11 April ~ A new League or Ireland (LOI) season is underway, with the main hope for 2012 being that all the clubs who start the campaign will still be around when it ends. A highlights reel of James McClean started doing the rounds on YouTube after he signed for Sunderland from Derry City. It included his trademark mazy runs and a number of his best goals from his time in the league. One of the comments below caught my eye: "Yes, he looks good here in reserve games, but did he do it for the first team?" I was too embarrassed to reply and point out that this is the first team. It wasn’t the standard of the football that brought him to this conclusion. It was the half-empty, dilapidated stadiums.
It is not as though there has never been money in the league. During the "Celtic Tiger" economic boom years in Ireland, many sugar daddies bankrolled clubs. But most new owners wanted instant success and simply pumped money into wages. Many Irish players returned home from the SPL, League One and League Two as the wages were being matched by the top local clubs. Rumours circulated about top players earning over €2,000 a week at clubs watched by fewer than 2,000 fans. While this was happening, very few stadium improvements were made.
Shelbourne were winning league titles regularly and having some great runs in Europe. Their home ground, Tolka Park, consisted of three dilapidated stands. Instead of fixing them up, they built a fourth. They were relegated to the First Division for financial irregularities just a few months after winning the Premier Division in 2006. Two sides of Tolka Park have since been closed for safety reasons.
Bohemians soon took on Shelbourne's mantle at the top of the Premier Division until they too went broke and had to sell their ground, Dalymount Park. Because of the property collapse in Ireland, Dalymount has not been developed. Bohemians are still there, but two sides of the ground have also been condemned.
Bray Wanderers offer another good example. The shed covering the home support was originally used as a taxi rank for horse drawn carriages at the start of the last century. It was finally removed in 2006. The famous Bloody Sunday scene from the Michael Collins movie (where British troops opened fire on the crowd in Croke Park as reprisal for IRA attacks) was also filmed in Bray’s Carlisle Grounds. The producers made a few adjustments to make it look more like Croke Park in the 1920s, adding a second corrugated shed on the opposite side. Cynics pointed out that they actually improved the ground.
In 2009, Bray finished bottom of the Premier Division and were getting ready for life in the First Division, only for Cork City to go bust and be automatically relegated. Bray were instead put into the relegation play-offs, which they duly lost to Drogheda United and Sporting Fingal. Just as they had accepted their fate, Derry City were also relegated for financial irregularities. Bray are probably the only team to have been relegated twice and continue playing top-flight football.
Since 2006, six clubs from the Premier Division have either been demoted (Shelbourne FC, Derry City), gone bust and reformed (Cork City and Galway United), or simply gone out of existence for financial reasons (Dublin City and Sporting Fingal, who won the FAI cup as recently as 2009). Kilkenny City and Kildare County from the First Division have also gone out of business.
Shamrock Rovers' exploits in Europe earlier this year put a gloss over what has been a very turbulent few years. Rovers themselves nearly disappeared a number of times. After their former owners sold their home in Milltown in 1987, Rovers roamed from stadium to stadium until the south Dublin County Council built the Tallaght Stadium for them.
All these problems should not take away from the players themselves. There is still good football being played every weekend at the top level and the raw young talent is still being produced. The sale of players like James McClean is helping the league survive.
In Ireland it was thought that if you don’t get picked up by an academy in the UK, then you simply won’t make it. But now, more and more players are finding their feet in the LOI for a couple of seasons before making the transition. Norwich captain Wes Hoolahan didn’t move across until he was 24. Keith Fahey didn't make the grade at Arsenal or Aston Villa, but after some standout seasons in the LOI, he was picked up again by Birmingham City aged 26. But players from League One and League Two certainly won’t be coming home for the competitive wages again anytime soon. Paul Cahill