Five reasons it's great the League of Ireland is back
New faces excite but old problems remain as League of Ireland gets ready for lift-off
1 It’s back
For those who love the League of Ireland, it’s good just to have some live football back again. After one of the longest off-seasons in Europe (only the chilly Nordic countries have a longer winter break than Ireland’s 19-week closed season), LOI junkies can get their fix again. As Pats boss Liam Buckley said at the season launch last week, sadly not many people go to games but those who do go are insanely passionate about their team.
Chronic gamblers in far-off spots are also happy to see the SSE Airtricity League back in action, as the fact that we play our games (mainly) on Friday nights and through the summer when no other football is played means that there is a disproportionately large interest in, say Longford Town v Bray Wanderers in the betting shops of Istanbul and Belgrade. Welcome back, lads.
2 International class
Home-based players have struggled to get into the Irish U21 squad of late, never mind the pipe dream of Martin O’Neill’s senior panel, and while players like Sean Gannon, Richie Towell, Eoin Wearen, Jamie Mulhall and Mikey Drennan could, in time, play at a higher level, they will never be capped while on the books of an Irish club.
But there will be an international element to the league in 2015, with Irish senior cap holders like Stephen McPhail, Keith Fahey, Colin Healy, Liam Miller, Alan Bennett and Jason Byrne lining out, as well as Sligo’s Estonian (Sander Puri) and the latest recruit, St Pats’ Togo international Cyril Guedjé.
The Fahey/McPhail presence in the league last season did not drastically add to attendances and it could take the signing of a major star, like Damien Duff, to make a difference to gates in the short-term. But the experience and knowledge of class acts like Miller and Bennett will have a very positive effect on young players around them and that could have a massive bearing for Cork in the year ahead.
3 National spread
All due respect to UCD, but their demotion to the second tier and promotion for Longford Town and Galway United gives the league a truly national feel again with only three Dublin clubs in the top flight.
For a city, supposedly a sports-mad one, with a population of 1.5million, it’s pitiful that only around 5,000 people go to see the Dublin clubs on a weekly basis but crowds at clubs like Sligo, Dundalk, Cork and Longford will outweigh the soccer-going public for the Dublin clubs, hopefully Cork and Dundalk can sustain the crowds they had last year and that Galway and Sligo people respond to promotion by putting bums on seats.
4 A country for young men
For various reasons, not all of them football-related, the LOI has, according to the PFAI, the lowest average age of any league in Europe, so there is some room for young talent. New Ireland U21 caps Lee Desmond and Sean Hoare (both 20) will do well for St Pats next term along with U19 cap Jamie McGrath and that youths policy could work well for Pats, as the Dublin clubs have never had a good record for producing young talent.
Across the city, Mikey Drennan (21) and Brandon Miele (20) could prosper at Shamrock Rovers while Robert Duggan (18) could get his teenage kicks at Bohs after a spell in England. And keep an eye on how things go up in Derry. Patrick McClean is one of the players who could come into the first team from the U19s and he has form - his big brother, James, started out at Derry in the same way.
5 Financial planning
After years of madness, like handing out €3,500 a week contracts to mediocre players, clubs do appear to be living within their means and are sticking to their budgets - while being overseen and lectured by the FAI, an organisation with debts of €50m. A great old country and a great old league.
And five reasons why we despair of our League
1 Grounds for concern
The fact that Limerick were given a licence for a stadium which wasn’t ready (Market’s Field) and then allowed, temporarily, to play in a ground which is below standard (Jackman Park) is worrying.
Clubs who spend six-figure budgets on players’ wages and next to nothing on ground improvements, as well as the FAI, need to look again at this situation.
Of the 12 grounds to host Premier Division matches in 2015, less than half (Tallaght, Turner’s Cross, Sligo Showgrounds, Longford and Galway) are close to what’s acceptable.
Okay, plans are in place for Dalymount Park, Brandywell and Drogheda, but don’t hold your breath.
2 Brain drain
Arsenal paid Legia Warsaw €2.5m for a teenage prospect a few weeks ago, but Irish clubs will never, ever, cash in like that.
The trio of Pat Hoban, Rory Gaffney and Michael Duffy (left) scored 45 league goals between them last season but they are all now across the water, only Duffy (now Celtic) earned his club a fee and even that was relatively low. And it goes on: Ipswich, who aim to be in the Premier League next season, have in the last year signed two players from Shelbourne.
The estimated transfer fee for the pair? Less than €10,000. Sickening.
3 Ticket prices
Okay, season tickets offer good value but one-off adult admission of €15 per game is far too high given the facilities for supporters.
Last month, I was part of a 20,000 crowd at a second-division game in Germany (Union Berlin) where the standard of play was just ok with no real stars on view, but the atmosphere was great with superb facilities for fans.
Fans are allowed have a beer while watching the game standing up, with no trouble and zero arrests. You can (shock-horror) get hot food and clean toilets, even female toilets! Ticket price for that game? Just €12.
It should not cost more to get into a shoddy LOI ground than it does to see a full-time German side in a decent stadium.
Drop the cost to €10. Now.
4 Poor crowds
Undoubtedly connected to the above points but crowds in the LOI, in spite of the wishful thinking in Abbotstown, are abysmal.
The 2014 attendance figures (up 3% say the FAI) were skewed by unusually large gates late on for Cork and Dundalk. Bar the Dundalk-Cork decider, the other five Premier games on the last day of the season had an average gate of 883. Nothing to be proud of.
5 No more Joseph Ndo
After 11 seasons we will see Joey in the LOI no more. Such a shame.