League of Ireland should appreciate what it is – not fret about what it isn’t

Constant talk of how to ‘fix’ the league should be matched by appreciation for its resilience

Dundalk’s Michael Duffy and Cork City’s Conor McCarthy compete for the ball during Saturday’s President’s Cup clash at Turner’s Cross. Photo: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

Dundalk’s Michael Duffy and Cork City’s Conor McCarthy compete for the ball during Saturday’s President’s Cup clash at Turner’s Cross. Photo: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

 

A new season of the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland kicks off on Friday. The prospect means little to most of us. Indifference is mainly the lot of Irish football’s domestic league. But what is both admirable and vital is the way it continues to survive.

Holding-on is no mean achievement sometimes. A racehorse trainer of my acquaintance once defined his version of success: given the competition, and the rate of attrition, it constituted only one thing he said – survival.

It sounds a bit grim. But professional sport is unforgiving of the fanciful. Faced everyday with the overwhelming power of Aidan O’Brien or Willie Mullins, durability becomes vital.

One thing it isn’t is sexy. But there’s a kind of glory in the durable too. And there’s a sense that devotees of the League of Ireland don’t get that sometimes, forever fretting about what it isn’t rather than appreciating what it is.

The domestic league isn’t a lot of things. It certainly isn’t sexy, or box-office, or any sort of trend. It is what it is, a third rate league with little broad profile amongst Irish sports fans, containing players who mostly couldn’t cut it in Britain or are still waiting for the chance to try.

That makes it an easy target sometimes, a punchline for wise asses or those in thrall to the richest football league in the world just across the water.

But what the League of Ireland does have in spades is the resilience to maintain its status as perhaps Irish sport’s ultimate survivor.

Unfortunate symptoms

It needs to be resilient. For the vast majority it only breaks out into the wider consciousness through tales of match-fixing, clubs going bust, unpaid wages or other unfortunate symptoms of a domestic set-up surviving on a shoestring.

This is a league that has always been surrounded. The overwhelming counter-attraction of the GAA dominates Ireland’s sporting landscape. Rugby really is sexy at the moment and the biggest competition of all remains cross-channel football.

It’s little wonder there often appears to be a siege mentality about it, a feeling of everyone hates us but we don’t care. Except of course LOI fans do care, a lot, perhaps even too much to keep in mind how towering an achievement actual survival is in such unpromising circumstances.

The safest bet this week is there will be the usual angst about how they’re Ireland’s real football people – unlike thousands going to Britain every weekend – and how the game would thrive if only those people would have the wit to realise what they’re missing on their own doorstep.

They’ve a point too but hectoring to people about what they should like is rarely a good look. Perhaps self-righteousness is a necessary survival mechanism though. After all this is a league scorned even by its own. FAI chief executive John Delaney famously once referred to it as the “difficult child”.

Another safe bet this week is there will be very serious debates as to what needs to be done to “fix” the League of Ireland, maybe even a few top 10 lists of what it needs to transform.

Such rigorous introspection almost invariably means defining it in the context of the English Premier League, usually in terms of how best to compete with it for profile. It’s a futile exercise, like a battered old coaster berthing next to the Queen Mary and demanding attention.

Yet plans always seem to be underway to spruce it up. Normally they involve licks of paint that don’t take long to peel. But this season gets underway with moves which, we are told, are more substantial than cosmetic.

The FAI’s plan to cede control of its difficult child to the clubs next year, by gradually affording them the chance to run themselves through a hybrid company, in which it will still have a stake, has run into the ambitions of former Irish international striker Niall Quinn.

He, apparently, wants to take the ruling body out of the equation completely by creating an independent league, independent that is apart from the state which, along with private investors, would generate €2million to be put into each of the 20 clubs so an academy system can start here.

Rejuvenate

Given Quinn’s fondness for the horses it is perhaps no surprise he has noted the state’s support for horse-racing and speculated on whether something similar might rejuvenate local football.

There has been a suggestion too that since football generates plenty of betting turnover it might be entitled to a slice of the tax revenue that currently goes to the Horse & Greyhound Fund, although it should be noted Irish racing has always been a world-player and not a relative backwater.

Quinn has outlined global ambitions for the league in terms of TV rights. He has also urged Irish football to dream big. Even if some of the big talk looks to be about flimsy branding only a reactionary could quibble with the ambition.

But from an outside perspective there should be a fear of losing as much as is gained in all this.

The League of Ireland isn’t glamorous. It’s tattered and often unlovely. But there’s a certain faded elegance to its stubborn perseverance, and more than a little glory about what it is rather than it isn’t.

What it isn’t is an obscene corporate financial monolith putting the bite on from Shanghai to Seattle, nor an incessant 24-hour media hard-sell with drooling voyeuristic examination of the tawdry excesses of too many given too much too young.

It isn’t rich, global or cool. It’s about the appeal of the local game, and the chance to watch it played live by people who might live next door than on another financial planet. The very things that put it in the Premier League’s shade are also what make it singular.

That may not allow it thrive in the manner to which some aspire. But it’s also why it will always survive.

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