Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Why having a serious debate over All-Ireland league is worthwhile

In battle: Stuart Byrne of Drogheda and Jamie Mulgrew of Linfield in the Setanta Cup in 2007
In battle: Stuart Byrne of Drogheda and Jamie Mulgrew of Linfield in the Setanta Cup in 2007

By Daniel McDonnell

This morning, the published work of the Governance Review Group established between the FAI and Sport Ireland will lay out their recommendations for reforming the power structures of football in the Republic of Ireland.

It seems certain that the exercise is more likely to provide questions than answers.

The resignation of John Earley from the FAI board earlier this week, allied with rumblings that schoolboy football will be unhappy at changes which might diminish their influence, hint at problems that lie ahead.

In reality, Irish football is only at the beginning of a healing process. Anyone who argues otherwise is deluded.

The confused picture around the future of the League of Ireland makes that point. Before the FAI crumbled, one of the boxes to tick this year was figuring out who would run the league from 2020 onwards.

The idea was the creation of a third-party company run jointly by the clubs and the FAI. Meetings were going nowhere fast until the dramatic events of March that changed everything at the top in Abbotstown.

All bets are now off and, in that context, it seems appropriate that a gamble on an All-Ireland league - or all-island league depending on your preferred terminology - has entered the debate.

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Kerry-born entrepreneur Kieran Lucid is pushing the plan, while benefiting from the guidance of Brian Kerr amongst others in an attempt to formulate a strategy.

News that Noel Mooney has invited Lucid's group to a forum next month to make a 30-minute pitch shows that the door is open to listening to the idea, even if it's understood that Abbotstown figures do have reservations about the concept as a realistic idea - especially in the short term.

Niall Quinn's consortium will also be represented at a gathering of clubs, referees, players and other stakeholders, and their challenge is to add substance to an initial discussion document that was underwhelming given the calibre of their group.

Lucid has engaged with clubs, something which Quinn's side had failed to do adequately.

And it will be interesting to find out if there is meat on the bone of their vision.

The argument for joining the League of Ireland and Irish League will have an emotional pull in some quarters, but it still has flaws that go beyond the obvious complications of Brexit, borders and the questions that would be presented with regard to the independence of national sides and the status of European places.

Beyond those hurdles, there's the matter of the shift that would be required to make northern sides interesting to floating southern supporters, and vice-versa.

There was a novelty about the Setanta Cup idea that wore off over time, with supporters not seeing enough of the leading players and personalities from the other jurisdiction.

Games with a spiky atmosphere had more of a political edge to it than a true football rivalry.

The eventual dominance of the League of Ireland sides also chipped away at interest and morale levels.

Of course, this is not a reason for abandoning the plan. It would take time and, naturally, players would start to move back and forth across the border. Familiarity would grow.

The better Irish League sides would have to embrace professionalism and that would naturally make them more competitive. In terms of fanbase and organisation, the top Belfast sides would rival anything those south of the border could offer. There is latent potential there.

But serious financial muscle and commercial imagination would be required to get it off the ground.

There is a view that smaller leagues need to look at their options in case a European Super League one day emerges that breaks down traditional barriers and threatens Uefa's competitions.

European football's governing body have always seemed enthused by the idea of some form of cross-border reconciliation, and that's why the idea of a joint bid for the 2023 Under-21 Euros was met with a positive reaction.

It's a step beyond that to merge leagues on a full-time basis but, given the muddled status quo, it's probably the right time to instigate the debate.

Years are being wasted as the league drifts along without leadership.

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