinteely entry into the league seems like desperation to make up the numbers so there are eight teams instead of seven this season.

The arrangement to install another Dublin-based team into the First Division shows very little foresight from the FAI, with pundits pointing to a southside derby of UCD versus Cabinteely and the low attendance such a game would likely attract. It’s clear that the FAI has no plan for the League of Ireland. Being described as the difficult child by chief executive John Delaney sums up the attitude of the association to the domestic game. The FAI’s main priority would seem to be the national team above all else.

Critics of the league here invariably draw comparison with the juggernaut across the Irish Sea in the shape of the Premier League. However, the journey westwards across the Atlantic also throws a contrasting light on what’s happening.

Of course the League of Ireland and the FAI do not have anything like the investment that teams in the USA can command with TV contracts and wealthy backers. Given that each new franchise has to hand over a fee to MLS, Orlando reportedly paid $70 million to enter the league. However comparing the League of Ireland to Major League Soccer shows one organisation with a clear and concise plan for expansion of the game in that country.

MLS seeks out the market they want to expand into and then puts a team in that location, where possible making sure that clubs have downtown locations and soccer specific-stadium plans in place. Atlanta are set to become an expansion franchise in 2017 and a second team in New York City will join next year along with Orlando City. The decisions to allow teams into the league Stateside are carefully considered. With planning and thought, the league has spread by accepting teams from Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto as well as the addition of Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders who play in front of sell-out stadiums most weeks.

The FAI’s failure to act to save the likes of Monaghan United or Kilkenny CIty, allowing three teams from Galway into the league and then allowing two to exit shows that the organisation exists on a hand to mouth, year on year basis instead of big picture planning. Another team in close proximity to UCD and Bray Wanderers will struggle to attract fans in an already crowded market place with many questioning how long the newly elected Cabinteely will last in the league. Will they be another blink and you miss them, fly by the night League of Ireland club?

In the 1990s, there was a major push in League of Ireland circles to put money into infrastructure with new stands being built right around the country. In recent years that has reversed with grounds crumbling as clubs deal with the harsh realities of ecomonic meltdown and spending caps. It speaks volumes that Shelbourne are considering moving from their Tolka Park home to Dalymount Park. The Drumcondra venue was once the bright light for stadia here, the setting for multiple FAI Cup finals and big European nights but it has since fallen into disrepair.

On returning from his time in England, Keith Fahey rightly lamented the state of some clubs’ facilities but we may be seeing a swing towards bricks and mortar again from the more ambitious sides, and the funding is perhaps coming from an unlikely source. The Dalymount groundshare is being spearheaded by Dublin City Council, echoing what happened with Shamrock Rovers’ tenancy at Tallaght Stadium. In Derry, the local authorities along with the Northern Ireland Assembly are financing a multi-million euro redevelopment of the Brandywell. Other clubs such as Cork City, Sligo Rovers, and Galway have continued to put their stock in the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” Professional football clubs working with local government, not just in terms of building works but as vehicles for  community cohesion, is something that happens the world over but there has never been a sense that it was a priority in Ireland.

When Chivas USA stopped operating in Los Angelas the MLS were persistent in their vision of having a second team in the city. The newly rebranded LAFC owned by multiple backers including Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm are set to take the field in 2017. The League bought the franchise back off the owners Antonio Cue and Jorge Vergara who also own the Chivas Guadalajara team in Mexico, with the intent to sell it on to new owners such was the belief in having a team to rival Robbie Keane’s LA Galaxy.

The League of Ireland continues to struggle on, sometimes it seems in spite of, not because of the Association here. Paying lip service to the redevelopment of Dalymount Park with the earnings from Euro 2020 means nothing without putting structures in place to ensure the continued development and growth of the League. Having clear plans to make sure regional clubs don’t go out of existence and not allowing new clubs into overcrowded markets would seem to be a good starting point.

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