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Sunday 17 December 2017

Aidan Fitzmaurice: LOI needs a lift

Clubs doing their best but stagnant League needs more from FAI

Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell lifts the League of Ireland premier Division trophy last October Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell lifts the League of Ireland premier Division trophy last October Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill watches Dundalk’s Champions League qualifier against BATE Borisov at Oriel Park last July Photo: Sportsfile

Keep the recovery going. Let's keep things as they are. Trust us because we know what we're doing. Things are grand.

That was the mantra force-fed to a distrustful nation by the establishment last month. It's the same message which comes from the FAI when it comes to the League of Ireland: everything is grand, it's all in good hands.

Except it's not the case and the League of Ireland is in a rut, badly in need of a lift, yet there's no sign of one coming from those in charge of the game.

It's easy, maybe unfair, to place the blame for all of Irish soccer's ills at the door of Abbotstown. There is good work being done around the country by people who genuinely care about the game.

But the SSE Aitrtricity League remains, in the words of John Delaney, "the difficult child" of the Irish game. So difficult that the people who are paid to look after football in this country don't even know when the games are on.

Last week, the FAI's media office issued a fixture list for the week ahead. On the big opening night of the domestic game's main division, the official FAI fixture list, issued to the media by email for diffusion to the fans, had an incorrect kick-off time for two of the four Premier Division games played tonight. With a start like that...

The core belief among the paid administrators of Irish football is like Fine Gael's message, keep the recovery going, a message devoid of innovation or inspiration.

Last week we had the official launch of the 2016 LOI season. It followed the exact same format as the launch from last year, and 10 years ago, 15 years ago: speeches by men in suits (though credit to the FAI for getting Martin O'Neill along to say a few words about the league). But has no one in Abbotstown thought of doing things differently to how the league was launched back in 2000?

There are good ideas out there. But most of them seem to come from volunteers at the various clubs.

Cabinteely FC have a social media strategy which has gained them world-wide coverage. Last month, Derry City came up with an ingenious way to launch their new away jersey: in a treasure-hunt for grown-ups, over the course of a day clues to the location of the launch were issued on social media, and the first Derry fan to follow the clues and turn up not only had the honour of being the first to see the new kit but got to keep it. Has no one in Abbotstown an idea like that?

Last year's Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Germany summed it up.

With 5,000 German football fans in town for the weekend, clubs took the initiative to attract them to Irish football's "difficult child". Shamrock Rovers printed up leaflets, in German, promoting their home game which was taking place 24 hours after the qualifier and handed them out to German fans at the qualifier, while Bohemians had a German-language ad for their game against St Pats on their website.

The result? An estimated 700-strong German contingent went to the Bohs-Pats game, instant revenue and exposure for the Dublin club. Yet there was not a single word in the FAI's own match programme for the qualifier to let those German supporters know that we had league worth watching.

Dublin is an important battle ground because, despite the FAI's claim that attendances in the LOI were up 8% last season, gates in the capital are at a worrying level, the Dublin derbies making no impact on the city beyond the hard-core supporters of the clubs. Wexford Youths and Finn Harps saw their gates improve at the end of last season but will that last?

A few soft words from Martin O'Neill, are welcome, as is the increased prize money, and we must accept there are other issues in the Irish game. But without innovation, ideas and inspiration from those in power, clubs on their own can only do so much, and Pats on the back for increased attendances will be empty gestures.

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