The League of Ireland’s constant ‘state of chassis’

Introduction to Second City

The League of Ireland’s constant ‘state of chassis’

“The whole worl’s in a state of chassis”

‘Fluther Good’ in The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

 

Following publication of my book about Cork City’s 2008 season, I was tempted to leave it at that. While I had also kept a diary of the 2009 season, I was not as enthusiastic, initially, about publishing that. In fact I was worried that it might do some harm. On the other hand, the 2008 season, after the looming spectre of financial and sporting disaster at the club, had ended on a high, which gave a positive slant to the whole book. There was a new owner at the club, and the Setanta Cup victory had brought a sense of security for players and fans alike. And while on the last day of the season there was still some uncertainty in terms of tying up players’ contracts, this was a feel-good ending – which was important.

Having enjoyed playing in the league for about 15 seasons, I was conscious, when writing about the 2008 season, that the book should not turn out to be overly negative. The league takes enough hits from people who know nothing about it. I was, and remain, most interested – like many others out there – in seeing the league progress onto more stable and fruitful grounds.

So in the context of the long-term view of the League of Ireland, the 2008 season documented something more important than that oft-told tale of victory after a crisis. It’s a season that, despite the particularities of full-time football, the withdrawal of Arkaga and the entry of the club into examinership, is symbolic of the continuing condition of the League of Ireland that has prevailed over the last 60 years or so. As such it was a season that, despite the positive ending, represented the ‘status quo,’ whereby the struggle for survival has taken priority over any efforts towards real progress.

In this regard any League of Ireland club’s five- to ten-year period over the last 60 years might run something like this:

  • The club performs to their best within the (deficient) structures of Irish football. It focuses on doing well in the league or in the FAI Cup in order to bring in bigger crowds. Every now and then it might sell a promising player to an overseas club, and this money helps with payment of wages. When things are going well the club manages to keep its head above water.
  • Then the club has a bad year and, fairly quickly, finds itself in financial trouble. This can be brought about by any number of factors – a director might’ve pulled away funds, a debt might’ve surfaced from somewhere, there may have been a downturn of results on the pitch leading to lower attendances… Any of the above will do, and they cause the same result: money running low. (The bad year may have been preceded by a few successful years or a few barren years in terms of winning silverware – it doesn’t seem to matter either way in the League of Ireland.)
  • Attendances fall (or continue to fall) and cash runs dry. The owner or directors suddenly find themselves on their knees, gasping for air, praying for time in order keep the creditor sharks at bay.
  • For the main part the end game – the death of a football club – comes threateningly close, perhaps two or three weeks away. But somehow the club is saved. Maybe – as in our case in 2008 – the court protection offered by the examinership process is a lifeline. An unexpected cup win could bring relief. A new owner might bring in fresh funds; or, if the club’s lucky, the FAI will lend a financial hand to allow them the breathing space they need to survive.
  • Once back on its feet the club returns to the first stage of this process, but the next stage is never too far away, and any effort at real progress is undermined by what Fluther Good would describe as a constant ‘state of chassis’ (chaos).

 

This depressing state of affairs was acknowledged in 2005 by a report entitled ‘White Paper on the Strategic Development of the Eircom League,’ commissioned by the FAI and carried out by Scottish consultant firm Genesis – who had produced an earlier report focussed on the Irish national team in the aftermath of the troubles involving Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane at Saipan in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup.

Genesis’ second report focussed on the League of Ireland (then called the ‘Eircom League’) and is commonly known as ‘Genesis II’. It makes for interesting reading:

 

“Over the last 20 years the eircom League and its member clubs have struggled to

survive. By any rational analysis of financial performance, attendances and sponsorship it is clear the eircom League is near to being economically bankrupt and is unsustainable in its current format and incapable of sustaining itself into the future.

[…]

“The eircom League is currently trapped in a downward spiral. A poor product with unattractive facilities leads to a lack of support, minimal sponsorship and low levels of income. The challenge for the league is to shift from that downward spiral to a virtuous, growing spiral where a strong, superior product with attractive facilities leads to increased support, higher levels of sponsorship and an improvement in performance and income for the league and its clubs.

[…]

“Making small, incremental changes to the League will not have the desired effect. Transformation is required to change structure, management, performance and behaviour – all four vital ingredients of any process of change. What is needed is a ‘whole new ball game’”.

(‘White Paper on the Strategic Direction of the eircom League’, by Genesis, 2005)

 

As such, my reluctance to write about the 2009 season was not just based on the fact that it was, overall, a negative experience; it was also based on the fact that 2009 was a less accurate reflection of the league than 2008 had been. 2008 was a clear example of the survival game that has come to dominate League of Ireland life, involving a status quo whereby clubs just about get by, from week to week, season to season. This is the life that, for the most part over the last 15 years at least, has been eked out by even some of the most successful Premier Division clubs. The top Dublin sides such as Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne, Bohemians and St. Patrick’s Athletic have all experienced hardship and threats to their existence over the last decade or so. Drogheda United, a top club in the mid-2000s, were another that barely managed to survive into the current decade. Many observers have blamed the rise of full-time football for the financial problems faced by these clubs after the financial crash hit our shores at the end of 2007. And there may be some merit to that argument.

However, part-time clubs, most of which resided in the less glamorous First Division, were not immune either. During this period Cobh Ramblers left the league before returning; Limerick 37 were rebranded as ‘Limerick FC’; and two Galway clubs (Salthill Devon and Mervue United) were merged into Galway FC. And unfortunately the survival game continues to dominate, as this current year (2016) financial problems have been documented at Athlone Town and Waterford United. All of these clubs would have experience something similar to our season at Cork City in 2008 whereby efforts at progress inevitably gave way to the needs of survival.

Disappointingly, since the publication of Death of a Football Club? in 2014, the League of Ireland has not improved. The standard of football (besides that of one or two teams at the top of the league) has deteriorated. Attendances around the country (again, excepting one or two clubs) remain at a dismal level and, as mentioned, a few more clubs have recently skirted dangerously around the brink of extinction. Even worse, a much-vaunted report by the FAI into the League of Ireland (the Conroy Report, 2015) failed to even mention – never mind plan out – a route towards sustainable fully professional football in Ireland.

And so my reluctance to write about the less representative 2009 season gradually gave way to a stronger feeling that I needed to show just how bad things had actually become, so that this dark year might serve as proof of the urgent need for transformative changes in our league – especially in light of the view, in my opinion, that the Conroy Report represents: that incremental changes will suffice.

At this point it should be noted that the death of a League of Ireland club, whilst uncommon, is not exactly unheard of either. In fact over the past 10 years (2006–2016) we’ve witnessed the demise of Dublin City (2006), Kilkenny City (2007), Kildare County (2009) and Sporting Fingal (2010), while Monaghan United left the league in 2012 in order to focus on their underage and amateur players. The bigger clubs haven’t been immune either. Derry City and, as we will see, Cork City, died before returning as ghosts (or zombies) in the clothes of their former clubs in 2010. Clubs have died, and have continued to die even after the FAI took over the running of the league in 2007. ‘Which club will be the next to go under?’ This remains a hushed talking point among insiders at League of Ireland grounds around the country.

So who cares? What exactly is the reaction when a club is on the way out? Well, as this book will show, when it becomes clear that a League of Ireland club is in serious financial difficulty, some of our national media get more interested in the league than usual. And when a club’s woes become a public interest story, the press tend to highlight unsustainable player wages and financial mismanagement by the club’s officers, together with a lack of support for the league by the FAI. The relative disinterest of the general public is also often mentioned as a factor.

This disinterest doesn’t stop the general public from espousing a range of views as to why we can’t or shouldn’t have professional football in Ireland. ‘The GAA is too strong’ is a reason favoured by many. ‘We’re foolish to attempt it – especially with England at our doorstep’ is another. ‘Sure haven’t we seen how [full-time football] is unsustainable, when all those clubs went belly-up back in the 2000s?’ would represent another commonly held view.

Even among footballing people there is a degree of acceptance that the survival game is the way it always has been and always will be here in Ireland. ‘We’re just not up to it – we’re too small.’ However, very few of these reactions are informed by an experience of professional football. Fewer still are informed by a proper analysis of the viability of professional football in this country, or by a comparison with soccer in another similar-sized country. But who cares? Perhaps there seems a certain inevitability or predictability that, in our impoverished state, we will stay tied to the survival game and ‘off the radar’ in terms of European club professional football.

Following the death of a League of Ireland football club the response from the club owners and the FAI tends also to be predictable. The club owners, finally freed from any constraints that the FAI may have held over them, often cast blame and disappointment upon the FAI for not supporting them or the league sufficiently.

For their part, the FAI hates the bad press that a club in trouble, or a club on the way out, brings on ‘the Association’ – especially when they want the world to think all is rosy in the garden. So the individual club owners are often blamed. It’s a convenient enough but somewhat fickle position for our sport’s governing association to take, and it was demonstrated by the FAI’s chief executive John Delaney when he described the SSE Airtricity League as a ‘difficult child’ during an interview on RTÉ’s 2fm on 30th September 2014, whilst at the same time dismissing the suggestion that the domestic game was in trouble.

As previously mentioned, the FAI commissioned the SSE Airtricity League Consultation Process Report by Conroy Consulting (known as the ‘Conroy Report’) (2015) – a report that, in my opinion, painted a picture of the League of Ireland in need of only small, incremental change rather than anything more transformative. Whilst it contained some good initiatives, its main strategic recommendation seemed to be limited to changing the number of clubs in the top league from 12 to 10; a very conservative suggestion – and something that had already been implemented between the 2008 and 2009 seasons in the League of Ireland. Hardly the ‘whole new ball game’ that Genesis II envisioned. In fact some commentators have even stated that the Conroy Report is merely a survival guide for clubs in the league. But it’s time for us to leave the survival game behind, to get out of the downward spiral.

At some point while keeping my diary during 2009, and as things were getting progressively worse around me, I became aware that the club would probably not survive the next few months. And while the eventual death of Cork City (before its subsequent rebirth) is an event that does not make for light reading, I now feel that the experiences of the players during that dark period need to be published – not just for our club but for the entire league and the greater game in Ireland. And so I am glad that I took the time, back in 2009, to note down the goings-on, unknown to my fellow players, day after day, as we moved ever closer to the abyss.

There remains a real danger, in the absence of an overarching plan for professional football in Ireland, that these events will re-occur. But who cares?

Before you read on, please heed the warning: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’

Chapter 1

December 2008; pre-season and early-season form 2009

 

The players at Cork City FC had journeyed through a storm during the 2008 season. It had begun with a new manager, Alan Mathews, representing just one of the many signs of the increasing input from our mysterious and somewhat elusive new owners, Arkaga. Whoever they were, Arkaga, through their various representatives, soon made it clear that they were promising to take football at Cork City FC to new heights, both domestically and on the European stage…

Leave a Reply