Maybe this isn’t a good week to write about the League of Ireland. Caoimhin Kelleher has just made his Liverpool debut after all. National debate has shone a light on the spartan football facilities in the country’s second biggest city. Two clubs over the course of the summer have failed to pay wages to players. And most football loving fans in Ireland are more interested in Jose Mourinho’s press conferences anyway.
But maybe this is a good week to write an article arguing that the continued neglect of the domestic game in Ireland will ultimately hit us where it hurts most - our national side. Our most consistent and highly-rated Premier League performer, Seamus Coleman, is a League of Ireland graduate. Seani Maguire is reportedly the highest-paid player in Preston’s history. Graham Burke - enough said. It doesn’t take a supply chain manager to see the links.
Regardless of whether a strong League of Ireland would benefit the national team (of which more later), the neglect by the FAI of the league is undisputed but still bears some repeating.
There has been some good news recently, with the FAI climbing down on their insistence that the PFAI contribute €150,000 to a €300,000 fund that will ensure players' wages are paid in the event their clubs cannot stump up the cash. For those uninitiated with the League of Ireland this is an annual occurrence facilitated by the FAI's use of zonal marking when it comes to fit-and-proper tests, financial viability checks and speaking to people on the ground. That the FAI thought the Player's Association should pay in the first place says it all however. The "difficult child" is generally kept in the corner. Only last week the recently capped Seani Maguire hit out at the "bandwagon" supporters who pass through the League of Ireland turnstiles for prestige friendlies, citing the dwindling numbers of fans attending league matches. Is anything being done by the FAI to counteract this? Do I even need to answer that?
If the FAI were as good at converting those in the bandwagon as they are at circling the wagons we may have a different story. And while some credit must be given for establishing national underage leagues (although not the botched execution that failed to cater for traditionally strong schoolboy teams), John Delaney has always been ambivalent towards domestic football in Ireland. Clubs like Dundalk and Cork City prosper in spite of the structures and paltry prize funds, while owners at clubs like Limerick and Bray Wanderers are given free reign, and if it doesn't work out...well at least they have set up the player's fund now. A concept that works in theory but as Dundalk defender Brian Gartland pointed out on Twitter, the fund if anything gives owners more license to neglect their duties to the players at their clubs.
The most damning criticism of the FAI is their lack of long-term planning in the face of significant trends that directly affect our national team, which is lest we forget the FAI's cash cow. Developments across the water have stemmed the flow of Irish-eligible players operating at the top of the game. Where once there may have been a Manchester United or Liverpool nucleus in the squad, these days the majority of our players are coming from Championship teams. Likewise, young talent that cross the Irish Sea are regularly squeezed out by more exotic imports - players who have higher technical ability as a result of their own schooling.
All to say that the longer these trends continue, the more we will have to rely on League of Ireland clubs to produce international-class talent, even if they do subsequently travel to England before stepping up to the national set-up. Of course, the quality of players we produce through the League of Ireland relies on the "rising tide" principle - the league needs to be stronger, otherwise clubs like Dundalk and Cork City are fighting against the tide, and players like Pat McEleney (included in the 2016 Team of the Year) survive just 6 months across the water. And while the number of League of Ireland graduates who have represented our national side seems high, we actually have some of the worst figures for a European nation of our size when it comes to a domestic league supply line to the national team.
So clearly, this is something the clubs cannot do themselves, and something a country of our size need to improve on. Stronger (and more present) management and governance is needed by the FAI, echoing the likes of Brian Kerr in pushing for more funding and growth in the domestic game. It's the same old story, but now there are new reasons. English clubs will no longer do the dirty work for us, and players coming through the new national pathways need exposure to a higher level of football currently played on these shores to have any hope of making an impact in England, where the majority of our national side will still ultimately be picked from. Whether that is at Liverpool or Oldham, only time will tell.
To the unconverted fans who will ultimately have to lead before the FAI follow, forgive the following marketing ploy, but the League of Ireland remains a passion for many football fans for a reason.
Imagine being able to say in the upcoming League of Nations matches that you saw Seani Maguire bang them in at Turner's Cross and knew he'd be a star. Imagine live football under Friday night lights, where a match ticket and a few drinks dissecting the game costs less than a flight to London. Or those glorious if rare European nights when the hairs stand up at the back of your neck as the Champions League theme is drowned out by a full house. And you can say - this really is my team. Despite the imperfections, the occasional shanked clearance or botched effort at goal. Your team.
And if that doesn't do it for you, there is always that old crowd favourite, which isn't going anywhere for now and always draws a smile, "They always cheat, they always lie..."