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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Aidan Fitzmaurice: League of Ireland is still the difficult child

Report has merit but big questions there for FAI

Dundalk celebrate winning the league last season
Dundalk celebrate winning the league last season
Declan Conroy

A man called Dougal is in trouble. His friends rally round and try to find a way out of his sticky predicament.

And back comes the answer. "Is there anything to be said for another mass?".

Reading through the 75-page report into the League of Ireland, commissioned by the FAI and carried out by consultant Declan Conroy, it's hard to believe that, after all the years of crisis and chaos in the domestic league, one of the solutions to sorting out what the FAI CEO has called the "difficult child" of the association is to tinker with the structure of the league. Again.

One of the four main recommendations from Conroy's report, delivered to club delegates on Monday night, is to swap the current format of a 12-team Premier Division and 8-team second tier for two leagues of 10, with added elements like an SPL-style split in the top division and a playoff for a European place.

Is there nothing to be said for another structure change? No, because we have been there before.

In the last 25 years, the LOI has changed its format six times, regular tweaking of the 10/12 team Premier Division. Are we any better off?

Saving the LOI requires more than going back to a 10-team top flight.

In fairness to Conroy and the FAI, some of the ideas in the report have merit and weight. It's a fact that most LOI clubs do not have a long-term plan and just go from year to year, relieved to still be alive - that needs to change.

Clubs do not have a strong enough presence in the community, the report pointing out that one LOI club does not have a single player living in the locality (though you could identify the Republic of Ireland as one of the few national teams in Europe without a single senior squad member living in the jurisdiction).

Clubs need to engage in their community more, they need to work harder to attract and keep support. Clubs can't expect to be treated as professional outfits if, as the report says: "The number of full-time, paid administrators within the 20 SSE Airtricity League clubs for the 2015 season will average less than one per club". Ouch.

Money is key here.

Clubs struggle to generate sufficient funds, but the (unnamed) club who get a measly 17% of their gate receipts from season tickets need a talking-to.

It's easy to take pot shots at the FAI, but as long as you have a situation where Dundalk could win the league title three seasons in a row and still not match the annual salary of the organisation's CEO, the FAI will be a target. There's also a glaring omission in the report in that it focused on the "stakeholders" in the game but ignored the 99% of the population who never go to watch the LOI.

Any future report should target the barstoolers who avoid the LOI and ask what it'd take to get them interested in Cork ahead of Chelsea.

Have we any solutions? Maybe.

Slash admission fees (the current level of €15 for an adult is too dear, especially given the awful conditions for spectators in many grounds), and just let kids in for free.

Increase prize money so Dundalk can get more than a mere €100,000 for the hard work of winning the league title, so that finishing fifth in the top division will see a club make a profit, not a loss, when league affiliation fees are included.

And treat players and spectators with more respect, with proper sanctions for clubs who cannot provide the most basic facilities for those who pay in at the gate and play on the field. That's a starting point.

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