League of Ireland crisis – what way forward?

The 2011 League of Ireland season saw unprecedented success but yet more financial woe and hardship.

Just as the 2012 LoI season is about to kick-off, we have to wonder what exactly is held in store for the league this year. Despite the success of Shamrock Rovers reaching the Europa League group stages, off-field we saw numerous clubs experiencing severe financial hardship.

The reasons for the economic woe can be attributed to many factors. Small leagues across Europe have repeatedly been squeezed by corporatism and increasing wealth disparity between the European giants and the rest, but in Ireland this problem is even greater due to historical ties with Britain and as a result it is held up in direct comparison with the Premier and Scottish Leagues. In an attempt to bridge the gap in quality and facilities, Irish clubs have tried to chase European success hoping that this would increase attendances and bring in big revenue to their respective club.

This year Rovers achieved that long awaited success. Despite also having gone to the wall on a couple of occasions, they went about things the right way by trying to build grass roots support in the local Tallaght community. By doing this they have certainly reaped the rewards, but rumours out of Tallaght are that once again previous mistakes are being repeated and over-spending is again taking over.

A knock-on positive effect to the League has not been felt. Many, if not most, clubs experienced massive financial difficulties throughout 2011. Galway, Bohs and Derry, to name but a few, all desperately tried to survive under one incarnation or another. The issue arises though, what is the solution for the league in the short and medium term? It is quite clear that the FAI are only motivated by the glamour and money of the national team, investing only a fraction of resources into its local league. The calls for an all Ireland league and/or a 22 team league, whilst being positive would not in themselves be enough.

In fact, there is no quick fix solution. Firstly, investment from the government and the FAI must be put into grass roots football and local clubs. This means investing in facilities and player development. In the short-term the LoI growing as a feeder league is not a negative, if the financial rewards were properly re-invested.  Budgetary caps must at all costs be respected, as one of the main reasons for declining attendances of late has been the financial difficulties experienced. Many supporters become fed-up of financial mis-management, examinership and administration.

At the same time there must be a major initiative and campaign encouraging ordinary football fans to engage with their local clubs and to play an active role within them. It is only by fans taking control of their club and running it in its best interests, that we will see positive change taking place across the league. In many respects it is sad that supporter owned and run clubs fell victim to the property bubble or the allure of big pay-days, not realizing that what was needed was to build their clubs from the bottom up in local areas. This does not mean that this model is incorrect, quite the opposite,  it shows that the structure of these clubs must be democratic and based around a spirit of community and enjoyment as opposed to success and financial rewards. It is of course understandable how as the Premiership became an ever increasing powerhouse, clubs’ responses in most instances was to try and compete with it on-the-field.

The League has not suffered from the gentrification and alienation that many supporters have felt across the water as Capitalism increasingly commodified the game to the point that it became nothing more than glitzy entertainment. We are fortunate in one sense that our league in many ways still belongs to us and that the important values of football, such as local community spirit and involvement are the mainstay of our league. These are the things that make football what it is and we need to use this to attract new supporters.

Football has its roots within the working class. Many clubs were even established within workplaces, as a way for workers to unite. There are also many examples of football clubs across the world that have played a key role in worker’s struggle. The passing of Socrates was a timely reminder of when he led his club Corinthians to the forefront of struggle against the Brazilian dictatorship and in the process fully democratized his club for a time, giving players, community and fans an equal say in the club’s affairs. The Egyptian Ultras groups also played a critical role in the ongoing revolution, putting aside fierce rivalries and organizing together to fight for a new and fairer society. This is the power that the beautiful game holds, let’s put it to its best use.