MICHAEL WOLSEY: ‘Last chance for the suits to save Irish soccer’
WHEN Irish soccer split, back in 1921, the League of Ireland and its northern equivalent, the Irish League, both inherited what, in business-speak, would be termed sound franchises. Attendances were in the region of 10,000 to 15,000 and big games could easily attract twice that.
Stadium facilities were primitive by today’s standards. Not that anyone gave them the grandiose title of ‘stadium’. They were ‘grounds’. And the bigger clubs – Shamrock Rovers and Bohs, Linfield and Belfast Celtic in the north – had grounds that were the equal of those in London and Manchester or anywhere else in the football world.
The standard of football was also up to scratch. Both the Irish leagues used to stage ‘internationals’ against representative sides from England and Scotland, and sometimes further afield. They were expected to hold their own and usually they did.
I started following Irish football in the late 1960s. By then, even the best of the grounds had fallen far behind their English equivalents in terms of pitch drainage, floodlights, seated accommodation and catering facilities.
Games were played before crowds of thousands, not tens of thousands. The standard of football had similarly declined and competitive matches against the neighbouring leagues were abandoned in the late 1980s.
Television was beaming the attractions of Manchester United and Liverpool into Irish homes and our game looked shabby and second-rate by comparison. At a time when young people were looking for glamour, Irish soccer had none to offer.
Today League of Ireland attendances are as likely to be counted in hundreds as thousands. Sometimes they can almost be be counted on your fingers. Last season, Wexford FC played Athlone Town before a total of 52 paying customers. The teams and their attendants outnumbered the supporters.
As the new season gets underway, there is no real reason to think things will be much better. And the position of the north’s Irish League clubs is, if anything, even worse, to the point where professional soccer there is looking like an endangered species.
There are many reasons for this decline but the blame does have to be handed to the two governing bodies who took charge of the sport in 1921. As I said, they inherited sound business franchises. If they had been directors of a real business they would all have been turfed out after a few years and replaced with people who knew how to create success. Instead the same suits, the guys Eamon Dunphy called the decent skins, continued in the job to retirement age and then passed the baton to equally decent skins in similar suits.
The game’s biggest problem is one of numbers. Soccer is Ireland’s second sport, behind Gaelic football, and may soon be pushed into third place if rugby keeps growing. It does not have enough followers to sustain two good professional leagues.
Rugby got around this problem by putting its resources into just four clubs and playing them in a multi-national league. That option has not been open to soccer but it may become a possibility now that there is talk of a European super-league.
Obviously, no Irish club is in a position to join such a league. But what if Ireland’s two leagues were to get together and press for a slot in this league, then build a fully-professional, properly-financed team to fill it?
This is not as fanciful as it sounds. If the super-league ever gets going it will be a very commercial operation driven by the big television companies. An Irish club, with an international following, would be an asset worth attracting.
It will be too late to move when the league is formed. Now is that time to hold talks, take soundings, make preparations and tease out the possibility of sponsors.
Irish soccer needs leaders with vision. I live in hope but history says I will be disappointed.
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