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Friday 24 March 2017

Survival race begins

Decision to revert to 10-team top flight set to be a disaster

Dundalk, pictured here retaining their SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title, were at the forefront of a stable league last season. Pic: Sportsfile
Dundalk, pictured here retaining their SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title, were at the forefront of a stable league last season. Pic: Sportsfile

Where else but in Ireland, the land of E-Voting machines, property bubbles and 100% mortgages, could we make such a mess of something which had held promise and worked reasonably well but was then banjaxed.

Because that's what will happen to the League of Ireland with the move, resurfacing again in 2017, to throw some clubs out of the top flight and make an ill-judged rush towards elitism.

Wastland

Here's what's happening: at the end of this season, 25% of the teams in the Premier Division in Ireland will be demoted to the wasteland, the graveyard, that is First Division football, with no reprieve, potentially a death sentence for some clubs.

In leagues where there is only automatic relegation (England, Spain, Italy, Germany), only 15% of clubs are sent down. Others (Holland) offer teams who struggle the lifeline of a play-off while the Belgians have a mad system where you can finish second from bottom and still potentially qualify for Europe.

Even those crazy Greeks - and as we know from Paul Merson, the Greek league is so useless that they don't even have a fixture list and old Merse could win the title there with a five-a-side team - only doom 12% of their clubs to Hades.

Players from each of the 12 Premier League clubs, pictured at the launch for the new League of Ireland season recently. Pic: Sportsfile
Players from each of the 12 Premier League clubs, pictured at the launch for the new League of Ireland season recently. Pic: Sportsfile

But the Irish? A great bunch of lads, to paraphrase Ted Crilly, are going to relegate 25% of teams because....

Well, we still don't know how the decision to have a 10-team Premier Division came about. Fran Gavin - the most senior official responsible for the LOI - refused (repeatedly) to explain to the media at the league's launch last week the process by which two leagues of 10 teams will be introduced for 2018. The mantra from the man in Abbotstown is that the clubs made the decision and the FAI ran with that decision.

In the land of saints and scholars, we don't learn. Cos we've been here before. Twice.

From 2009-11 and from 2002-04 we had a 10-team league in the Premier Division, made up mainly of Dublin clubs (in two of those six seasons, 70% of the clubs in the 'national league' came from the M50 belt). A roaring success, it was, so much that it lasted three years, was ditched, revived and ditched again.

The 10-team league is a mistake and it's such an aching pity that this call has been made at a time when there is, at last, potential for this league to grow, especially with the potentially-valuable (though still controversial in terms of the schoolboy fraternity) underage structures all the way back to U15 level.

Rebuild

One laughably outdated stadium (Brandywell) is already being rebuilt, by the end of this year the creaky old Dalymount Park will be knocked down for a badly-needed rebuild, and a new stand is on the way for Tallaght Stadium.

The success of Dundalk in Europe last year brought the club, and the league they play in, to new heights in terms of national attention. Even Miriam O'Callaghan and Ray Darcy got interested.

In Vienna last November we had two players from the league in the Ireland squad for a World Cup qualifier. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan are of course no longer in the league but the door is open at least.

The 2016 season was largely a stable one in terms of finances, with the only issues over wages arising in the First Division.

Waterford FC have been rebranded and reborn, the Portuguese money making its way to Athlone Town is an intriguing development, which will either be a great success or an unmitigated disaster.

Of course concerns remain. While the development of Dalymount and the Brandywell is welcome, worn-out grounds like Oriel Park, Finn Park and United Park have no place in staging top-flight or European football in 2017. The sod was turned on Harps' new stadium in 2008 but the club still have no idea when a match will be played there. Look inside the away dressing room in Oriel Park and tell a player that the place deserves to host Champions League football.

Flushing

Money is flushing around the league again, where one average player at an average, trophy-less club taking home €5,000 a month in basic wages not including bonuses is a reminder of Celtic Tiger madness.

And while the FAI have patted themselves on the back by appointing a dedicated marketing officer for the league (17 months after they were told to do so by their own report, bravo), the fact that he has - for now - no budget to work with is a breathtaking error that only the FAI could stand over.

Reasons - well, some reasons - to be cheerful heading into 2017. But big decisions have been made at the top level by some elite clubs in their own interests and not properly explained to the pixie-headed peasants down the food chain. Bejaney, that policy has always worked out well in Ireland. Enjoy the games.

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