League clubs show Italian flair


THERE'S A joke about the Italian military which refers to that nation's tanks having three reverse gears and one for going forward (the latter being there in case the enemy attacks from behind). With the way they keep changing their minds about decisions already made, the gist of the hum our might also apply to the Irish soccer authorities these days.

Having recently reversed plans to reshape the National League's competitions next season and beaten a hasty retreat on the proposed use of penalties in the FAI Cup replay in the face of hostility from the finalists, Saturday's annual general meeting of the League clubs in Dublin also failed to rat fly the recently-negotiated deal with players and deferred the merger with the FAI for at least another season.

The decision to go back to the Professional Footballers' Association for "further negotiations" own one section of the agreement is likely to anger players' representatives who had won extensive concessions on the League's new transfer rules by threatening to strike.

At Saturday's meeting, however, new talks became increasingly inevitable as several of the major clubs raised questions about the amount of money the agreement would cost them - particularly a clause guaranteeing a player at least 10 per cent of his transfer fee.

Matters were not helped when, in the face of criticism from Brian Kerr, Noel King and Dr Tony O'Neill, members of the team which negotiated on behalf of the League began to present differing interpretations of the disputed clause.

League president Michael Hyland voiced his concern that failure to ratify the deal could lead to players refusing to take part in European competition, especially the InterToto Cup, in which Sligo Rovers are due to play next month, causing severe damage to the Irish game's credibility. But, when Eddie Cox of Bray Wanderers proposed that "we delete this now and fight whatever battles we have to before the start of next season, there was little resistance from delegates.

On the subject of the proposed merger with the FAI, Phil Mooney of St Patrick's Athletic expressed doubts regarding the advisability of proceeding at a time when the association appears to be entering a period of profound change.

The report of management consultant Ray Cass seems likely to result in a substantial reorganisation within Merrion Square in the coming months, noted Mooney. He recommended a "wait and see" approach on the part of the League for the present. The proposal was agreed without dissent.

The format that the League will adopt in years to come, did spark a debate among delegates. A proposal from Donal Crowther of Bohemians that a reduction in the size of the Premier Division to 10 clubs for the 1998/99 season might be achieved by the relegation of three clubs and the promotion of just one the previous year, received support from the other big Dublin outfits.

An alternative suggestion from Michael Cody of Cobh that the top flight be enlarged to 16 teams with the remaining six clubs to be joined in the First Division by newly-recruited clubs, received support from a number of representatives. However, with no obvious way out of the deadlock a special meeting of club representatives was proposed for August to deal with the matter.

Before then, the newly-formed policy and planning review committee will consider that issue and other matters of longer-term importance. A study of the feasibility of switching the season to the summer months will also fall within its remit.

Michael Hyland, Bernard O'Byrne, Brendan Duffy Noel King and Pat Dolan were all elected to serve on the committee, with representatives of the media and supporters to be drafted in over the coming weeks, during which time the group will commence their work.

Another matter which the committee may find itself considering is the future of the transfer system which Hyland told delegates may disappear over the next couple of years.

In the meantime, however, the clubs' rather forlorn hopes of obtaining an exemption from the implications of the European Court ruling in the Bosman Case still appear to linger on.

On Saturday, though, Hyland said only that renewed approaches would be made to the Derry City board, with the aim of obtaining their agreement to act as if they were not located in another jurisdiction.

There was obvious concern about the effect the ruling was already having, with Sligo, in particular, losing many of their first team players to clubs across the border (including Derry). But City, who would render themselves the only club on the island unable to pick up any out-of-contract players from other Irish clubs without the payment of a fee, seem highly unlikely to soften their line on the matter.

It was agreed that next season will commence on August 18th, when the League Cup will begin, while the League campaign itself will get under way for Premier Division sides two weeks later at the start of September.

UCG and Fanad United have accepted invitations to take part in the League Cup in which the groups remain substantially unaltered from last season. The two Dublin groups were, however, drawn at the meeting with Shelbourne, St Patrick's, Shamrock Rovers and Home Farm competing together, while Bohemians, St James' Gate, UCD and Bray battle it out elsewhere.

For those sides competing in Europe there will be a much earlier kick off to the new season, with St Patrick's and Bohemians having been informed that they will play their first matches in the UEFA Cup on July 17th. Shelbourne's first Cup Winners Cup outing is likely to come in early August.

At the other end of the season, May 4th was decided upon as the date for the FAI Cup final, while the format of the First Division Shield has been altered to include semi-finals between the winners of one group and the runners up in the other.