Photo Source: Sportsfile
Ah, the FAI, those famously fervent protectors and supporters of Irish domestic football. Monday saw an announcement that Manchester United will play Sampdoria at the Aviva Stadium in a meaningless pre-season money-spinner on the same day that Dundalk may well have a crucial Champions League qualifier. This is just the most recent case in a long list of examples, which exhibits both the FAI’s ceaseless desire for easy money, and the seeming disdain in which they hold the national league they are supposed to help prosper.
It’s not just the League of Ireland who have been recently treated as second class citizens in the FAI family as the shambles involving the Irish Women’s National Team showed. However in terms of failing to support the interests of the domestic game John Delaney and co. are in an especially rich vein of form. One can choose to get outraged at any number of egregious decisions from the FAI leadership, such as trying to fathom how chief executive John Delaney’s salary is over three times greater than the prize money Dundalk received for winning the league last season, or how they thought a strategic plan giving each league club only €5,000 (for context that equals just one hundredth of the €500,000 annual salary paid by the FAI to Roy Keane) would not end in tears.
As regards to the action on the pitch this season however, the decision to reduce the Premier Division from twelve to ten teams for the 2018 season has had the greatest immediate impact. The change from a twelve team premier division and eight team first division to two ten team divisions will see three sides being relegated, with only the champions of the first division earning promotion. The declared reason for this change is a bigger potential share of gate receipts for the bigger clubs, although it seems likely that the restructuring will do more harm than good for the league. Indeed, there is even a precedence that suggests that this idea will fail with the same structure being scrapped six years ago.
One of the main flaws with the new structure is the monotony in terms of fixtures it is likely to bring to the Premier Division, with each team having to play each other four times instead of the three games under the current format. The same games over and over again in quick succession could make the league less attractive as a product. Add in possible cup games and some teams will face each other six times next season, with this level of repetition it will not be surprising if fans become fatigued which could negate any of the benefits secured from a larger share in gate receipts.
It could be argued that the First Division already has these problems and changing the format may well benefit that division as a couple of big name clubs could possibly drive up attendances. However, this should not be done if it is to the detriment of what is meant to be Ireland’s flagship football league in the Premier Division.
Also, the last ten team Premier Division in 2011 saw only one team face relegation and even then they had the safety net of a relegation/promotion playoff. If the 2018 format involves only one team making it out of the first division then this could make the majority of first division teams’ season irrelevant from fairly early on. As a result, clubs that are growing will have their development stifled if there is no realistic chance of promotion. This problem is also symptomatic of an underlying issue within the league which is that many of the smaller clubs’ views are being ignored, and their needs neglected.
In reality, the reduction from twelve to ten will just mean that two more teams will become less financially stable. Saying that staying in the Premier Division can be crucial for the mid to small sized clubs such as Galway United and Finn Harps may be stating the obvious but it’s true. Not including the opening game of the season, Galway’s two largest attendances came against Cork and Dundalk. There is no need to deprive two extra clubs of the financial gains of being in the top division that are attained through these major fixtures which is what this new structure would do.
In the immediate term, the planned restructure does at least make this season’s relegation battle cutthroat and exciting. At time of writing, the bottom four sides are all level on points with only two points separating the entire bottom half.
Three teams going down this season could also have a serious impact on the geographical make-up of the league. For example, if Galway, Sligo and Finn Harps are all relegated then there will be no Premier Division team in the entirety of Connacht and Ulster bar Derry City. This scenario coupled with a promotion for UCD (who currently sit third in the first division) could also lead to a very Dublin-centric league with 40% of the 2018 ten team Premier Division being from the capital.
On the other hand, if Bohemians and St. Pats were to find themselves in the bottom three at the end of the season, Shamrock Rovers would be the only representatives of a city that makes up over a quarter of the country’s population. Neither of these hypothetical situations are ideal, but a three team relegation system (with maybe the third from bottom side entering a relegation/promotion playoff) is not necessarily a bad idea if a twelve team Premier Division is maintained as it adds excitement and gives First Division sides the opportunity to develop. The new proposed format meanwhile adds neither of these things.
With a mid-season split one of many things that has been suggested to be part of the new structure, it is difficult to see all these proposed plans as anything other than window-dressing from the FAI. It is likely none of these changes will have any major positive impact and this gimmicky re-altering does little to grow the league throughout the country which, of course, should always be the main aim of the FAI in relation to the league.