“… you want me to compete with the best in the World, I’ve got to have the f*****g best in the world. And it’s not here in Ireland that I can find it, I’ve got to go to England to find it, or Scotland to find the quality that will make you a team that will compete with the best in the world. Now, if you don’t want to do that, tell me, and I’ll f*****g concentrate on the League of Ireland and we’ll win nothing.”.
In 1986, Jack Charleston had recognised that the standard of the League of Ireland was not there to represent Ireland on the World Stage. Instead he relied on the ‘Granny Rule’, that being anyone whose parent or grandparent is an Irish citizen is entitled to play for Ireland. Ireland has used this rule to great effect since 1965 in football and it is becoming more prevalent recently in rugby. The difference between the situation rugby, is that the administration which oversees the Irish league, does so with such negligence and lack of care that there is no opportunity for this to change and instead it has become over-reliance.
The Irish league has, more recently, seen much greater exposure due, in no small part, to the European campaigns of Shamrock Rovers in 2011 and Dundalk in 2017. These campaigns were highlighted and praised by fans and journalists alike, and it was hoped that the prize money that both received would usher in a new dawn of success in the Domestic Game. What has instead happened is a return to the norm. Irish clubs battle for the European places in hope of scrambling through European qualification and the prize money in order to take that next step, but many see the risk of speculating finances and going over budget in these pursuits as a bridge too far. Cork City, for example are a hugely successful club, and a fantastic piece on their recent history was included in this paper not so long ago. Cork City are unable to run the risk of over-investment in pursuit of the European glory, due to the under-investment in the league from the FAI and broadcasting services.
A piece published in the Irish Independent in 2011 reported that the League of Ireland prize money was slashed from €700k to €546k, and a more recent piece from the42.ie broke down what it claims is €475k of prize money. This breakdown is explained as €371k going to the Premier League sides and the remainder going to the First Division. The winner of the Irish Premier League receives a meagre €110k and a sliding scale ensues with the bottom side receiving €17k. This prize money is absolutely ridiculous and to expect a professional football club to make do with this is crazy. These figures stand out as particularly shocking in comparison with the prize money from other leagues. In the Scottish Premier Division, the winners receive £3 million and the relegated club receive £990k, when adjusted to euro, that is over 10 times what the winner of the Irish league receives. In 2016, the Icelandic FA gave their clubs ¼ of their Euro 2016 prize money, totalling €1.5 million. In comparison, the FAI gave the League of Ireland clubs just €100k. When I asked Cork City midfielder, Gearoid Morrissey about the issues surrounding television coverage of the league, he was unequivocal in his message, “it’s a domino effect, it needs to start from the ground up, back the league and the potential that’s there. Market it properly and give it what it is worth.”
These stark comparisons with other countries are embarrassing to say the least, but when compared to the salaries that the FAI pays, it is outright disgraceful. John Delaney, the FAI CEO, reportedly takes home a yearly salary of €360k. This salary is almost as much as is given to the entire League of Ireland as prize money. This comes in a time when clubs such as Cork City, have gone out of business due to financial troubles, and Bray Wanderers are struggling to pay their players wages. While in charge of Ireland, Martin O’Neill was paid a salary of €1 million, nearly 4 times the amount of Chris Coleman, who took Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and twice that of current Wales manager Ryan Giggs. O’Neill’s salary, reportedly, was later doubled to €2 million p/a. Roy Keane’s salary while assisting O’Neill is less reported but has been speculated to be anywhere from €500k-€700k, still far more than the Welsh Manager, and more than 13 of the managers at Euro 2016.
I am not suggesting that this is not fair remuneration for someone of O’Neill’s calibre and he would be a fool to go into a negotiating room and not seek the best deal for himself, but the issue at hand is why the FAI are so willing to pay such high wages. As can be seen by the cases of Michael O’Neill (Northern Ireland) and Chris Coleman, (Wales) there is no need for the gargantuan salaries in order to achieve success, but if the FAI are willing to pay it, there will be people who are willing to take it. Mick McCarthy recently agreed a €1.2 million-euro deal as Ireland manager, and it leaves us with the question of, why not Stephen Kenny now? It could be assumed that he would have demanded lesser pay, and he has already stated his intentions to use players from the League as a part of his u-21 team.
When asked about opportunities for League of Ireland players, Morrissey was unequivocal in his stance, “Its worse when you see lads getting on the magic plane. They’re over there [in England] a week and they’re in the Irish squad. Powerhouses of the sport all back their leagues and they take players from their league… It’s no coincidence.”. Cork City captain, Connor McCormack said that “it’s heartbreaking, you look it up and a third of the squad have played in the League of Ireland at some stage… the players haven’t changed massively, but they are better players in a better team. I don’t understand why the governing body and the manager [O’Neill at the time] overlook the league sometimes. There’s so much talent in the league, there’s no reason why the players shouldn’t be given a chance.”
Some may argue that the league is too far below the standard needed to supply the Irish National Team with players, and that there is no point in even trying to improve it. This could not be further from the truth. With enough, but not a ridiculous, investment, the Irish league sides could become regulars in European Group Stages. Without this investment, two sides have done it already. If League of Ireland sides were put in a position where they could regularly compete for European group stage places, then the standard of the league could increase exponentially, and teams could attract a higher standard of player to the league. Ireland appears to be so far behind domestic leagues such as Bulgaria, Romania and Denmark, even though the step it would take to get there would not be overly significant. Cork City legend Alan Bennett thinks that it is this which will take the League to the next level, and lead to an increase in reputation and opportunity, “I think its been shown through Maguire, and Horgan at Dundalk, that we can produce players, its slightly unfortunate that they need to go… You need a stamp, historically an English club willing to invest in you, now I think it will be very strong European campaigns… where you’re reaching group stages, crunch time games, then you’re getting that stamp.”
Cork City, for example, have sought other means of providing opportunities for young players, through their link with UCC, Morrissey, speaking before the FAI Cup Final was full of praise for the link, “Something like that should have been in place a long, long time ago. It should always coexist… At the end of the day the players are trying to have a career in sport but… you need to get your education.”. I asked Alan Bennett about his experience in going over to England, at a slightly older age, having spent time in the League of Ireland, “If I was 16/17, it could broke a fella, and it has broken a fella, where I was 23/24, hardened and understood it a bit more, it was an important lesson.”.
It is not just under investment in the League system that is prevalent. Rural areas of Ireland receive little to no attention or investment, despite the fact that the talent is no doubt there. What is expected of these players is that they will instead travel to more built up areas so that they will be scouted, rather than scouts coming to see these players. While this is not a wholly foreign concept, and it is understandable that this is the case, what is rather unique in Ireland’s case is the draw of other sports. In many rural areas, especially in the West of Ireland, the draw of Gaelic Football is huge, but this is also due to the state-of-the-art facilities that, may not be at every club, but are certainly present at numerous clubs.
In West Cork, for example, many clubs use old GAA grounds, with old shipping containers as changing rooms, or some of the better facilities use porta-cabins. Games are frequently called off due to the state of pitches in West Cork, but despite all of these issues, the soccer club still has the largest membership of any club in my home town, especially at under age. The FAI have created a world where everyone wants to play soccer and even when the facilities aren’t there it is played. The attitude pangs of ‘fend for yourselves’ and it is no wonder that the draw from other sports is so appealing in rural areas, especially in the West.
At the recent FAI cup final, and the last set of National Team fixtures, anti-John Delaney banners have been unfurled, only to be taken away by stewards who have been instructed to do so. The stewards have not been so easily able to quell the anti-FAI and Delaney songs which ring out across the Aviva. This is a man who has placed himself atop a pedestal but, refusing to be questioned. Why do we know his name, why has he made himself out to be such a public figure? Former Ireland manager Brian Kerr, in a recent interview said, “The spotlight should be on the FAI board & leader into their decision making over the last two years, which I feel has been a disaster”. The issues of the last few months, since the Denmark game, are not new, instead they have simply been brought to the fore. Lack of investment in the rural and domestic game is what is at the heart of these frustrations and issues, and they do not look to be changing any time soon. The FAI seem more-keen to sell out the Aviva than they are to improve the National Game. Recent proposals from Niall Quinn and Brian Kerr could appear to be moving things in the right direction, but I’ll believe it when I see it.