Responding to the article in last month's WSC about Wimbledon's proposed relocation to Dublin, Colm McCarthy insists that such a move would be welcomed by many football fans in the Republic of Ireland
Robert Rea, in WSC No 108, voices opposition to the proposed move of Wimbledon FC to Dublin. The FA, he writes, should say “. . . loudly, clearly and immediately, that they will be opposed” Robert would love the FA of Ireland, who have said precisely that. But the proposed move has no shortage of supporters in Dublin, and I am one of them. There is a crisis in the senior professional game in this country, and it has its origins in the structure of league football presided over by various national associations and UEFA.
The problem is simply stated. The Republic of Ireland is typical of several smaller European countries in consisting of one big city and a handful of provincial towns, some of which style themselves cities. Dublin has a population of just over a million people. The next biggest city is Cork, with about 150,000, and then you are down to places with populations of 50,000 and smaller. The local league’s top division has twelve clubs, five from Dublin and the rest from the provinces. The lower division has three further Dublin clubs. Many of the provincial clubs come from towns which would struggle to support a team in the lowest reaches of the English pyramid system.
The situation creates the following conundrum. Dublin is big enough to support a proper professional club, but the Republic cannot support a professional league for it to play in. The result is a part-time professional league which is simply uncompetitive as an entertainment product. All the best players go abroad, mostly to England. The fans watch English football on TV, and travel to matches across the pond in large numbers. I was at the Liverpool v Leeds game at Anfield a few weeks ago. All the flights ex-Dublin to both Liverpool and Manchester were solidly booked, as they are regularly throughout the season. The ferry companies also do a substantial trade.
Dublin travel agents believe that there are weekends when more Dubliners travel to games in Britain than watch local League of Ireland soccer at home. Fans, players and sponsors regard the local league as a second-best operation. It is estimated that Sky Sports are taking £5m per year in subscriptions out of the Republic, which would comfortably exceed the total income of all league clubs, and the FA of Ireland, combined. Every second kid in Dublin appears to be wearing a Liverpool or Man Utd shirt.
Why should anyone care about this? The FA of Ireland clearly does not, and focuses its efforts on the Republic’s international team, and on getting elected to UEFA sub-committees dealing with corner flags, referees’ spare whistles and free trips. But a large potential support base is being lost to the senior game, and the beneficiaries are other sports, which in Ireland means hurling, Gaelic football and rugby union.
The latter has just embraced professionalism. If the people who run Irish rugby have any brains, a topic of heated debate amongst rugby fans, they will enter a Dublin-based team in the English club competitions and thus insert a further nail in the coffin of senior soccer in the city. The rugby league are already exploring the possibility of founding a professional club in Dublin and played their Charity Shield final at the Royal Dublin Society arena last August (Wigan won).
If the Premiership discovered a city somewhere in England with a population of a million people and no professional soccer club, it would take them about five minutes to set one up. The only reason why Dublin, one of the biggest cities in the British Isles, does not have a professional team is because of the tradition, sustained by UEFA rules, that professional club football must be organized within the confines of each national association. This suits the big countries just fine, since they have enough large cities to sustain competitive leagues, in commercial as well as football terms. But it means that the potential market for the professional game in cities like Dublin is unexploited.
The situation in Scotland in this regard is interesting. A population of 5 million people (versus 3.6 million in the Republic of Ireland) sustains a professional league, but I reckon Scotland is the smallest national association in this part of the world to be able to do so. Several bigger countries are confined to part-time football, and the Scottish League could hardly be described as the most competitive in the world.
The situation for small country leagues is not just bad, it is getting worse, mainly because of television. A few Sundays ago, Dublin fans had a choice of Inter v Parma in Serie A, Sheffield United v Aston Villa in the FA Cup, a quarter-final of the African Nations Cup live on Eurosport, or a trip in the rain to the rusty-barbed-wire-and-Bovril of the League of Ireland. The latter is a choice I regularly make, but it is not realistic to expect too many other people to do the same.
The opposition to a Premiership side in Dublin has a number of components. The FA of Ireland, and the local part-time clubs, believe that a professional club based here would damage the League of Ireland. They may be right, but some commentators are not even convinced about that. They have no alternative plans to revive the senior game here, and apparently feel that they have no responsibility to produce any.
The promoters of other sports are better clued in. The hurling and Gaelic football people know that their games would face stiffer competition, and some of their tame hacks have been pushing out negative copy. And there is a crypto-Provo element who can always be relied on to pander to anti-Brit sentiment (“We don’t want English hooligans over here”).
For practical purposes, the FA of Ireland have allied themselves with these people. Their responsibility is to promote football in Ireland. Their attitude on this issue promotes Gaelic football and rugby football. Should they decide to promote the association game for a change, the first move should be to challenge the geographical restriction on the remit of professional leagues. The Welsh clubs who play in the English pyramid system won a case in the London High Court, against the FA of Wales, on a similar issue last year. At a broader level, and in the light of the Bosman judgment, who can say that the European Court would not deem the whole national league system to be another restraint of trade?
This leaves one important issue, in the specific case of Wimbledon moving to Dublin, and the issue which seems to concern Robert Rea in his article in WSC No 108. What about the club’s existing fans?
The main thing to be clear about is that there are not enough of them. If there were, I doubt very much if Wimbledon FC would be even thinking about a move. It is difficult to believe that the club can survive indefinitely at the top level with its existing support base. Those who want to keep Wimbledon in South London and to keep the club in the Premiership may well be pursuing two mutually exclusive objectives. This is not a rational thing for grown-up people to do.
From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month