A league living way beyond its means
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Friday August 08 2008
IF there’s one thing that underpins and yet constantly undermines football in Ireland at all levels – the appalling culture of expectation that has grown up around the game here like a noxious weed.
From FAI CEO John Delaney down to the lowliest eircom League foot soldier there is an expectation that someone, anyone, will come riding to the rescue with a bail-out package when the numbers are added and subtracted and the inescapable reality of a bankrupt domestic football industry becomes clear.
Many people cooperate with this fantasy world of never-ending grants and subventions and the worst of them are supposedly concerned journalists who believe that good news is the only way forward for the game in Ireland and lazily refuse to address the same issues that have been eating away at the foundations of football in Ireland for decades.
For that and other reasons, any effort to put structure and manners on the League of Ireland is always diluted by the fact that nobody ever takes responsibility for failure or insolvency and nobody ever takes them to task as a result.
Put simply, the show will roll on regardless of whether the money is there to pay for it or not. That’s the way it has always been and that’s the way it always will be.
But the bizarre twilight zone inhabited by those who continue to ignore fundamental problems has been turned inside out in recent years and not by anyone within football. Our friends in the Revenue Commissioners are providing the unwitting catalyst for change.
For years the Revenue Commissioners treated the FAI and the LOI with remarkable generosity and in the face of catastrophic debt, were happy to sit down and try to find a way for clubs to shift to a fully tax compliant mode – writing off an 11m bill in the process.
Lately, the Revenue have been showing teeth and the grapevine suggests that civil servants are currently examining many different areas of taxation that have remained untouched for years, as well as reminding eircom League clubs of their statutory obligations.
The League of Ireland constantly hangs on the brink of insolvency and crisis. Anytime someone sticks his head up to highlight the fact, the status quo shifts into gear and the wagons circle.
It’s long past the time for the poor mouth and the begging bowl. Ireland has moved on, Irish sport has moved on but there are many in the football family who still believe that association football’s peculiar tradition in this country allows them to run the game without even the basics of sound business practice.
Because football was repressed for so many years through the actions of the GAA and politicians of all hues, there are still those who believe implicitly that the world owes the League of Ireland a living and that normal business practices can be ignored with impunity.
This is not new. Clubs have been going bang for as long as anyone can remember. Without trying too hard, here’s a list: Cork Hibs, Cork Celtic, Cork United, Cork Athletic, Limerick United, Limerick FC, Shels, Drumcondra, Shamrock Rovers, St James Gate, Dublin City, Newcastlewest, St Francis, Thurles Town, Longford Town.
Some of the above disappeared without a trace; some reinvented themselves while others reverted to amateur status and survived.
Almost every League of Ireland club has reached a moment when extinction has been a live issue. The list is long and relentless and if Bohemians join it, the writing will really be on the wall.
Just a few years back, even this cynical witness to the League of Ireland decline believed that Bohs, through the sale of their prized asset Dalymount Park, might just have found a way to fund a club that might buck the trend and establish itself as an organisation to look up to and copy.
Because Dalymount was and is worth so much, Bohs appeared to have the resources they needed to flourish but the demise of the Celtic Tiger has, at the very least, created circumstances that make the development deal less than rock solid.
The Celtic Tiger is running on fumes right now and like many other LOI clubs before them, Bohs are spending money they simply don’t have.
Essentially, they are surviving on thin air while eating remorselessly into their only asset – Dalymount Park.
The numbers being crunched in Phibsboro don’t make for happy reading. There has been an exponential growth in loss-making, based on the funding available from the proposed sale of the ground.
Cumulative losses over a decade or so amount to 4m but the rate of leakage has picked up pace and is certain to cruise past the 1m mark for this year.
Whether the asset you’re sitting on is worth 1m or 100m, it makes no sense at all to apply a spend, spend, spend approach to day to day operations.
Because Bohs are currently locked in a court case over ownership rights, the Liam Carroll consortium has put a hold on all financial subventions and cash that was factored into the yearly budget has been withheld.
This has ramifications across all aspects of Bohs’ operations. They may be head and shoulders above everyone else at the top of the Premier League right now, but to what end and can they afford it? The simple answer is they can’t and applies to all League of Ireland clubs working under the current ridiculous and discredited model.
This requires success at European level as the next step up and is all but unachievable, a fact never so well illustrated than by Ollie Byrne’s extraordinary and profligate use of the cash from all sorts of sources to provide a platform for Shelbourne’s attempt to reach the Champions League knock-out stage.
For three decades, those who remain passionate about the domestic game have been kidding themselves that they are just a step away from the big time and if only one club could make the breakthrough in Europe, all problems would melt away.
Ollie’s efforts were both heroic and insane and in that weird mix of motivation lies the essential truth about the League of Ireland.
Only someone with an obsession that allows rules to be bent at right angles would pour his heart and soul into a failed entity that has not worked for four decades and will never work while it suits so many people that it should fail.
There are many individuals cleaning up in the football industry and this has always been the case. Everyone now knows that Joe Gamble was offered an astonishing 3200k salary to switch from Leeside to Inchicore. Players are earning salaries that have no connection whatsoever with the support they generate.
At least Gamble can be judged on the pitch as will all the other players – well-paid or not. But there are many others throughout football in Ireland who do very nicely indeed from the game and couldn’t kick a ball out of their way.
For 30 years and more, the League of Ireland has been living beyond its means and without any real budgetary control. Clubs with poor administrative structures have always been wide open to widespread financial leakage.
In every other industry, people follow rules and if they fail to do so, they go out of business.
But many football people believe that football is different and while they do, while they expect someone with deep pockets to cover the bills, nothing will change.