BML 00590285The League of Ireland’s summer soccer schedule will be retained, despite concerns being expressed about falling attendances 10 years after the club game moved away from the traditional playing calendar.
Speaking at the South East Simon Community’s Business Breakfast in Waterford on Thursday last, FAI Chief Executive John Delaney said the competition provided by the English Premier League negated any possible reversion to the Autumn-Spring timetable.
“We’re next door to the biggest league in the world, so that’s a difficulty,” he said in Dooley’s Hotel, prior to a lunchtime meeting in Dublin with new Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill.
“It’s a difficulty for attendances and it’s a difficulty in terms of promotion. I think the summer season was initiated first of all to improve the standard of football, which it has, and there’s also been a welcome improvement in the League’s playing pitches. And up until this year, it’s improved our club’s performances in Europe.”
Delaney added: “The problem in the past was when we played in Europe, we played teams in the summer when we had no preparation games…and up until this year, we’ve had a noticeable improvement in our results and performances in European competition.
“And the League of Ireland has been very good for the current Republic of Ireland team – James McClean, Wesley Hoolahan, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, I could go on, have all emerged from League of Ireland football and progressed to international level.
“So the League, even if it doesn’t get the attendances we’d like it to have, has made a great contribution to Irish football and continues to do so, and it remains the highest standard of football you can play in this country – and we’d a great Cup Final this year which drew a great attendance and provided fantastic drama.
“So I think for the moment, it’s going to stay in the summer season because it suits the standard of play and it prepares our clubs for Europe.
“I must admit I’m a traditionalist – I’d love to be going to League of Ireland matches on Saint Stephen’s Day but I believe the greater willingness among both clubs and players is to stick with the summer season.”
Delaney also cited the abundance – and some would justly state the overabundance of soccer now available on television – as another factor affecting League of Ireland gate receipts.
“If you turn on a television most nights now, if there’s not Champions League football on, then it’s Spanish football, it’s Portuguese football, it’s Premier League football and so on…
“When I grew up as a kid in Tipperary we had only one channel, and we didn’t even get ‘Match of the Day’. The only time we saw goals on television was on FA Cup Final day when they used to show all the goals in a programme before the Final, but what we’ve got now is wall to wall football.
“And for me, it’s not as if people don’t have an interest in League of Ireland football; they’ve still got an interest in how their local team gets on, but they only want to go to the big events, but it’s worth pointing out that the same applies in other sports.”
Delaney added: “Club rugby is experiencing similar problems; there are lots of people going to Munster and Leinster games but the level of rugby directly beneath that is struggling; National League matches in Gaelic football and hurling have also had smaller attendances in the last few years, again, I feel, because a growing number of people only want to go to the big matches.
“As a society, we now just want to go to the big events as opposed to attending more regular sporting events, and that’s a difficulty for more sports in Ireland than just football.”
John Delaney also cited the traditional lack of connectivity between Schoolboy and Junior Football with the League of Ireland as another mitigating circumstance in the promotion and enhancement of the League from an attendance perspective.
“The other parts of the game here don’t support the League the way that they should – and there are reasons for that, because both leagues felt hard done by in the past.
“For instance, if everyone who played soccer in Waterford decided to support Waterford United, you’d have great crowds at the RSC. But there are some occasions when there are other games or events on at the same time, which means Waterford United are competing against those events, and that too presents a difficulty.
“What I’ve been trying to do, and it’s something I’ve probably failed slightly on up to now, but I’ve been trying to get everybody in areas where there is a League of Ireland team, to get behind that particular team.
“Now what doesn’t help that effort is when clubs bring in players from outside their areas… but trying to get everyone in an area behind their club, and it’s something the GAA has always done well, that to me is the big trick when it comes to getting attendances up.”
Regarding the new international managerial team of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, John Delaney said the high-profile appointments had provided Irish soccer with a welcome boost of positivity.
“There’s a real buzz back in Irish football, and that can only be a good thing for the game,” he said.
“Appointing Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane was the best thing for Irish football, that’s what I’ve done, it’s what the Board of the Association has done and, please God, it’s going to bring the good times back, which we all hopes will culminate in the national team qualifying for Euro 2016 in France.”
He continued: “I remember a survey carried out a couple of years ago in relation to the most important appointments made in the opinion of the Irish people; first on the list, as you’d expect, was the Taoiseach while the second, would you believe, was the Irish soccer manager – so that’s how much it means to people.
“What goes on with our international soccer team reflects the pulse of the Irish public and when you think that two million people at home still watched our third Euro 2012 match against Italy, despite it meaning nothing in terms of progressing in the competition just goes to show that we are the people’s team; we’re the pulse of the nation.
“So it’s a big responsibility for us as an Association to get the right man in the job and I think we’ve achieved that through the appointment of Martin O’Neill.”