In the past few weeks the FAI has undergone a series of changes in relation to the League of Ireland; which includes a major restructuring of the league’s running.
The biggest announcement came Tuesday last, when the FAI revealed that the SSE Airtricity League will change in format, to a ten- team, two division structure from the 2018 season onwards.
The changes mean that next year, instead of two teams going down and two going up, three teams will be relegated into the second division and only the champions will receive promotion to the Premiership.
Following the announcement, the FAI released a statement that read:
“Over the last two years, the FAI Board has placed the future of the SSE Airtrcity League at the top of the list of priorities by commissioning two independent reports to look at the overall structure of the league (Consultation Process Report) and the League as a Brand (Branding Review Report).
“From the Consultation Process Report, a number of recommendations have started to be implemented, including, aiding clubs with strategic/business plans, focus on facility development, recruitment of marketing executive, establishment of a marketing group with club representation and restructuring of the League format.”
The presentation of the Branding Review Report mentioned in the statement took place days before this announcement and came under some strong criticism.
Some were bemused by the report which seemed to have an obscure obsession with bus stops; one suggestion made by the report was to have bus stops beside stadiums painted in the club’s colours, another was to have digital score boards at the stops.
Others, bewildered by the fact someone was paid to come up with the idea to make the league ‘cool’.
So, for the FAI to drop this announcement in such a close time, it must have felt like they were trying to put the fire out by putting more coal on it.
Such little time
The major issue around this is of course the budgeting aspect; but more so the lateness in which it allows clubs to increase their budgets.
The announcement came along with the fixtures for next year which schedules the League to start at the end of February; allowing teams just two months to increase their budget.
The issue here does not concern the higher positioned sides who will be confident with their placing in the table, but more so with the teams whose sole aim is to remain in the Premier Division, or gain promotion to the it.
Donegal side, Finn Harps is the perfect example of who will be strongest affected by the changes.
Last year, they finished third from bottom above Wexford Youths and survived their first year back in the Premier Division.
This was considered a great success for the club who had finally dusted itself off from its financial difficulties of the noughties’ and established themselves once more.
However, under the new rules, the same spot on the table will be a disaster for whoever holds it, as relegation will follow.
Finn Harps secretary, John Campbell, who claims his club voted against the motion, said that the changes are being made to fast for clubs to keep up.
“It has changed everything… We have about four weeks to get a budget confirmed, so there’s an absolute major amount of work to be done here over the next few weeks.” Campbell told Highland Radio.
Campbell believes that the changes will bring about a larger gap between the wealthy clubs and those who have a tighter budget.
“There is probably two or three clubs that were [Last year] in the same ballpark area that we were with regards to budget, maybe €50,000/60,000 between us. If you look at the step above that, you’re looking at double the budget that Finn Harps or any of the other two clubs have that are in the same area of the league”
“I think what people need to understand is that If you look at Harps, you’re looking at a yearly budget of around half a million, if you move up to that middle ground where we want to be eventually you’re talking €1.2 million”
However, even if Ollie Horgan’s clubs had the capabilities to increase their budget to this, the uncertainty of security still remains,
“We could double the budget and there would still be no guarantee of staying up.”
“We’re at the stage now where we genuinely will need help if we want to stay up in the Premiership.” Campbell concluded.
It seems that the league is trying to follow in the footsteps of those across waters and whom it has always been in the shadow of.
The growing financial gap between the clubs at the top and bottom is one similarity the League of Ireland now shares with the English Premier League, but, it is not one they should pursue.
With the prospect of European football now up for grabs, the top three sides will continue to dominate in the next few years and may be uncatchable by the time the FAI realise they’ve made a terrible blunder.
What’s cool about this?
The contradiction in this decision is that it will take away from the general excitement of the League.
What we’ll see in the next few years is the smaller clubs struggling for breath at the bottom of the league, fighting desperately to stay up while other sides like Dundalk, Cork City and Derry fight a three-horse race at the top.
With no play-offs, the relegation battle will most likely be what is grabbing the attention of the fans, what’s cool about that?
The concentration of the FAI should be to try make put the league on an even keel so that everyone has a chance, and it is not predictable.
The lack about play-off is also a downfall of this plan. The play-offs create not only a sense of excitement for fans at the end of the season, but also give clubs that little bit extra ticket revenue that could well see them break even at the end of the season.
The general reaction of LOI fans on social media is not what the FAI would have hoped for, in the sense that they were twitter world were outraged.
This begs the question, when the FAI consultant who put together the Branding report said the league should be “cool”, what does he think cool means?