IT’S the start of a new season of Airtricity League football. All over Ireland, clubs will be hoping that this is their season – but will they all still be there this time 12 months?

IT’S the start of a new season of Airtricity League football. All over Ireland, clubs will be hoping that this is their year – but will they all still be there this time 12 months?

At the time of writing, champions Shamrock Rovers were making a winning start to their title defence, coming back from a goal down to beat Dundalk in Tallaght on Friday. Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic were also big winners, but the opening night of the new season followed hot on the heels of some disturbing news for clubs chasing the silverware.

As with all other sectors in Irish society, football hasn’t escaped the recession. The real cause for alarm, as far as clubs are concerned, is the drop in prize money for the winners of this season’s Premier Division. As well as a fancy-dan (and slightly radical) trophy, the top flight champions in the Republic of Ireland will pocket €100,000 in prize-money.

Sounds good? It’s not to be sniffed at – but look at what the winners used to get. Last year Rovers picked up €200,000 for finishing as champions. The season before that, Bohemians helped themselves to the trophy and a cool €280,000. That same year the bottom-placed club in the Premier Division picked up €40,000 on their way into the First Division.

This season, the team who finishes second in the Premier Division will earn just €5,000 more. Given that it costs in the region of €20,000 in affiliation fees to join the Airtricity League, you’d have to finish third (prize of €25,000) or higher to make a profit. Fourth or below will net clubs prizes of €15,000 and lower.

The huge drop in money could be the difference between sink and swim as far as clubs are concerned. In recent seasons the League has become something of a graveyard for teams – Kilkenny City and Dublin City folded, while Cobh Ramblers opted out of the top two flights and now play in the A Division. Cork City were also a big-name victim; their ship sailing before a revival under the guise of Cork City Foras Co-Op, but perhaps the most alarming casualty was Sporting Fingal, who bowed out just weeks before the start of the new season.

Former First Division and FAI Cup champions, Fingal’s dreams of becoming a big player on the Dublin scene came to an end after their efforts to find major financial investment came to nothing. Perhaps they flew too close to the sun too soon, but their demise sounded a warning to the rest of the League.

Of course, it’s not just the clubs who are suffering – the players are struggling too. At the end of the last two seasons the PFAI, the players’ union, have held training camps for professionals who have competed for places on Irish teams that have played in tournaments for out-of-contract players.

There are no medals or trophies for these competitions, however. Players go to places like Norway and Finland with the hope of catching the eye of foreign clubs and earn a living abroad.

Given that it’s the players people pay to see, the shortfall of cash has led to a vicious circle. No money means no talent on the field; a shortage there means no chance of glory for clubs. Teams have to spend in order to challenge for titles, but with purse-strings getting tighter, the pursuit of contracts – now much shorter than in the past – has gotten even more competitive.

The race for the title has just begun, but there’s no doubt that some clubs are eyeing survival almost as much as silverware. There is a chance, however, to sweeten the pot at the end of the campaign. The winners of this season’s FAI Cup will bag a cheque for €50,000 – something to whet the appetite of every club.

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