The Setanta Sports Cup has a future — that was the official line at Belfast City Hall yesterday, but it wasn’t exactly preaching to the converted.
The IFA, FAI and the Cup’s organising committee are still singing from the same hymnsheet but, inevitably, there were cynics in the audience.
Not least, from the Linfield, Cliftonville and Glentoran camps who know that it hasn’t been all rosy in the All-Ireland club competition’s garden.
At least there was a dose of reality served up with the tea and sausage rolls. The Setanta patient is gravely ill and though its condition may not be terminal, urgent medical attention is needed to bring it back to life.
While it may remain a noble idea, the need to transform the competition’s format is essential.
It doesn’t just rain for the Setanta organisers, it pours. Setanta Ireland have defied the odds by still operating after the Irish broadcaster Setanta Sports went into administration.
Derry City weren’t so fortunate — they sunk in choppy financial waters and whether Group One participants Cork City can stay afloat in the coming weeks is anyone’s guess.
On top of the financial cloud hanging over the tournament, Carling Premiership clubs feel that too much football is being played by part-time players, while some decisions, such as the move to play the 2008 final between Cork City and Glentoran at Turner’s Cross have left them bewildered. The tournament is also spread out over too long a period — from August through to May.
As the tournament’s sparkle fades, Setanta Ireland have agreed to make the remaining fixtures available free to satellite viewers to generate fresh interest.
Irish FA president Raymond Kennedy said: “The competition has suffered quite a few knocks but it will go on. I hope that it does survive and prosper.”
FAI president Milo Corcoran, chairman of the Setanta Sports Cup Organising Committee, added: “Thankfully Setanta’s financial problems are well behind us. This is the fifth season of the cup and it’s an important feature of the football calendar north and south.
“It has been beneficial to clubs and both associations though the issue of the format still needs to be fully resolved. To have a long gap between the fixtures is not ideal and that is under review.”
Niall Cogley, chief executive of Setanta Ireland, explained that the broadcaster has weathered a bitter financial storm.
“Our difficulties have been well documented but our long-term commitment is in place and while mistakes have been made, advice will be listened to and the tournament will get better,” he said.
Listening to the upbeat messages were Linfield chairman Jim Kerr and Glentoran manager Alan McDonald. Kerr remains sceptical of the tournament’s future success.
“They have acknowledged that they are going to have to change the format of the competition,” said Kerr. “It’s been an absolute disaster this year and I don’t know how they are going to conjure something up.
“When two associations operate in different seasons it’s never going to be fair, as one or the other will suffer because of the timing.
“Perhaps a straightforward home and away knockout competition is the answer. I know the sponsors want more games but our league’s part-time players are playing too much football.”
McDonald said: “I would never like to see Glentoran pull out of the Setanta Sports Cup. We have had problems with Setanta over the staging of the final and Paul Leeman’s suspension for it but it was a magnificent achievement to come within 45 minutes of winning it.
“But it’s not easy trying to fit all these competitions in. We have a crowded fixture list and that is a concern to me. To be honest I’m more concerned about our domestic competitions.”