Ireland United – The Way Forward For Irish Football?

29Jul08

The Premier League format that emerged in England and that was later replicated in Scotland has been a resounding success. In 1992 the top tier of English football broke away from the Football League and has flourished with the backing of Sky TV. Scottish clubs followed suit in 1998 to form the Scottish Premier League (SPL), with Setanta Sports currently providing improved terms to extend their deal.

A sports marketing firm, Platinum One, has unveiled plans for an All-Ireland Premier League. This is an attempt to provide an upturn in the fortunes of the beautiful game in Ireland. Many clubs, on both sides of the border, are struggling to survive due to poor attendances and sponsorship. Recently, Sligo Rovers, Cobh Ramblers and Galway United have all revealed that they are suffering financial difficulties. 

Most concerning is the current plight of Sligo Rovers. A club statement warned on July 15th that “It is a matter of fact that if Sligo Rovers Football Club do not raise substantial funds by the end of August 2008 the club will no longer exist in football.” This is a town that has previously boasted a passionate football tradition and a strong fan base. But club officials have resorted to admitting that they’re struggling to get paying fans through the gates, and if they don’t manage to conjure up a small fortune in the next month then Sligo Rovers will cease to exist as a football club.

It is important to consider that the financial problems being experienced by Irish football clubs are not peculiar to Ireland. The high profile demise of Gretna in the Scottish Premier League highlights a more global problem, with at least three clubs from the English leagues on the verge of extinction.

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) recognises that the financial problems have been brought on by over-ambitious chairmen, who over-extend themselves financially in their bid to bring success to their club. In an attempt to rectify the situation, the FAI have brought in a cap on players’ wages, which should not exceed 65 per cent of a club’s income. The salary cap could have the potential to restore a more financially stable league, but can the clubs afford to wait a season or two to find that out? 

A United Irish League would result in removing the running of domestic football at the top level from the FAI and the Irish Football Association (IFA). The proposals include running the league under a five year license, which would be granted by the FAI and IFA. The league would be funded through sponsorship and television deals. The propose that infrastructure of the clubs could also be improved by unlocking government grants for stadium improvements. 

The FAI’s chief executive, John Delaney, recently declared that he was in favour of the idea in principle, but he felt it was “divisive” at the current time and said he remained committed to the association’s own plan to develop the League of Ireland in its present form. The IFA have refused to enter initial discussions and chief executive, Howard Wells, has stated that the timing would not be right as the IFA was currently revamping its own league.

The plans for a United Irish League were created by Fintan Drury, chairman of Paddy Power and director of Anglo Irish Bank. The league would run alongside the Premier Leagues in England and Scotland and consist of ten clubs- seven from the republic and three from the north. Drury has invited Bohemians, Drogheda United, St. Patrick’s Athletic, Galway United, Limerick 37, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers from the republic. Invites have also been issued to Linfield, Glentoran and Derry City from Northern Ireland. Drury sent a 62 page proposal to all the clubs and hopes the league could launch in August next year.

The SPL has the Old Firm derby, and the English Premiership has Sky’s Grand Slam Sunday, maybe the Irish United League would offer the traditional north/south rivalry which could capture the public’s imagination.

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