Afterword –The Need for Change
The foregoing pages document in painful detail the almost daily need of the players at Cork City FC for reassurance regarding their wages. The relative instability of our employment, combined, of course, with the irregularity of our payments from the club during this period, helps explain this insecurity. However, I’d like to make it clear that most of the players at the full-time clubs around the country during this period weren’t just playing to pick up a wage. Like players at every other club in the world, they were looking to do as well as they could on the pitch so as to improve their individual reputations and prospects. Many would have carried ambitions of moving overseas. But most of us were also keenly interested in improving standards within Ireland and in breaking down the barriers (both real and imagined) that seem to hinder professional football in this country. Like any League of Ireland player over the past 60 or 70 years, we also wanted to do well in Europe and bring a greater respectability to our league. And when full-time football was going well for the clubs during this full-time period, we did just that. In fact we brought the league’s co-efficient ranking (which rates the top league in Europe on the basis of their clubs’ performances over a five-year period) from 39th in 2003 to an all-time high of 29th in 2010. The return to part-time football in the league since 2010 has seen our ranking drop back to 43rd in 2015.
However, the European displays of Cork City and Dundalk in this current season (2016) have brought fresh hope. Of the 2009 Cork City squad, only Ballincollig men Mark McNulty and Colin Healy (who returned to the club in 2011 after his time at Ipswich and a loan spell at Falkirk) remain, and Jerry Harris is still walking the corridors out in Bishopstown – albeit without the need for a torch. That the lights are well and truly back on at Bishopstown and Turner’s Cross was perhaps best celebrated with Colin Healy’s incredible overhead kick winner against St Pats on 8th August 2014.
There can be no dispute, though, that it has been Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk side that have been the leading light back towards higher standards in the league. Their captain Stephen O’Donnell has shown maturity in playing the captain’s role both on and off the pitch. His consistent bravery and composure on the ball against any and all opposition is what has allowed Dundalk to play out from the back, in a style that is, perhaps, the most attractive and effective of any Irish side (including the national team) for some time. And ‘Stevie’, as I remember him from less mature, ass-revealing Cork City days, has recently confirmed, following a magical and remarkable period for the club, that League of Ireland players are not just interested in improving their own prospects but the reputation of our league as well.
Dundalk’s Part-Timers Ready to Make Champions League History (by Alan Smith, The Guardian, 13th August 2016)
Four years ago Dundalk’s very existence was in jeopardy. The team were treading water, while attendances at the Irish club’s unsightly Oriel Park ground hit a baseline of 260. Wages were unpaid and a genuine belief festered that the end was nigh. They were spared relegation only because Monaghan United ran into financial difficulties and withdrew from competition, allowing the Lilywhites a two-legged play-off to stay up.
In three and a half seasons they have brought them to a stage no other Irish club has reached before: a two-legged tie against Legia Warsaw from reaching the Champions League group stage.
Stephen O’Donnell, the captain, has been in a similar position, scoring an extra-time penalty to send Shamrock Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League, an Irish first in 2011. Defeat against Legia would send Dundalk there, too, but already talk has shifted to them being the best Irish side of all time.
For O’Donnell the most pleasing aspect was how they reached this point, defeating Bate Borisov 3-0 in the second leg to overturn a one-goal deficit with a display of clinical, attacking football having already beaten the Icelandic champions, FH. There was no sign of the direct, physical play Irish teams have so often been criticised for. “Usually there’s relief after winning but this was pure ecstasy,” O’Donnell says. “The way we played was the stuff of dreams.”
Even if Legia advance, it will have been some feat for a team that trains in the evening because several members of the squad have day jobs to supplement their income. They are professional in everything but financial reward.
Dane Massey, the left-back, is an electrician, Andy Boyle sells meat and his centre-half partner, Brian Gartland, has been working as a basketball coach. The leading star of their European run has been David McMillan, architect by day, goalscorer by night.
Off the field the club relies on volunteers to keep going because there are only two full-time employees. The general manager, Martin Connolly, is the brother of the co-owner but has previously worked as goalkeeping coach and turns his hands to whatever odd jobs need doing. Darren Crawley, the press officer, works 40 hours a week and has been struggling to find time to deal with the increased attention over the past week. “No one ever thought we would be in this position so quickly from the despair of 2012,” Crawley says. Even Kenny’s assistant manager, Vinny Perth, is part-time.
There are other challenges, too. Dundalk are fighting to win a third league title in a row but have lost both games since defeating Bate Borisov, their first consecutive defeats since 2013. Europe is a distraction and, as O’Donnell points out, “we don’t have the biggest squad”.
Retaining their best players has been an issue in the past. Richie Towell, their star in 2015, received an offer he could not refuse to join Brighton in January, but he has found playing time under Chris Hughton a precious commodity.
The biggest challenge, though, may be keeping hold of Kenny. O’Donnell has worked under Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, but believes his current boss is incomparable. “Stephen is definitely the best man-manager I’ve worked under. He gets the best out of his players, believing in them and making them feel 10-foot tall. To do what he has done, from a blank canvas in four years, is amazing.”
O’Donnell is also dedicating their run to the league, which has been maltreated by those in control for far too long, not least the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chief executive, John Delaney, who currently earns more than three times the prize money for winning the league title and describes the league as “a difficult child”.
Dundalk’s European foray has run parallel to the FAI making a song and dance about offering each club a desultory €5,000 for strategic planning. Insulted, Derry and St Patrick’s Athletic have turned it down and a grim back and forth has taken place between the latter and the association. For context, Delaney earns €360,000 per annum having taken a substantial pay cut in recent years, while the association earned more than €11m in prize money alone from Euro 2016.
There is no shortage of well wishers, including the FAI, whose jumping on the bandwagon has not been met kindly by supporters. One other Premier Division club, Wexford Youths, are providing free buses for their fans to bolster the crowd at the Aviva in Dublin on Wednesday night.
That will be their third home ground of the campaign because the decrepit Oriel was not up to scratch for the Bate game and Tallaght Stadium is not of a sufficient standard for the play-offs.
“The only way to make people not usually interested in the league sit up and take notice is to do well in Europe,” O’Donnell says. “We’ve made people do that. We want the league to be respected and there are a lot of very good players – this is for them. When people say the league is rubbish, it grates on you.”
Unfortunately, Dundalk, just like Shelbourne back in 2004, fell at the last hurdle before the lucrative Champions League group stages, going down to Legia Warsaw (3–1 on aggregate). Even so, Steven O’Donnell’s comments reflected exactly how I felt back in our successful period from 2003–2007; that we were representing Irish football in Europe, fighting for respect and for a better reputation for our league. As such, there were times when it felt like we were guinea pigs in an unauthorised experiment; there was excitement in the sense that we were up against the establishment in Ireland as well as our opponents on the pitch, but in reality we were too weak to swim against the tide. We couldn’t do it on our own, divided as we were between clubs that were fighting amongst themselves for players and for results. We needed a plan for all of us, from above.
In retrospect it’s clear that we needed ‘the Association’ to buy into the idea of really progressing the league and its clubs. We needed those seated around the tables up in the FAI to recognise that what we were trying to do was worthy of praise and support. We wanted them to see, for example, that Dan Murray, Joe Gamble and even ‘Ding Dong’ Denis Behan were doing our city and the whole game in Ireland a service by improving standards here and by helping the club to beat teams in Europe.
We wanted the FAI to herald our great victories against the likes of Malmo, NEC Nijmegen, Djurgardens and Apollon Limassol, as well as the victories in Europe for the other full-time clubs during this period – the likes of Shels, Bohs, Derry, Pats and Drogheda – as signs of real hope and development for football in this country. We wanted them to acknowledge the possibility that with more support, development and sponsorship of our league, it could progress even further. In essence, we needed the FAI to further organise and plan for the continued progress of the professional game in Ireland.
For whatever reason, none of this really happened. They never came on board and there was no plan put in place for the continuation of professional football in Ireland. This is crucial, as in my opinion the lack of an over-arching plan for full-time football in Ireland was at least as significant a factor as the oft-mentioned issues of ‘excessive player wages’ or ‘mismanagement by club owners’ in the failure of full-time football in this country between 2003 and 2010, as well as in the death of my football club, Cork City FC, at the start of 2010.
In my opinion the FAI needed to be leading the charge – not individual clubs or individual chairmen. The frustrating thing is that if the FAI really decided to make professional football in Ireland a priority, it could be the most exciting journey that Irish football has ever taken; a journey towards sustainable full-time football clubs, regular meaningful European fixtures around the country, and a better pathway for our best and brightest before they move to other more developed leagues. It could be the maturing of our league, as well as ‘the Association’, that is long overdue. For this to happen we need the FAI to see the real potential of our clubs and of our people. In short, we need the FAI to believe in us.
Without the support, planning, leadership and clout of the FAI, ambition will continue to be a dangerous thing in the League of Ireland, and survival rather than progress will, unfortunately, remain the priority.
The experience of clubs such as Cork City FC during this period needs be analysed so that we can learn and progress. Worryingly, there is no evidence that this type of analysis has taken place along the corridors of the FAI. In fact, on reading the Conroy Report one could be excused for thinking these events never happened at all – and so I recently decided to write about it.
Questions to Answer if our League Really is to Progress (by Neal Horgan, The Irish Examiner, Friday, April 15th, 2016)
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.
I had hoped that this general and relatively brief critique of the Conroy Report might form part of a healthy discussion on the Report’s overall merit. However, since then we seem to have accepted its findings and recommendations carte blanche, and without question or debate. But the recommendations that the Conroy Report provide are problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the mandate of the Conroy Report was stated as follows:
1. Seek views as to how the Clubs and the League currently operate.
2. Hear views on how best the Clubs and the League can move forward
So the mandate was to seek and hear views, yet there is no mention of recommendations. Perhaps this can be forgiven, as recommendations based on the findings are surely to be welcomed. Unfortunately, the findings as published are not readily identifiable in the recommendations. For example, one of the questions asked by the Conroy report as part of a survey of fans was as follows: ‘Please outline ONE development you would like to see implemented by your Club or the FAI in the SSE Airtricity League in the next 5 years?’ The number one answer, according to the report, was ‘All-Ireland League. Four Regional Leagues. One division with better spread of clubs.’ (SSE Airtricity fans’ survey question 21, page 71, Conroy Report.)
This would be consistent with the Genesis Report’s main structural recommendation, which involved a gradual move towards an All-Ireland League. This would, it argued, given the greater market involved, offer a more sustainable model for professional football in Ireland on both sides of the border. Declan Conroy is one of the people who is specifically mentioned in the Genesis Report as having being consulted by Genesis; it is somewhat surprising, then, that there is no mention in the Conroy Report of an All-Ireland League as a possible structural model for Irish football – particularly surprising given the above number-one answer and because Mr Conroy must have been very aware of the Genesis Report (the existence of which is not referred to in the Conroy Report either).
Furthermore, at page 42 under the subheading ‘Managers/coaches,’ regarding consultations made by Conroy Consulting with various League of Ireland managers, the ‘prospect of a full-time league’ is the first item listed as being ‘among the main issues raised.’ Despite this, the ‘prospect of a full-time league’ forms no part and earns no mention amongst the numerous recommendations of the Conroy Report.
However, we need to be careful if we are critiquing, as the Conroy Report itself seems to include a deterrence for anyone who wishes to question or criticize.
At page 50, under the heading ‘The Brand, Marketing and Promotions’ and the subheading ‘Negativity’, is stated the following:
Yet the League suffers from a certain negativity that dominates. While some of this is undoubtedly cultural, a concerted effort by all parties within the game must be made to engage more positively around the brand. As a start, the game needs everyone from within to avoid being negative in public.
This is one of the more alarming comments in the report. On top of this and more recently still, the former St. Pat’s, Ireland and Faroe Islands manager Brian Kerr stated that the FAI uses the participation agreement (agreed between the clubs and the FAI back in 2007) ‘as a muzzle on the clubs,’ adding that the ‘clubs are afraid to challenge the FAI’ (Soccer Republic, RTE, 9th August 2016).
Given our history of poor performances in European competitions, the league’s low co-efficient, our lack of quality stadiums, our dismally low attendances around the country and our inability to offer full-time football in Ireland, we shouldn’t be pretending that everything is fine. We need to talk about the League of Ireland and its problems. It’s time to remove the muzzle.
The approach of the Conroy Report and the FAI reminds me, in some ways, of my father and grandfathers, when I was a young child, only wishing to discuss the glory days of the League and Cork clubs, rather than the death of Cork football clubs in the 50s, 70s and 80s. But the Irish soccer community is not a young child; we need and deserve a critical analysis of why full-time football didn’t work in the 2000s, so that we can decide for ourselves whether it could be viable at some stage in the future in a better organised (and possibly more centrally planned) way.
However, despite what seem – to me at least – to be important and clear limitations of the Conroy Report, it appears that ‘the Association’ are pleased with it. FAI chief executive John Delaney released a statement on 25th September 2015 welcoming the report’s findings and labelling it the ‘the most comprehensive and thorough review of senior domestic football in Ireland’ (www.the42.ie, 25th September 2015).
While as a player who played through this period it’s frustrating that our experiences have not been acknowledged in the Conroy Report, much more significant, in the absence of FAI support for full-time football, is the ongoing danger that a club or two will strive towards professionalism without the backing that the FAI could and should provide. In such a scenario I would not be surprised if the chaos that engulfed Cork City in 2008 and 2009 repeats itself at some club in the near future.
As such, when I ask readers in the introduction of this book to ‘abandon all hope’, the ‘hope’ I mean is the hope, still held by many in this country, that everything will work out OK if we continue to trudge along the way we have for the last 60 years – without any transformative changes or any ambitious and integrated design for professional football in Ireland.
Thankfully, and despite ongoing concerns about our senior League of Ireland clubs, there have recently been some positive moves by the FAI. The introduction of under-19 and under-17 national leagues represents the first steps towards the creation of a viable domestic player pathway for our best and brightest towards the professional game. The proposed under-15 and under-13 national leagues will only further encourage our top young players to find a route to the professional game through the League of Ireland, rather than the traditional risky emigration at 16 years of age to professional clubs in the UK. However, the level of professionalism of our top league – the League of Ireland – will continue to be the determining factor in whether we can keep our top players here, until they are more mature. Sending our kids to England or elsewhere as legal minors, away from their friends and family at such a young age, should be the exception rather than the rule. At the moment that risky emigration remains standard practice for our best players – but the new under-age national leagues offer hope of change.
It should again be highlighted, on the topic of player pathways, that the full-time era between 2003 and 2010, for all its flaws, produced more players for our national team than ever before. In contrast, the reversion to part-time for the league since 2011 (or whatever strange mix of full-/part-time currently exists at our top clubs today) has meant that the League of Ireland has not produced a single player for the national team over the past five years.
So we need professional football for the individual player, for the national team, and for the health of Irish football overall. We need the FAI to lead and plan the route to professional football in Ireland – by way of a 10- or 20-year plan if necessary. The League of Ireland should not just be an after-thought. For too long now it has remained in the shadows, and we in Ireland have remained ‘off-the-radar’ in terms of the professional game that is enjoyed in most other countries in Europe.
So when somebody today says, ‘Sure haven’t we seen how it [full-time football] is unsustainable, when all those clubs went belly-up back in the 2000s,’ in response one could perhaps refer to this book as evidence of the uncoordinated and often chaotic manner in which it was attempted. To dismiss the idea of full-time football in Ireland forever on the basis of what happened between 2003 and 2010 does not stand up to critical analysis.
But how to dismantle the other commonly held responses that seem to confirm why we shouldn’t or can’t have a professional soccer league in Ireland?
Let’s deal with the size issue first. ‘We’re just not up to it; we’re too small.’ But we know from talking to Robert Mežeckis in Chapter 7 that Latvia, with a population of about 2 million people, has 8 full-time clubs. OK, so this might lead to another question… ‘Latvia doesn’t have the GAA. They don’t have a national game that dominates over and above football in their country.’ Well, that might be true, but Finland, for example, have a full-time league even though ice hockey is their national sport. So the existence of a national or dominant team sport other than soccer (assuming that is the case in Ireland), though important, isn’t an absolute barrier to professional soccer in a county either.
(I would also argue that the existence of the GAA in Ireland isn’t only an impediment to soccer here, and that the situation is more complex. Soccer receives benefits from the GAA’s existence which, probably due to historical or political reasons, remain under-acknowledged. For example, the physical and psychological benefits of playing GAA for a soccer player have recently been declared by players such as Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Damien Delaney.)
‘But the population of Finland [5.4 million] is greater than ours,’ might be the response at this stage – and this, of course, is true. However, Irish rugby has managed to go professional in Ireland despite the existence of the GAA and despite our low relatively low population. This, in turn, may be followed by another statement: ‘But rugby is different to soccer. They’ve always been wealthier and had more access to funds, and it is a less played sport in Europe and thus easier for, say, Munster to win the European Cup than for something similar ever to happen to an Irish football club.’
Of course rugby is different. Of course they had the advantage of a viable Celtic league to help grow the game. And, of course, Irish club rugby had a greater ability to actually win trophies in Europe than Irish soccer clubs will ever have. As to a greater access to money, I’m not so sure. Soccer has a much richer potential market in Europe and the rest of the world than rugby. Dundalk’s recent windfall in the Champions League shows the type of funds that are available for progress through even the early rounds of soccer’s European competitions these days.
One crucial thing that Irish rugby did was to plan for the professional game from above. This, in my opinion, was the most important factor in its success. It was the IRFU leading the charge, not individual clubs. Central planning was crucial for the professional game here. Another difference was that the IRFU was willing to do something that the FAI seemingly does not do: that is, to pass on a portion of the gate receipts or earnings from the national team’s matches or events to the domestic clubs. The FAI, as far as I am aware, do no such thing. Icelandic soccer, on the other hand…
Here’s how Iceland chose to spend some of their Euro 2016 money (by Paul Fennessy, The 42, 22nd August 2016)
Thanks to Iceland’s Euro 2016 heroics, the country’s players earned their Football Association a fee of €14 million for reaching the quarter-finals at Euro 2016.
With smaller football associations such as Iceland’s often having to make do with very limited resources, the Uefa prize money will likely serve as a huge boost to football on the island, which has a population of just over 330,000 people. Interestingly, from the money earned, the Nordic country chose to distribute €3,409,670 (453 million króna – roughly 25% of the total fee) to its football clubs, according to the Football Association of Iceland’s official website.
Some teams received more than others based on their league performances in recent seasons, though each club were given roughly €19,000 at the very minimum, while of the 47 recipients, 13 received six-figure sums (in terms of euros).
The figures make for interesting reading from an Irish perspective, particularly in light of the recent controversy surrounding the FAI’s distribution of €5,000 for each of the 20 SSE Airtricity League clubs to assist in the completion of five-year strategic plans, with St Pat’s and Derry City subsequently saying they would reject the offer, amid widespread suggestions that the funds being made available were derisory.
So in a similar vein to the IRFU in Ireland, the Icelandic FA appear to be supporting their football clubs by way of their national team’s exploits. Perhaps this is something that could be done in Irish football too?
Another common response when discussing the prospect of a professional league in Ireland might be: ‘But they don’t have the English Premiership at their doorstep.’ However, most Scandinavian countries are as intertwined and saturated with English football as we are – and they still have full-time clubs. See also Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia, which operate full-time professionalism in the shadows of the relatively nearby Bundesliga.
So overall we can point to examples, mainly around Europe but also within Ireland, which address many of the concerns of those who think we cannot have a professional soccer league here. This is why a comparison with other countries (which formed part of Genesis’s report but did not form part of the Conroy Report) is so important. Obviously it is impossible to find an identical country to compare ourselves with – a country that could address all of the issues raised form an Irish point of view at the same time. However, after we’ve addressed each of the objective criteria underlying the apparent barriers to professional football in this country – such as population size issues, issues in relation to the strength of other domestic sports, issues in relation to funding and the proximity of a strong neighbour – we’re left with the subjective criteria.
This, I feel, is the crux of the matter and why we don’t have a professional league in Ireland. Some people in Irish football seem to want it; others don’t seem too interested, or have other commitments. In truth, on this issue we have always seemed very divided amongst ourselves and lacking real leadership and vision.
Recent troubles involving the FAI and League of Ireland clubs St. Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City confirm the divisions within Irish football today. The issue being disputed involves the announcement by the FAI of a payment of €5,000, by the FAI, to each of the 20 League of Ireland clubs, for ‘Strategic Planning.’ The FAI have stated that they are doing this in order to follow on from one of the recommendations from the Conroy Report. But Derry City and St. Pats refused to accept the payment and a war or words ensued. St. Pat’s eventually published a statement on their website (www.stpatsfc.com/news) that included the following:
Our game is in crisis. That is why the clubs established the PCA (Premier Clubs’ Alliance), so that the Premier League clubs would consider their responsibilities and attempt to engage with the governing body with a view to effecting change. Ten months since we brought these issues forward, nothing material has happened. We have made the Association aware of the seriousness of the challenge facing the senior clubs – and the domestic game at all levels – but there has been no serious engagement. To demonstrate its commitment the PCA appointed Senior Counsel, Michael Cush, to lead its engagement with the FAI but, to date, his efforts have been largely rebuffed. It may appear strange in a week when two of our clubs brought such distinction to our domestic game to talk of the League being in crisis, but that is by no means an exaggeration.
It is not the FAI’s role alone to address the crisis. The responsibility for this lies with various stakeholders, including the clubs. The board of St Patrick’s Athletic is perfectly prepared to accept its part in this, however all the senior clubs are beholden to the Association, which has utterly failed to create a suitable environment in which a sustainable, commercially sound League which would nurture young talent and generate public support. It is ten years since the Association took control of the League of Ireland. In that time it has displayed nothing approaching leadership.
Derry’s response took a similar tone:
Derry City to snub ‘disgraceful and disrespectful’ €5K FAI grant (The Irish Independent, 4th August 2016)
Derry City have decided to reject the €5,000 grant recently announced to be coming from the FAI to SSE Airtricity League clubs, calling it ‘disrespectful and disgraceful.’
Last week, the FAI confirmed that they, along with the Premier Clubs Association, would be allocating a €100,000 grant to be shared equally among the 20 SSE Airtricity League clubs.
However, speaking recently to the Derry News, the Derry City Chairman, Sean Barrett, was adamant that the club would not be availing of the money in question.
“I think it’s absolutely disgraceful the way they have treated the clubs.” Barrett said.
“The FAI received €11 million and to throw something like that at us is disgraceful when we as a club on its own have had at least six players coming through Derry City Football Club to go on and play international football.
“For us to be treated like that is not only disgraceful, it’s disrespectful and we will be not be accepting that figure. We will be telling them to keep the money. We won’t accept it.”
Indeed, Mr Barrett claimed that the sum in question would mitigate little of the costs incurred when running a club and, in fact, claimed it to be disrespectful.
“Affiliation fees alone are €15,000. There’s the affiliation fees and then there are things like fines; for example we were fined €750 for one flare incident.
“To ask anyone to do a five-year plan and then to give them to what equates to £4000 is disgraceful. It doesn’t scratch the surface. We’re not even prepared to accept it.
He concluded; “It shows the lack of respect for the league. We have had six players play for the national team but they don’t seem to care about the league. It’s absolutely disgraceful,” he said.
So here we all are. Fighting amongst ourselves, divided, with everybody seemingly blaming everybody else for the problems. Overall there does appear to be a tangible lack of real leadership with regard to the future of the League of Ireland. But we are not the first country that has faced these types of problems. Back in 2002/03, Australian soccer was facing turmoil similar to what’s happening here in Ireland. Their domestic league, the National Soccer League (NSL), was in particular trouble.
From www.austadiums.com/news, Wednesday 23rd October, 2002:
NSL crowds plummet
The troubled National Soccer League is suffering by the game’s lack of exposure on TV with crowds at their lowest level for seven years.
With TV rights holder Channel Seven refusing to air any NSL action this season, thousands of disgruntled fans and sponsors are being left out in the cold.
After five rounds, the average attendance is 4,381 – down 15 per cent on last season’s figures. This equates to 66,651 less fans walking through the turnstiles, costing clubs valuable income.
Even the league’s marquee club, Perth Glory, has seen its crowd numbers drop while last season’s second most supported side Newcastle United has lost up to 20 per cent of its crowd.
Glory chairman Nick Tana was quoted by AAP as saying: “We can’t identify the specific reason for the drop in crowds”.
“Whether or not it’s the lack of visibility of the league and the lack of free-to-air television I don’t know.
“But if you look at the rest of the league, theirs (attendances) have dropped off as well. If the league is not visible in the marketplace as a marketable product, there’ll be a detrimental effect.”
Despite their problems, Perth and Newcastle are still the best supported clubs in the NSL, while the champion Olympic Sharks and South Melbourne continue to lose fans at a worrying rate.
In response to growing concerns, the Australian government commissioned a report entitled ‘Report of the Independent Soccer Review Committee into the Structure, Governance and Management of Soccer in Australia’ (April 2003). Chaired by David Crawford, it was thus coined ‘the Crawford Report.’ Unlike the Conroy Report, the Crawford Report published direct comments from many of those interviewed under the heading ‘Stakeholder Comments’. A total of 92 named stakeholders make comments that are published from page 47 to page 66 of the document. Many of these comments highlighted the fractious and dysfunctional state of Australian soccer and their domestic league, the National Soccer League (NSC) at the time. They were also surprisingly similar to the comments made by St. Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City recently in respect of football here in Ireland. Here are a few examples:
Richard Bennett: ‘I feel that the problems start and end with the administration of the game at the highest levels and filter down to a disgruntled general football [soccer] community that is fast becoming apathetic. In other words how do you grow the game if the followers are jaded and frustrated with a catalogue of embarrassing mismanagement and in-fighting? Certainly the general sporting public sees the game as endemically mismanaged at all levels and the media only reports and reinforces these negative aspects. I would like to comment that time is of the essence, and that commodity is fast running out. If the game is not prepared to be shaken out of its slumber then I can only see stagnation and more of the same tokenism and more wasting of resources leading to a football wasteland in this country.’
Ken Kendrick: ‘I find it very hard to believe that with hundreds of thousands of Aussie kids playing the game every weekend, and over 150 Aussies playing on the world stage, that the NSL [National Soccer League] (with all its mismanagement, infighting, petty squabbles and self seeking agendas) has managed to turn the world game into such an abysmal failure in Australia.’
Murray Jesson: ‘In my 23 years here [in Australia] I have watched with sadness and dismay how state and national administrators have shot themselves and the game in the foot to advance their egotistical ambitions.’
Chris King: ‘It has been the same issues that have not been addressed. These issues have always had a great impact on the sport at all levels from the juniors right through to the top level. The ongoing division within the game is the killer of it … because of power and the belief of those with it that they are doing the best for the game. People at all levels of the game find ways not to work together for their own self interests rather than go out of their way to find a means of working together for the betterment of the game.’
Dimitrios Mavratzas: ‘The state of the game of soccer in this country is at an all time low ebb. Soccer Australia is in public disarray; the national team with its full complement of players has not been seen in action for nearly a year [when written in November 2002]; the NSL stumbles along to ever decreasing crowds without a formatted sense of direction … the financial affairs of Soccer Australia have been headlines in all sections of the media, further ridiculing the game of soccer here in Australia.’
Colin Pope: ‘The NSL seems discarded with no promotion or marketing and limited media exposure. Futsal is a forgotten part of the sport. Juniors are catered for, but only because of the mums and dads who put the time and effort in for the children and not for themselves. Clearly the structure is not working. A board that is there for the game and not themselves is needed. The fans and players are not truly represented. The state federations appear to have some similar problems as Soccer Australia, only not as big. The decisions are made along lines other than the best long and short-term interest of the game as a whole. There is little planning currently evident to anyone outside Soccer Australia.’
So the Crawford Report clearly wasn’t interested in avoiding negativity. It was also different from the Conroy Report as it had a mandate that included, amongst other things, the provision of recommendations:
The Committee’s terms of reference require it to prepare a report that includes:
1. a critical assessment of the existing governance, management and structure of soccer in Australia
2. solution-based recommendations to deliver a comprehensive governance framework and management structure for the sport that addresses the needs of affiliated organisations and stakeholders. These recommendations may include adjustments to existing governance systems and/or integration of activities and operations
3. identification of potential impediments to reform and strategies to overcome those impediments
4. a plan to implement the recommendations.
(Page 1, The Crawford Report)
Also unlike the Conroy Report, this report was to review the entirety of the game, including the performance of ‘Soccer Australia’ – the existing governing authority in Australian soccer. It was also to be carried out by a committee of independent experts as follows:
• Mr David Crawford (chair) – retired National Chairman of KPMG and current director of several major companies including BHP Billiton, Foster’s Group, Lend Lease, National Foods and Westpac Banking Corporation.
• Mr Johnny Warren – former captain of the Socceroos and highly regarded football analyst and commentator.
• Mr Bruce Corlett – Chairman of Adsteam Marine Limited and Servcorp Limited, current non-executive director of several companies including Trust Company of Australia Limited and Stockland Trust Group, and past chairman of Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
• Ms Kate Costello – lawyer and former academic, chairman of Bassett Consulting Engineers, chairman of SAAB ITS and director of SAAB Systems, member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Education Committee and management consultant specialising in corporate governance.
• Mr Mark Peters – Chief Executive Officer, Australian Sports Commission and experienced national and international sports administrator. He has considerable experience in reviewing the structures and management of sports and national leagues.
(Page 39, The Crawford Report)
As such, this committee, commissioned by the government, enjoyed the benefits of being able to rely upon expertise from top businessmen, academics, lawyers and sporting individuals. (It is uncertain whether the Conroy Report had such an array of expertise to leverage.)
The following extract, published two years after the Crawford Report, shows that the report’s recommendations didn’t go down so well with the existing governing body:
The Fathers of Australian soccer’s success (Theage.com.au, November 19th, 2005)
FAILURE is an orphan and success, so the saying goes, has a thousand fathers.
Australian soccer, for so long the problem child of Australian sport, is poised to become the glamour star of the sporting landscape, thanks to the Socceroos’ stunning success over Uruguay in dramatic circumstances last Wednesday night.
There are many with justifiable claims to a key role in the triumph. The coach, Guus Hiddink, his assistant Graham Arnold, Hiddink’s predecessor, Frank Farina, and the players themselves, of course, who did all the work in Montevideo and Sydney to finally end the 32-year World Cup drought and win a place in Germany next year.
But from an overall perspective, the real architects of this triumph — and the men who can claim to be the fathers of success — are Football Federation Australia chairman Frank Lowy and his chief executive, John O’Neill, the man Lowy expensively (and controversially) recruited from rugby union only 20 months ago.
They have wrought a revolution on the game, both domestically and internationally, and, with the public glowing over the Australian success, it is easy to forget how far the game has come in such a short time, and how it all nearly did not happen in the first place.
Following the debacle in Montevideo four years ago, when Uruguay defeated the Socceroos 3-0 and progressed to the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, there was near universal agreement that there was an inescapable need for massive change in the Australian game. Prime Minister John Howard even entered the debate when FIFA boss Sepp Blatter came to Sydney, joining state premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr to support the idea that Australia should bid to host the World Cup.
But the politicians made their pledges of support with one key proviso — that the people in charge of the sport embraced the need for wholesale reform and huge structural change before the state and federal coffers would be opened and any public largesse put their way.
For the (largely) ethnic powerbrokers who had controlled the sport for so long, this challenge posed grave difficulties.
Yes, they wanted the game to move on, to take the central position in Australian sporting life and culture that they and all its fans believed it should.
But, for the main, they were very reluctant to surrender the positions of power and influence they had amassed in control of state federations, clubs and on the board of Soccer Australia, despite all the evidence suggesting they were incapable of running the game efficiently or broadening its supporter base.
THE Federal Government’s route to revolutionising the game was through the Australian Sports Commission headed by Mark Peters, a man who was committed to pursuing a reform agenda for the game.
The ASC, with the backing of federal Sports Minister Rod Kemp, commissioned the Crawford report, a long investigation into the governance, organisation and structure of soccer conducted by insolvency expert and leading financial adviser David Crawford.
Crawford’s findings were manna from heaven for those who wanted a revolution in the sport, but bad news for the entrenched old guard who wanted to retain their fiefdoms. He advocated wholesale change, a new league and a raft of revisions, which were resisted by many.
Lowy, the Westfield property and shopping developer whom BRW’s latest rich list last year valued at $4.8 billion, was the man both Howard and the ASC wanted to take charge of the moribund, debt-ridden Soccer Australia and turn the hulking ship around.
Lowy, a soccer-loving Czech-born migrant who encapsulated the emigrant dream of success, was an inspirational choice, even if he initially needed convincing to take on the burden. The now-septuagenarian businessman had bitter memories of his time in the sport in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the club he controlled, Sydney City, was a dominant force in the newly established National Soccer League. Lowy, weighed down even then by the internal politicking, wrangling and self-interest, walked away from the game he loved, and it was touch and go whether he could be persuaded to return.
But a request from the prime minister is powerful motivation, and Lowy said he was ready to take on the new challenge and become chairman of Soccer Australia. He brought with him a high-profile slate of candidates for election to the board, including Melbourne events supremo Ron Walker and advertising guru John Singleton, all with enormous pull in business, commercial and media circles.
It looked like a no-brainer, but it was not that simple.
While some state federations recognised the inevitable and accepted the need for change, others, including Victoria, took their time to get behind the new high-profile candidates.
The so-called “rump board” of Soccer Australia (those who had not resigned or left following the Crawford findings) held firm and forced elections. To the horror of all those desperate for change, it became clear there was no certainty that Lowy and his colleagues were going to win the day.
Meetings were held in private rooms, deals were done in the corridors and cafes of hotels near Sydney airport as the horse trading intensified while the election dates loomed.
Eventually, common sense prevailed, the old guard stood down and Lowy and his group assumed control.
Within months, the old debt-laden Soccer Australia had been killed off and wound up, with a new body, the Australian Soccer Association (which later morphed into Football Federation Australia), being formed.
But in the administrative area the winds of change blew fiercely. Lowy, whose presence guaranteed that the top end of town finally would take approaches from soccer seriously, was determined to find the best administrator he could to drive the cultural revolution the game needed. He settled on O’Neill, the former merchant banker and rugby union supremo who had just masterminded the most successful rugby World Cup in history.
O’Neill, by his own admission, was an unlikely figure to spearhead the revamp. He openly made it clear that he did not know soccer and that his children were keener on rugby.
But, from his days running the Australian Rugby Union, he was acutely aware of the potential the game offered. He voiced publicly what all executives of other sporting codes would acknowledge only privately, that when he was in charge of rugby, he could not believe his luck that the then-soccer administration was so bad.
With Lowy’s backing, O’Neill ignored the post-Crawford recommendations of an NSL taskforce calling for the establishment of a new league with 10 teams and announced the creation of an eight-team competition, with only one club from each major city in Australia and New Zealand.
There were to be minimum capital requirements of $5 million a club — much greater than required for the old NSL teams — and a raft of other conditions that consortiums bidding for the teams had to satisfy. Crucially, the clubs chosen were to be “broad-based” and capable of attracting the support of the whole community rather than narrow sectarian groups.
The successful ones were to be given a five-year guarantee of exclusivity in their region — a guarantee O’Neill argued was necessary for the new clubs to establish themselves and build supporter loyalty in their market places.
The howls of protests from the traditionalists were as loud as they were inevitable, with people querying his knowledge, commitment, understanding and empathy for a sport he knew nothing about.
But Lowy knew that O’Neill’s proven track record of success would open doors through the commercial sector, and his appointment would make it clear to the media and corporate Australia that this time the soccer revolution was serious.
This, after all, was a man who had been one of the architects of the move to professionalise rugby union through the creation of the Super 12 competition, the most significant turning point in the 100-plus year history of that sport.
The duo drew up three key objectives.
The first was to successfully establish the new domestic competition, to be known as the A-League. The second was to end Australia’s international isolationism in world governing body FIFA’s tiny Oceania Confederation and move to the burgeoning soccer region of Asia. And the third was to qualify for the World Cup.
All three have now been achieved.
Further on in the article, the Rugby Union expert John O’Neill explains:
“Frank and I have taken quite a few risks in the past 18 months, and they have been calculated to achieve the trifecta this year — to qualify for the World Cup, to launch the A-League successfully, and the most important strategic move in the history of this game, our integration with Asia, next year.
“Those three achievements will secure the long-term future and viability of this game in Australia. I think 2005 will go down as a year to remember (but) we have got to keep our feet on the ground.
“We have got a participation level that is the envy of many other sports. We have got an A-League that looks the goods, and we have got a national team that is performing at the very highest level. We are a very serious player now in mainstream sport and I really think our positioning vis-a-vis the other football codes has been substantially enhanced.
“I am not saying we are going to be the No. 1 football code in Australia within X number of years, but certainly our chances of achieving that have dramatically improved.”
Obviously Australia is a far bigger country than Ireland, with many key differences, including the existence of greater resources, a much greater population and the ability to run a franchise league (without the relegation/promotion required by UEFA). However, the similarities between the state of their domestic league (the NSC) in 2003 with the League of Ireland today are too numerous and obvious to ignore.
In 2003, the NSC was in terminal decline, with decreasing attendances, a disinterested general public, and constant in-fighting between the stakeholders. They also faced considerable competition from other established and better-organised field sports.
But, unlike the Conroy Report, and in the face of these very real challenges, the need for ‘wholesale reform and huge structural change’ was seen as crucial both by the findings of the Crawford Report and by the likes of Lowy and O’Neill, whose jobs it became to implement the transformative changes.
The result of all this? Despite some initial growing problems over the first few years, some 12 or 13 years later the ambitious idea of the A-League appears to have been turned into a resounding success.
Growth in soccer numbers across nation due to success of Socceroos and Matildas, growth of A-League (Andrew Carswell, The Daily Telegraph, June 26th, 2015)
WHEN it comes to soccer, success trumps scandal any day of the week.
While the sport’s governing body FIFA is imploding in a maelstrom of bribery allegations, the “beautiful game” is booming in Australia where it counts most — at the grassroots level.
Thanks to the Socceroos’ success in winning the Asian Cup, and making the finals of the past two World Cups, the sport has recorded a 7 per cent increase in participants at a club level in NSW during the past year.
This weekend in the Socceroo breeding ground of Manly Warringah, clubs fielded under-18 teams down to five grades, thanks to a staggering 37 per cent growth in the number of players in one season in the age group.
Connor McColl, a goalkeeper with the U15 Doonside Hawks, is sticking to the roundball code rather than switching to rugby league.
In the booming under-9s age group, a record 138 teams hit the grass, an increase of 13 per cent, while the under-10s recorded 18 per cent growth.
Football NSW chief executive Eddie Moore attributes the rapid growth to the success of the Socceroos and Matildas, as well as the growth of the A-League.
“At the top end of the game there are some really good stories and lots of excitement around the sport,’’ Moore said.
Chris and Karin Parker and their two kids Chloe (8) and Cameron (5) love the original football code.
“The colour at that level of the game is very positive and people get it. They want more.’’
Already, a total of 225,832 players are registered to play club soccer this year, plus an additional 28,700 players in school competitions across the state.
In Sydney’s west, where the rise of the Western Sydney Wanderers has spawned a new generation of soccer fans, registration numbers across the region have increased 9.7 per cent since 2014.
“If we were to include school, indoor (Futsal), church, ethnic, community and corporate competitions in Western Sydney, football (soccer) in the west would easily have more than 150,000 participants,’’ Football Federation Australia spokesman Kyle Patterson said.
The Australian example came to my attention thanks to former Cork City player Roy O’Donovan, who currently plays with Central Coast Mariners in the Hyundai A-League, where he was the club’s top scorer in the 2015/16 season. I met Roy on his off-season back in Cork this year (2016).
I know Roy quite well as he had played in front of me on the right wing when we won the League of Ireland title with Cork City back in 2005. A gifted winger or striker, he was a proud northsider who brought an element of steel and pace to our Cork side – qualities that had been somewhat missing until his arrival. Years later, after spells with Sunderland, Blackpool and Coventry, amongst others, he had ended up playing again with Joe Gamble in Singapore before a move to the A-League transpired.
Roy mentioned to me that the A-League was a huge success, that the average attendances across the league (though stable over the last few years) had grown from an average of 4 to 5 thousand in the old NSC in 2003 to nearer the 12 to 13 thousand mark in the Hyundai A-League in 2015. He also explained that the professionalism of the clubs had much improved, so much so that the clubs were getting further in the Asian version of the Champions League and were attracting bigger and better sponsors. He told me that their footballing association, the Football Federation Australia, were succeeding in bringing football into parts of Australia where it hadn’t been successful before, and how an over-arching plan – complete with a centrally controlled league, fully integrated with underage football – was having huge benefits on the game there.
As an example of what he meant, he explained how the pre-season that he was heading back to in a few weeks’ time would involve a mini-tournament amongst four A-League teams in an area that is underdeveloped from a footballing point of view, but with big potential – think for example in Ireland of a Kerry, a Tipperary or a Mayo. Three of the clubs would be from any part of the country and the other would be the nearest A-League team to that area. These clubs and players would be going to schools, businesses and underage clubs to foster goodwill for the A-League in the area in the hope that it would help draw players, sponsors and media to the relevant team that were the closest A-league representative. And that same process was taking place with the other teams in different parts of Australia at the same time.
I was struck by how much of a ‘well thought-out’ idea this was and how it involved a lovely co-operation between the clubs, but also that it presupposed the existence of a central authority that was really committed to the league. It seemed that the previous authority, Soccer Australia, hadn’t been able to bring this type of growth or leadership to the domestic game and so it was, eventually, disbanded.
In Ireland it does not have to go this way. We have very good people involved with the FAI but it’s time for them to show real ambition and leadership, in the face of the considerable challenges that we face; the type of ambition and leadership that was shown by the likes of Frank Lowy and John O’Neill in Australia. The Australians have shown in their country, despite the existence of other dominant field sports as well as an apparent disinterest from the general public, that strategic and ambitious planning can bring real success to the domestic game and can add huge benefits to the overall game in the country.
If the FAI were ambitious for our league and gave the attainment of domestic professional football the priority it deserves, then we could still see real progress for our domestic leagues and for soccer in this country over the next 10 to 15 years. But this type of progress firstly needs a realisation that major transformative changes are needed, which implies an understanding that all is not OK with the League of Ireland today. Unfortunately, instead of a plan for the major structural changes that are required, we seem only to have a plan to keep negativity away from the media and away from the League, and to reduce the number of teams from 12 to 10.
If we continue going down the road we are on, fighting amongst ourselves, then there is a danger that we may at some stage need the government to step in and sort out the growing mess. I’m hoping this never happens, but only time will tell.
Finally, at this point I must admit to a clear limitation of this book. As my stated intention was to present the view of the 2009 season though the players’ eyes, this book therefore lacks the valuable perspective that a financial expert or accountant might offer to a period that was defined by financial insecurity. It must, however, be clear to anyone looking back on the period – from the safe distance of 6 or 7 years – that the prevailing economic climate was also a major contributing factor in how matters played out. And the experts seemed to agree…
Examinership Law in Ireland A Rescue Remedy or a Temporary Safe Haven for Insolvent Companies? (Article by Sharon Sheehan, Examiner in Professional 1 Corporate Law, Published by the CPA (Certified Public Accountants) Ireland, March 2010)
[The] sharp increase [in examinerships in the Republic of Ireland] between 2006 and 2007 can undoubtedly be attributed to the burst of the Celtic Tiger bubble and the resulting recession. What is more significant perhaps is the impact these increased applications have had on the success rate of examinership. Between 2002 and 2006, approximately 95 per cent of companies entering into examinership survived as viable entities. However, success rates have declined significantly …
It is worthy of note that of the companies that had examiners appointed to them since 2007 to June 2009, only 30% successfully came out of examinership and continue to trade…
This deterioration in the success of examinership can be largely attributed to the credit crunch and the resulting difficulties in attracting new finance to companies to ensure their survival during the examinership process.
These findings can only serve to mitigate whatever blame was placed, justly or otherwise, at the feet of Tom Coughlan, our white knight, for the death of our football club. At one point as matters were getting hairy, Coughlan admitted that he had made ‘a balls of it’ and I agree with this. But at least he was able to admit it. And in the end, despite everything that unfolds within these books, I would have to agree with Coughlan, who on finally resigning his position in January 2010 declared that ‘the structures of the league are the problem, not just Tom Coughlan’ (Irish Examiner, 29th January 2010).
As the old adage goes: the first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging that there is one. I, for one, hope that the FAI, following on from some of their recent positive steps with the new underage structures, finally acknowledge and embrace the need for more transformative changes to the League of Ireland. And I hope that, in the near future, they will lead the way with the ambitious but achievable plan for professional football in Ireland that is long overdue.
But I have my doubts too.