Tramore Hinterland – First Division is No Man’s Land

(pdf of article)

This week: a gratuitous reference to the naff 1980’s sponsors of the League of Ireland typifies the kind of low blows I use to plead for an end to the First Division. Tramore Hinterland costs €1.50 and can be purchased from all patriotic newsagents.

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Last week I wrote about how I went to see Waterford United anticipating a mid-table borefest which would confirm my belief that the League of Ireland First Division was a waste of time. And just as with an undergraduate dissertation, anything which contradicted such a belief was to be ignored, so the tremendous entertainment derived from a 4-0 shellacking of Wexford Youths will not interrupt the thought processes that despair at the entity that is the First Division.

For years the League had gotten along just fine with somewhere between 12-16 teams, the schedule for such a small league being padded out by assigning greater importance to competitions like the League of Ireland Shield/Cup and Munster Senior Cup. While the League was obviously the highest level of competition in the land the robust junior leagues meant it wasn’t essential to be in the League to be a somebody and there was enough action to go around. Hopefully sometime in the future Andy Taylor will be able to tell you of how the Tramore Rookies went all the way in the 1934/5 FAI Intermediate Cup, showing the long tradition of soccer in this town. There’s also a long history of hooliganism, as evidenced by my grandmother attacking a referee with an umbrella after a Rookies match and having to be escorted home by a handsome guard whom she would later marry. You won’t find that one in Andy Taylor’s archives.

By 1985 the mandarins at the FAI obviously thought that the country was big enough to cope with more League teams. Sligo Rovers had finished in the bottom three for the previous three seasons. Would their season, and that of other clubs like them, not be made more meaningful by the introduction of promotion and relegation? And surely the addition of extra teams would bring the game to previously inhospitable territory like Kilkenny and Bray. Factor in the arrival of DerryCity, a place yearning to be free from the shackles ofNorthern Ireland soccer, and it must have seemed like a no-brainer to all concerned.

It’s easy to scoff at them with the benefit of hindsight. Could we not give them credit for having some vision for the game inIreland? We could, except these were the guys who gave us the Pat Grace’s Famous Fried Chicken League of Ireland. I kid you not. Within a couple of years the international team, for so long a source of angst to everyone involved in the game with their occasional near-misses and more frequent habit of getting nowhere near the target, suddenly hit the afterburners. Before too long we were all whooping it up acrossEuropeand the slow death spiral of the League of Ireland didn’t seem to matter.

‘Death’ really isn’t too strong a word for what the League of Ireland has endured since then. Seven of the twenty-two clubs that comprised the League in 1985 – Galway United, Home Farm, Limerick City, Cobh Ramblers, Newcastle United (Newcastlewest) and E.M.F.A (Kilkenny City) – have either dropped back down to junior ranks or completely disappeared, while numerous others have gone bankrupt and been reconstituted as if nothing untoward had happened. In between then and now there were two notorious attempts to magic up super clubs in the capital,Dublin City and Sporting Fingal. Because if there’s one thing the League needed, it was more teams from Dublin. Both flew high, the latter winning the FAI Cup in 2009 with Tramore man John Frost on the bench, before an inevitable crash-and-burn. Inevitable, that is, to everyone but the FAI who encouraged these follies.

In fairness to the blazers in Abbottstown there are signs in recent years that the decline has bottomed out. Domestic soccer is more obviously visible than it has been for years thanks to regular Friday night coverage on RTÉ and the MNS programme on Monday, while Shamrock Rovers’ progress through the Europa League also helped boost the League’s profile. Financial fair play rules have been introduced which should prevent the cycle of boom-and-bust that characterised the domestic game in the recent past will stay in the past. But the gap between the haves and have-nots that causes everyone involved in sport to fret remains institutionalised by the continued existence of the First Division.MNSburies the division right at the end of the programme, while the decision to proceed with an eight-team group a couple of weeks after the Blues had tried to sell season tickets on the basis of a twelve-team group was contemptuous in the extreme. Selling those tickets is hard enough when you’re not doing particularly well. It’s impossible when you look at the motley crew you’re going to be playing. Two years ago Waterfordcould look forward to matches against DerryCity, Shelbourne and whatever outfit was claiming to be Cork City. This year the most exciting games are against Wexford, a club that didn’t exist five years ago, and a manufactured Munster rivalry with Limerick. It doesn’t set the pulses racing.

Contrast that with the prospect of having all of the above plus Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, St Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk coming to the RSC once a year. And if that seems self-serving, a reflection of the regular inability of the Blues to be good enough to get promoted, think of the clubs who have even less hope than Waterford of getting into the top flight. When Waterford first went to play Salthill Devon (now known as SD Galway) a couple of years back, the travelling fans were feted like long-lost relatives by the handful of people who sustain that club in the face of constantly being battered by all and sundry. Can you imagine their reaction if the conquerors of Partizan Belgrade were to come to town? Okay, I’m being self-serving. I want to see Shamrock Rovers at the RSC. But if there are fringe benefits for the likes of SD Galway, so much the better.

The problems of the League of Ireland aren’t going to be solved by one grand gesture. The disappointing results from moving to summer soccer demonstrate that. But there shouldn’t be a reluctance to change back because it would be seen as a step back. The First Division isn’t working. Time to put it, and its occupants, out of their misery.

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Chelsea and Donegal are not that far apart these days in terms of distance, but conceptually their respective soccer and gaelic football teams might as well be on Mars and Venus . Roman Abramovich probably has enough money to buy all of County Donegal. But Jimmy McGuinness’ team came to mind when Chelsea managed to take out Barcelona with as doughty a performance as you are likely to see over 180 minutes. Just as with Donegal last summer, there has been much high-minded tut-tutting over what this meant for the future if teams could win by playing puke football. The answer to such concerns is to ask what rules each side broke when winning their respective matches. Sport should not be a morality play. The team with the most goals/points at the end of the game wins. As long as the referee/umpire applied the rules fairly, nothing else matters, and Chelsea/Donegal should be free to play whatever style they want given the resources at their disposal without having to endure barbs from retired players who should know better.

Of course, if Chelsea win on Saturday using those tactics, they should be banned.

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