18 Aug 2022

The Commentary Box: Restructuring of the Premier Division vital to the future of Irish Football

The Commentary Box: Restructuring of the Premier Division vital to the future of Irish Football

Players from all 10 Premier Division teams at the recent Airtricity League Launch in Dublin. (Pic: Sportsfile)

With the season proper starting on Friday week, Dundalk know that there is little time left before the real football starts. Stephen O’Donnell has used his pre-season games to get his own perspectives about his new squad.

I’m sure he knows well who are his best 11. He has used the pre-season games as a chance to run his eye over as many players as he can. That was a good idea by the Dundalk boss as he wanted as many players involved in the games as possible.

He did not do as other managers often do and use a set team and leave the other players watching on. Dundalk have played four preseason games to date. Their next one is tonight (Friday) against neighbours Drogheda United in the Malone Cup at Oriel Park.

It will be the first chance Dundalk supporters will have to see the new manager back in Oriel. Dundalk supporters are expected to show up in good numbers. Drogheda United too, are bound to bring a good number of supporters as it really is the curtain raiser to the new season.

That the game is a friendly there is no doubt. But as Dundalk coach Dave Mackey told me recently it is a local derby and is bound to have the bite in it, as all local derbies have. Dave said he knows all about the Malone Cup games as he has played in one.

It will be a competitive event as it is the last chance either side has to perform before the real season kicks off on Friday week. Dundalk did add to their squad early last week by signing Stephen Bradley on loan from Scottish Premiership side Hibernian.

Stephen had been on loan to Ayr United until mid-January. Ayr had wanted to keep him for the rest of the season. Surprisingly, Hibs said no and brought him back. But then Stephen O’Donnell came calling and he did well do bring the Scottish youngster to Oriel on loan.

Joe Adams

Dundalk beat Galway United in their latest preseason friendly in Galway 3-0. New signing Stephen Bradley was on from the start and had an excellent game. He played for 73 minutes. Former Brentford player Joe Adams grabbed a lot of attention on the other wing.

He created goals for Paul Doyle and Darragh Leahy as well as scoring himself. Dundalk got all of their goals in the opening 25 minutes of the game. Joe Adams told that with just one pre-season game left it was good to get a win.

Referring to his assists he also said it was good to get his own stats up and running as well. The Dundalk winger was also full of praise for Stephen Bradley. Adams said he showed his quality on Wednesday night in Galway.

He also revealed that himself, Stephen, Dan Williams and Nathan Shepherd are all living in the same house. Joe added that Stephen has settled in straight away which he said was great for everyone.

Leinster Super League?

It’s amazing to think that in the league Dundalk will not have to travel any longer than they did last Wednesday when they headed west to play Galway United, as six of their opponents in the Premier Division are on the east coast, five of them in Dublin.

The lilywhites will have to travel to Donegal to play Finn Harps, to Sligo to play Sligo Rovers and to Derry to play Derry City. The furthest south they will go is Tallaght to play Shamrock Rovers in Dublin.

The FAI must wake up to the fact that their ten-team league is simply not working. No Munster representation is a downright disgrace. The opinion has been put to me that the best teams merit their place in the Premier Division.

I cannot deny that, but the graveyard that is the first Division often traps once great football teams into a long sentence that forces some to go to the wall as attendances and investment is often minimal.

There should be 14 teams in the premier Division not 10. Yes it would mean extra League games, but for the sake of having a league that is truly representative of the Republic of Ireland there has to be teams from Cork, Limerick and Waterford in the Premier Division.

The league needs a massive overhaul. It has basically become a Dublin league with two other teams within 50 miles of the capital and a sprinkling of three teams from the northwest.

It is as I have already said a Super version of the Leinster Senior League made up of seven teams from that province and three others from outside.

Bray Wanderers manager Pat Devlin is a man I have a lot of respect for. Pat has been involved in management in a period spanning at least four decades. He has always been a critic of the way the league has been structured since the First Division came into being.

Now that the FAI are considering a third tier, it’s just another graveyard of football being proposed that will ensure the monopoly of Dublin clubs in particular will continue.

Pat Devlin

Pat Devlin believes very strongly that the FAI should abandon thoughts of a third tier. The Bray boss takes my line that instead they should increase membership of the Premier Division.

Pat was a great friend of the late Tommy Connolly who sadly passed away last year. Tommy managed Dundalk numerous times, while Pat managed Bray several times. Both loved football so much that they even took time out from their jobs, helping to coach teams from local schools.

I remember way back in 1992 when I managed the Coláiste Ris soccer team Tommy would come along and coach the team alongside another Dundalk football great Willie Crawley.

I remember we met Clonkeen College of Dublin in a Leinster Cup quarter final. The game ended in a draw and had to be replayed in Dublin. Pat was on the Clonkeen line, coaching a team from his local area. Both Tommy and Pat were in Dublin for the replay which Coláiste Ris won.

My point is that Pat Devlin and Tommy Connolly were real football men who would coach Premier Division sides at the weekend and then give up their own free time to help local schools in their area a few days later.

Thus, Pat Devlin is a man of such vast experience of Irish soccer that he deserves to be listened to. Add to that he is the longest serving manager in the league of Ireland at the moment.

Devlin first managed Bray in the First Division in 1985. He has managed other clubs including Drogheda United. He has seen Bray go up to the Premier Division and go back down again on a number of occasions.

League Restructuring

As League of Ireland football enters its second century, Pat Devlin gave his frank views to the Irish Daily Star recently. Pat says it’s a major concern to him that there is no Munster representation in the coming season in the Premier Division.

He says it’s a huge cause of concern that the most southerly clubs in the Premier Division are Shamrock Rovers and UCD. Devlin quite rightly says the idea in Irish football should be to expand and try to hit areas where the game can develop.

He feels that Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, and Bray are all places where the Premier Division should expand into. Pat asked will a new third tier give people what they want. To me it will just open up a second graveyard of Irish soccer where clubs will wither and die.

Pat Devlin says expanding the Premier Division is a better idea than developing a new Division. He says an expansion of the Premier Division will allow teams towards the bottom of the 10-team league time to expand and develop.

It will he says give them a few seasons to build slowly. Pat says add four extra clubs to the expanded premier Division. He says this is now the time and opportunity to extend the top tier and to stop the current position where you have clubs rotating up and down from the premier to the first and back again.

The Dubliner believes you need Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway back in the top flight. He says they are an attraction for the Premier Division and the Dublin clubs want them as well. He says you don’t want an east coast League which is what it is right now bar Harps, Sligo and Derry City.

He stated teams from Munster and the midlands are very much needed and pointed out that since 1985 a raft of clubs mainly from outside Dublin have found themselves frequently too good for the First Division but frustratingly short of resources to stake a long-term stint in the Premier Division.

He says the cycle of promotion and relegation is further entrenched since the reduction of Premier Division clubs from 12 to ten in 2017.

The newly promoted clubs now face phenomenal obstacles when they build a strong First Division side but then see their investment on and off the pitch evaporate in the space of 12 to 21 months when they move into the Premier Division.

Clubs that are promoted he says do not get a return on their investment that will have been built up over a number of years. These teams just get relegated, and all the good work is undone.

Devlin believes if they are in a Premier Division of 14 they can bring in young players and develop them for this standard while a 14 team league would also allow clubs to get a better chance of becoming a mid-table side, pushing on and challenging for Europe.

Devlin feels strongly that establishing a second division does not do anything for the bigger clubs in the First Division and rightly points out the fact that it could take a club years to get back up.

He asks how long can owners be expected to invest money in their clubs while they wait for a promotion that might never happen. Devlin believes that two teams being relegated from the 14-club Premier Division and promoting one automatically at the top of First Division would be a good idea.

There would be an automatic play-off among other top First Division clubs for the right to play in the top flight. This he says would allow six intermediate clubs to join the First Division to ensure it stays at ten teams.

Obviously in the season the new 14 team begins, four from the First Division would have been promoted automatically. Devlin says his idea would mean there would be no need to have a third division.

History Lesson

The league as it is totally dysfunctional. To have a basically east coast league is not representative of what could be called a league of Ireland. Dundalk supporters may think this does not affect them. Well in the dark days of the first Division the club saw little light of going back up.

And there were plans of a ten team All-Ireland league being looked at with no chance of teams in the First Division ever being promoted again. The idea of a new all Ireland league collapsed when the hoped-for TV investment did not materialize.

Clubs at the top of the Premier league cared little about Dundalk getting a path back to the Premier Division. I really feared at that time Dundalk would never return to the Premier Division if this was the feeling among some of no promotion.

The idea collapsed but Dundalk had the door to them getting back to the Premier Division closed in 2006 when they finished second in the First Division. It must be stressed this had nothing to do with ideas of a proposed all Ireland league stopping promotion.

Dundalk won a two-legged relegation promotion play-off against Waterford. Normally they should have been promoted. However, they did not get it as the club, like all others had signed a participation agreement with the FAI on restructuring the league.

Under the agreement a team’s performance on the pitch over the previous few seasons was to be a major deciding factor of them getting a place in the new Premier Division. Sadly, apart from the 2006 season Dundalk’s performances were very poor.

These years were taken into account by the FAI. When it was announced the club were not getting promotion there was consternation among supporters. However, the club did not have a legal leg to stand on as the participation deal had been signed by Dundalk.

This legally allowed the FAI to restructure the league as they saw fit. It also stated past performances on the pitch going back several years would be a factor on promotion. What that deal also meant was that the FAI were taking control of the League of Ireland.

Waterford, the club who had been relegated by Dundalk stayed up and Galway who finished below Dundalk in the First Division were promoted.

The FAI were legally correct in what they decided. But why then did they have a promotion relegation play off. It was a farce, and it was a disgrace. But the FAI had the law on their side and that had to be respected too.

Final thoughts

Stephen Kenny lost his top coach Anthony Barry to Belgium last week. The man who replaced Damian Duff has been given much of the credit for Ireland’s recent improvement in performances.

The Irish Daily Star says Barry’s decision was sped up by the delay from the FAI in renewing Stephen Kenny’s contract. The paper quoted an insider saying that the lack of certainty over Kenny’s future as manager certainly contributed to Barry’s departure.

Stephen Kenny’s contract finishes after the Republic’s first two Nations League games this summer. The FAI have yet to come to an agreement with the manager ensuring he will be in charge of the other games in the Nations League and the European Qualifiers which would give Kenny another two years in charge.

Sadly, he has faced opposition among some running the FAI, but has the support of the CEO. Stephen was confident that he will get his new contract in the coming weeks. He said as much in interviews in the media this week.

However, there are people in power in the FAI that do not want the former Dundalk boss. They are believed to be in a minority. A section of the Irish media is also against the Irish boss getting a new contract.

It had been expected Kenny would have had his new contract by Christmas. Ireland have now lost their top coach, if the report by the Irish Daily Star is correct, to Belgium because of the FAI delaying giving the Irish manager his contract.

The FAI better realize quickly that Kenny is the people’s choice. If he were to walk away himself there would be uproar. He has been treated disgracefully by the FAI by prolonging a decision on his future.

Former Dundalk player Jamie McGrath last week moved from Scottish Premiership side St Mirren to League One outfit Wigan who are chasing promotion. He joins several fellow Republic of Ireland players at the club, including James McLean.

Thus, the curtain raiser for the new season at Oriel is being staged on Friday night with the Malone Cup against Drogheda. Have a safe week everybody and please be careful out there.

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