Irish clubs weigh up pros and cons of new European structures
Uefa flash the cash to sugar-coat changes to Champions League and Europa League competitions
A crowd of 7,000 packed Turner’s Cross for Monday night’s Premier Division clash between Cork City and Dundalk. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Cork City’s delay in finally putting this season’s title race to bed might be taking just a little of the shine off the scale of the achievement but few officials at other clubs would raise any objections to their own managers and players stretching this sort of situation out to include a game against their biggest rivals that attracted a crowd of 7,000.
Making comparisons like this is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but, at €15 a head, Monday’s gate receipts would be pretty much equivalent to the money City will (eventually) get from the FAI for actually winning the league and the way they are going there may be another decent gate to be wrung out of the situation. However the real cash, as everyone knows at this stage, comes from Europe.
There is good and bad news on that front for the would-be champions with John Caulfield’s side set to be guaranteed more games next summer and more money for the ones they play, but less chance overall of making significant progress in either of Uefa’s club competitions.
Assuming they are Ireland’s entrants in the Champions League qualifiers, City potentially face an earlier start due to the inclusion of an extra qualifying round as Uefa tries to cope with the consequences of its latest accommodation with the European Clubs Association, which represents the continent’s biggest outfits.
The winners in all of this are clear but Uefa do a decent line in sugar-coating things for the losers. The big German, Spanish, Italian and English clubs, bless ’em, have consented to a few crumbs being allowed to fall from the top table and so there will be more money (€10 million more) in “solidarity payments” to national champions eliminated from the Champions League qualifiers.
That’s on top of guaranteed entry, even for first-round losers, to a specially reserved section of qualifying for the Europa League in which overall prize money will be boosted by €50 million.
The upshot is that, as things stand right now, City might well face the champions of Poland, Denmark or Scotland in their very first outing and – if they lose – they would then face three rounds of qualifying against increasingly tough opponents in the hope of emulating the recent achievement of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk by reaching that competition’s group stage.
Uefa, as usual, is banking on any sense of disappointment being assuaged by a bigger bundle of cash at the end of whatever games are actually played.
If the FAI had the wherewithal back at home to take a similar approach then the current restructuring of the league might be a little easier to appreciate. Instead, two clubs from the top flight, who have done enough to show this season that they have something to offer, are about to be consigned to the first division and the association’s parting message seems likely to be along the lines of: “Good luck with that”.
St Patrick’s Athletic might yet be one of them although they boosted their hopes of avoiding the trapdoor on Monday night when almost 2,500 people turned up in Richmond Park to see them take on Shamrock Rovers. Okay, a decent proportion of the crowd would have been supporting the away team – local rivals who are themselves chasing European qualification – and Declan Conroy might well observe that this is precisely the sort of thing he had in mind when he floated the idea of league formats so convoluted that every game might feel like a cup final. But the bottom line is that this league can ill-afford to relegate clubs that can attract that number of people to a game on a Monday night.
Drogheda United have no complaints here. They were the weakest team this year by a distance but Sligo Rovers, Finn Harps and Galway United all bring something to the Premier Division table – so to speak. Some certainly more than others, but all should be coaxed and encouraged to improve, not sent to a wasteland where the options, if you don’t have the resources to simply spend your way straight back out again, are generally pretty bleak.
It’s hard in the circumstances to avoid the sense that what we have been witnessing here has been a reflection, on a very small scale, of what we see in Europe, with the bigger clubs showing a casual disregard for the smaller ones they regard as slightly superfluous to their own business plans. The difference being that, for all the talk from John Delaney of the good times having returned to the FAI, there is not the slightest sign of anything at all being sugar-coated while the actual benefit of a couple of extra home gates against slightly bigger clubs seems marginal and far too focused on immediate gain.
The clubs, nevertheless, continue to grumble and the latest round of talks between their representatives and the association are scheduled for Tuesday with several said to be more determined than ever that they should have a proper say in both the financing and administration of their league.
The association’s generally hardline position in all of this has surely been weakened by a season marred not once, but twice, by allegations of match-fixing; their subsequent handling of the Athlone Town case; yet more questions about the credibility of licensing and the ongoing absence of any sense that anyone in Abbotstown has the slightest hint of a vision of where this league is going or where it might eventually be.
Certainly, it is difficult to find a club official who takes Delaney’s professed love of the league remotely seriously and just about all of the FAI claims regarding its finances are talked of with something approaching derision.
The recent grant to Shamrock Rovers might be seen as a positive if it were regarded as being part of some wider scheme aimed at incentivising improvement – something that should be a central part of any plan to progress things – but it is not that. It has, in fact, generated some resentment.
Meanwhile, the clubs have been gathering legal opinions on the hugely restrictive and much reviled participation agreement and the results of those assessments may feature in Tuesday’s meeting. There is no great expectation of an imminent breakthrough but the hope is that some sort of deal can be hammered out in time to make positive changes for next season.
In the meantime, the concerns about the practicalities of the schedule for it have already started to raise their head. The proposed return to four rounds of nine games in a 10-team top flight makes a tight season even tighter when nobody wants to pay players for a few extra weeks and so even City’s extra two European games have the potential to cause problems.
We could, of course, always change back. The Georgians have blazed a bit of a trail on this front. Formed in 1990, their top flight – the Erovnuli Liga – has so far comprised of 17, 20, 17, 19, 16, 12, 10, 16, 14, 11, 10, 12, 16, 14 and now 10 teams. In the absence of real and substantial investment or a genuinely shared sense of ownership with clubs and other stakeholders, the FAI are bound to get it right if they just keep fiddling with the numbers.