Q&A: What are the details of the revised All Island League plan?

Kieran Lucid speaks to Emmet Malone about proposal which has been approved by clubs

Linfield and Dundalk met last year in the United the Union Cup. Photo: Brian Little/Inpho

Linfield and Dundalk met last year in the United the Union Cup. Photo: Brian Little/Inpho

 

Kieran Lucid is currently waiting to see how the FAI and IFA react to his amended proposals for a crossborder league competition (see www.allislandleague.com for details of the format). Here, he answers questions about how the idea has developed and where it might go from here.

The original plan for what might be described a very traditional all-island league was well received by the Airtricity League clubs and their supporters. Why the watered down proposal?

“The original one was the 14-team plan and based on the evidence that was the way to go. That was the one that our group wanted. But there were a few reasons that we had to shift from that.

“Firstly, the IFA said ‘no’. Secondly, people who know Uefa and understand how it works said that what we had proposed would be unlikely to be greeted favourably by Uefa.

“That was important but the third reason was that was that the Northern clubs that had probably been the most supportive towards us – Crusaders, Linfield and others – said they would find it very hard to sell the full All Island League to their base. That was hard to get around.

“We presented to the members at Crusaders, they are a member-owned club and we started that presentation with the 14-team option and the reception was icy enough. When we mentioned the alternative of the split season, the attitudes shifted very considerably. People saying: ‘I could go for that but the All Island League...’ So what can you do?”

What has the wider reception to the revised idea been like?

“When we started having the stakeholder summits and presenting the different options, it started becoming clear pretty early on that ‘option four’ was the best option. The southern clubs still wanted the full whack. It was pretty unanimous; they were just saying let’s just go for it but the northern clubs unanimously went for option four. That’s of the seven clubs who were at the last meeting. The likes of Ballymena and Cliftonville have been public about being in favour of sticking with things as they are.

“So, the idea went from an all island league to trying to see what was the best cross-border competition that we can get; one that would give the most value but still protect the sanctity of the Uefa places for the two countries.

“The reason we went for scenario four is that you play home and away then you move into the second stage. If it’s just a case of doing a split season and deciding the Uefa places at the half way point and then the rest is just a Mickey Mouse cup because the Uefa places are sorted then in their models the attendances were way down because each game means less. Whereas at the moment, even with the completely separate leagues, each game is a step towards qualifying for Europe so it’s important and that’s the way that we wanted to do it.”

If the domestic league standings still decide places in Europe, isn’t there more than a touch of ‘Setanta Cup’ about the ‘King of the Island’ aspect?

“No, I completely disagree with that. It’s still going to be your bread and butter competition; the one that gets you into Europe. The Setanta Cup was never that. It was a great competition in the early years but once the money began to dry up, it became a bit of an afterthought for some clubs, a nuisance even, because they were focused on the league.

“According to (Dutch sports consultants) Hypercube, successful competitions have as many moments of ‘glory and disaster’ as possible and this format scores highly on that front. The first 22 games are all about getting into the top six for the IFA clubs and top eight for the FAI ones. Every game means a lot then once you are in; it’s all about getting into Europe and getting into the knockout stages so the competition has value the whole way through. When Hypercube were modelling the different scenarios...the numbers of dead games which they envisage in this format, is much better than either format at present.

“The ‘King of the Island’ will be billed as the biggest trophy on the island. It will be about being seen to be the best team. It is all about prize money and so the prize money will have to be there. But if the money is there then it will be a big draw and there will be a big honour. It can be a natural climax to the season.”

The prize money is an issue? Critics have pointed to your failure to “put meat on the bone”.

“My answer to that is that we need the bone to put meat on. We need a format that at least in principle has buy-in from the association and clubs. We can’t go to the market before that and ask: ‘how much is this worth to you?’

“So what we’ve said is let’s get a format that we are agreed on and we sought to do that by going around all of the clubs and other stakeholders and we arrived at scenario four. The next step is for the associations to ask Uefa what their view on it is.

“Only then, once we have done all of that can anyone reasonably expect you to get firm expressions of interest from sponsors and broadcasters. Before that, it’s just impossible and anyone who says that there isn’t any money there either doesn’t understand the problem or is being disingenuous.”

And if all goes to plan what would you expect the benefits to be?

“Well, at the moment, the overall revenues of all of the clubs in the two top tiers is about €21 million, approximately... we didn’t get all of the clubs’ data so it’s not exact but it’s not far off. So, with scenario four, that competition structure and modest ground improvements, you are getting up towards €100 million in 10 years. That’s what the model says. It’s a not insignificant jump.

“I think the basics are consistent group stage competition in the Conference League, we have to be realistic and that’s the way it is looking. The good news about the Conference League is that for qualifying you get the same money as you did hitherto for the Europa League. You don’t get the same money for each point you get after that but it means that at least one of our teams, hopefully more, should be in the group stages pretty much every year and that means that we are plugged into the European transfer market.

“If you look at some of the Dutch clubs, if it wasn’t for their transfer activity, they’d be losing money. It’s the transfer activity that makes all the difference and their financial stability means they can lock the players in (to longer contracts) so English clubs and ones from other big leagues respect them enough to pay substantial transfer fees instead of raiding them for free.

“That’s what it looks like. Facilities, European competition and transfer fees. And bigger crowds would come with that. It would be a healthy small European league. We would be able to keep our best young players here longer and we would have a good run in Europe every now and again. We are not going to be in the Champions League for the foreseeable future. Unless the way Uefa spots are awarded changes, it’s pretty much impossible to make the Champions League group stages right now.”

A great deal of this rests on the reliability of the work done by Hypercube. What makes you think that can be depended upon?

“Well, first of all it was somebody with a lot of experience of European football who recommended them but you can see their track record; what they have done around Europe. They implemented the Super League in Denmark...they have worked with the Swiss League, they have done work with Uefa so when they come in and say that based on all of the discussions we have and our experience of data, this is what we think you should do I think people are inclined to listen rather than base things on intuition.

“Hypercube have been good because of the credibility they bring, especially in the North where it’s not just a southerner coming up... it is an outsider, an independent third party.

“And what they have come up with wasn’t what I had started with. They didn’t come in and just give their blessing to what we had already. It was the product of a genuine stakeholder process that went on for months. And it’s not just been their methodology but the way they carry themselves at the meetings.”

What they have given their blessing to might be seen as being a fairly convoluted format?

“The game needs something radical. And option four is radical. Okay, it’s complicated but many leagues in Europe are complicated; a lot of other existing competitions are complicated.

“The Belgian is certainly complicated. And some people there were unhappy when they brought in their current format but now, despite having a smaller economy and population, they have gone ahead of the Dutch in what, seven of eight years.

“If you look at the Champions League, there’s a backdoor into the Europa League but fans get all that stuff pretty quickly. Being complicated shouldn’t be a criticism in and of itself. It should just prompt the question: can this make the game better?”

So where are the associations with the idea now?

“Our dealings with the FAI have been positive. The IFA, I think to their credit, have kept the door open to us. After that initial reception in October when they came out against it, they agreed to meet us so that they could keep the discussion going and they met us three more times. We have met them with Hypercube and we have had multiple informal chats as well so I am grateful to them for keeping the discussion going at least.

“They have expressed their concerns. I think their concerns around the European spots were valid and we have revisited everything on that basis. Scenario four takes everything on board really.

“I think the main focus right now is how they can get through the season. I think their headspace at the moment is focused on that. But, as I’ve said, the next step is for the associations to ask Uefa what their view on it is. When that might happen, I really don’t know.”

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