I’ve long felt that one of soccer’s great advantages over the GAA is the clarity it has with respect to players and their teams. While they have representative teams, such as internationals, inter-varsity and youth teams, ultimately you are registered for one club. Maybe the initial aim of the founders of the GAA was the club to have supremacy – witness how the very early All-Irelands consisted of teams from the county champions rather than county teams as we understand them – but the big prize are the inter-county competitions and a sniff of success at Senior, Under-21 or Minor level can wreak havoc with club matches at all levels even between the two codes. There’s little of that ambiguity in soccer, so a player at the lowest level of soccer can be certain of getting his (I thought about saying ‘her’, but I’m so ignorant of women’s sports that I couldn’t be sure it’s the same for women playing soccer as it is for men) regular fix of games while the average GAA club player goes through the summer wondering whether the needs of the fancy Dans on the county team will mean they’ll lurch from one week to the next uncertain of getting a game.
So bearing that in my mind, it’s incredible how often the authorities in Irish soccer manage to screw up player registration. Before we consider the seemingly low-level brouhaha emerging from last Friday’s match between Waterford United and Dundalk, it’s important to note that this issue led to a change in the destination of the League of Ireland title. Back in 2001/2, St Patrick’s Athletic got into trouble over this and had an eye-watering 15 points deducted for fielding an ineligible player, a punishment that directly cost them the title – Pat’s still claim to have won the League that year, their website blandly noting it in their history in the same breath as winning the Leinster Senior Cup the previous season. Clicking through each season on Wikipedia shows it is a common occurrence and makes you wonder just how hard it can be to make sure a player X is registered before date Y.
Clearly it’s harder than it looks, because the Blues are claiming that Michael Rafter, Dundalk’s two-goal hero last Friday (and I note in passing that the first goal was a corker), was ineligible. The minutiae of the issue between professional and amateur players seems to be the reason that this comes up on such a frequent basis. Dundalk were able to exploit this in 1997 when they parachuted in an amateur player at the last-minute who went on to score two goals in a 3-0 win in the first leg. Isn’t ironic? Well, aprés Ed Byrne, it’s more a pain in the arse.
Reading the tea leaves, Waterford’s chances of success look slim. Dundalk’s statement on the matter seems robust and you can only assume Waterford’s appeal is based on some evidence that Dundalk are covering up for a cock-up. However, combine utter desperation on Waterford’s part due to the situation we’ve been put in with a feeling that wacky decisions routinely wend their way out of Abbotstown, and it wouldn’t make any sense for the Blues not to appeal. The rewards of a successful appeal far outweigh the disdain that will come from every other club regardless of the outcome. It’s incredible how such a small, put-upon league can manage to set everyone against each other rather than clubbing together. Maybe it’s part of the FAI’s plan, a Darwinian plan to root out the weak. If that’s the plan, it seems to be working.