THE WINDS of change are blowing strong in Irish football and last weekend’s ‘positive’ two-day meeting between the FAI and the 20 SSE Airtricity League clubs has offered fresh hope for the future of the Irish professional game.
There is a real demand for change and according to FAI interim chief, Noel Mooney that change could be arriving imminently as the association plan to make a decision and formulate a strategy with the clubs before the 2019 FAI Cup Final in November.
External stakeholders, representatives of the 20 clubs and the FAI listened to proposals from Niall Quinn’s Ireland Visionary Group and a rival consortium proposing an All-island league, led by tech entrepreneur, Kieran Lucid, as they outlined their visions for a new and improved league and their proposed changes in the league structures.
During that seemingly productive National League strategic planning weekend at Abbotstown, FAI staff and UEFA representatives addressed the meeting before a decision was taken to establish a working group which will look at all possibilities by the end of the 2019 playing season.
The eight clubs fronting the working group are Derry City, Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Drogheda United, Cork City, Sligo Rovers, Galway United and Bray Wanderers.
That working group will meet the week after the FAI’s AGM on July 27th and discuss the next step and consider what their plan is for the league’s future.
A second group meeting will then be scheduled for late August as Quinn’s consortium’s proposals and the All-Island League concepts are discussed further having had the chance to put ‘more meat on the bones’.
And if the FAI are to be taken for their word, the league’s governing body will then be in a position to make a decision about the League of Ireland’s new structure by the end of the current campaign.
Ultimately, however, any decisions will be down to the clubs and at present Derry City Football Club appear to be very much in favour of Lucid’s All-island League proposals, according to a recent interview by CEO Sean Barrett.
A merger between the League of Ireland and Irish League, in my opinion, is the most exciting but it has many hurdles to clear. According to Mr Barrett, the majority, if not all, clubs both north and south appear to be interested provided their own interests are looked after.
Money talks but Lucid appears to have already secured one TV deal and has held talks with Sky Sports about a further deal which would generate significant finance for his all-island league concept. Lucid is aiming to generate revenues of around E10m per year with the running of the league costing E1.5 million and the rest spread out among the clubs.
With the domestic game facing problems on both sides of the border, the aim is to produce a commercial offer that’s too good to refuse. There’s no doubt the product would be a lot more appealing to potential sponsors and would certainly be more marketable.
It could be a fresh start for Irish football and to think that Derry City could be hosting the likes of Linfield and Cliftonville on a regular basis is a prospect which really whets the appetite.
The structure of the All-island League has already been discussed, involving a new 14-team Premiership with a regionalised Championship North and Championship South below it - both Championship divisions would have 10 teams.
At the outset, eight League of Ireland teams and five Irish League teams would make up the top flight with a play-off determining the identity of the other team.
Should Lucid’s proposal get the green light, both the FAI and the IFA must get to work swiftly on the structure of the 2020 season which would need to be altered. Lucid believes the new league should run from May 2021 and from 2022 it would be an April start with a New Year’s Day finish. The Irish League clubs are obviously keen to keep their traditional St Stephen’s Day fixtures while the FAI Cup and Irish Cup remain intact.
“It was very, very positive,” said Derry City CEO, Mr Barrett about his meeting with Lucid’s consortium. “They did a very good presentation to us and, to be honest, we went into it with an open mind and came out of it thinking, you know what, this could work. I was really impressed to be honest.
“From a personal level I certainly feel it’s the only way forward for the league. I feel this league is struggling a bit to be perfectly honest with you. And an All-Ireland league would just bring it all to a different level.
“UEFA are very keen on it and there’s a model very similar to it between Belgium and Holland and it’s interesting stuff.
“Every club I have spoken to north and south, and we would have a relationship with all of them, have been very positive about it.”
For me, the Lucid proposal seems the best way forward to breathe new life into a product which has gone stale over recent years.
Dundalk have won three out of the last four league titles in the south and have admitted that European football is the priority having dominated the domestic scene.
While I’m not clear about Quinn’s vision for the league I’m sure, as an ex-professional footballer and a proud Irish man, he has the best interests of the Irish game at heart.
Brian Kerr is involved in the All-island league proposal - another man who has campaigned for the betterment of Irish football. And with influential people like ex-Derry City and Shamrock Rovers manager, Pat Fenlon, Linfield’s current Director of Football, backing Lucid’s cross-border idea, it really could make some headway in the coming months.
Not everyone is open to change and the fear of the unknown is certainly a factor but these proposals would transform Irish football and it deserves a chance with the right people behind it and with plenty of financial backing.
Derry City has definitely been impressed by Lucid’s blueprint and the people behind the idea sense that the moment to strike is now.
Whatever happens it looks like the landscape of League of Ireland football is set for significant change in the coming months and we’ll wait with bated breath to see how it unfolds.