Friday 27 March ~
The League of Ireland began its 2009 season three weeks ago. If a recent tradition is maintained, at least one team’s name will be appended with an asterisk to denote some financial indiscretion and ensuing points deduction. Financial mismanagement has often meant that the winter months pass with club officials scrambling to file solvency reports while selling their best players so that they can remain afloat. Fine showings in Europe last year by both Drogheda and St Patrick’s, as well as a highly deserved league and cup double by Bohemians, were marred by another instalment of financial and legal turmoil.
Clubs were forced to lay off administrative staff, players’ wages went unpaid, sponsors were left out of pocket, Bohemians were involved in two separate court cases, and in the last month of the season emergency general meetings seemed to occur more frequently than matches.
These financial fiascos are symptomatic of the “Champions League or bust” philosophy that has pervaded the league in recent years. Two years ago Shelbourne endured the most dramatic fall from grace, seeing one of the finest squads assembled in Irish football torn apart. The 2006 league champions began the following season in the first division after being refused a Premier licence by a league committee due to their dire financial situation – having pinned all their hopes on consolidating themselves in Europe they had left the margin for error too small.
Last season very nearly sounded the death knell for defending league champions Drogheda United and 2005 winners Cork City. Current champions Bohemians are not without cause to worry either, having lost a court case concerning the sale of their ground. Clubs on average paid out 95 per cent of their income on players’ wages, reasoning that they needed such an outlay to tempt back young players from lower-league English teams. But this has also meant a corresponding lack of investment in their youth systems. This season, clubs have finally begun to cut wages and many have opted for a part-time set up. The merger of the league with the Football Association of Ireland in 2006 is also now being to show benefits – FAI has revamped the league system in order to make it more competitive and introduced a set of entry requirements that must be met in order to receive a licence. It was this system that consigned Shelbourne to their fate.
It will be some time before the problems are eradicated, but there does appear to be some light on the horizon. A national radio station and newspaper have signed sponsorship deals with the league. This, coupled with increased live coverage on RTE, the national broadcaster, should provide enough exposure for the league to endure on its own merits. Shamrock Rovers' move to their new Tallaght Stadium the Friday before last, after 22 years of ground-sharing around Dublin, also generated some positive publicity for the league. Rovers' new location in Dublin's largest suburb could even stir some interest among a populace largely obsessed with the English Premier League, while the rejigged Europa League might provide meetings with bigger European sides on a more regular basis. Being granted such opportunities is one thing, however – Irish clubs have yet to show that they are able to capitalise on them. Aaron Rogan