'Greatest league in the world'.
That’s the headline on the front page of the impressive booklet the FAI have produced ahead of the big kick-off to the new SSE Airtricity League season.
It is optimistic to think our domestic league will ever achieve that distinction, but there are a few things that could be done to move in the right direction. Here’s my wish-list ahead of the 2018 kick-off.
Improving facilities is a hot topic of debate in the League of Ireland. After spending five years playing in the UK, I returned to play in the domestic league last season and was disappointed with the lack of progress made in upgrading grounds around the country.
Some clubs have made massive strides in recent years to improve their facilities - Tallaght Stadium (pictured above), The Showgrounds in Sligo and Galway's Eamonn Deacy Park being good examples.
These stadiums satisfy basic requirements, modern dressing rooms, good pitches and proper facilities for fans to watch the game. Unfortunately, this is not the case throughout the league.
Some have seen no improvement whatsoever. Dressing rooms so small, it is difficult for the whole team to get changed at the same time, not to mention the fact that some only have one toilet!
Fans like to compare the domestic league in Ireland to Leagues 1 and 2 in England. In my experience the facilities in the English leagues are far superior to most in Ireland.
Why would anyone want to go and watch a game with poles obstructing their view and the grounds looking dilapidated from the outside?
Too many clubs here turn a blind eye when it comes to the state of their facilities. They seem happy to ‘get by’ season to season. In my view corporate sponsorship is critical to the development of the league and in order to attract this sponsorship, clubs must realise the importance of having proper facilities.
In a recent discussion with a senior representative of a Premier Division club, I suggested that their match day facilities should to be improved. He disagreed, saying that his stadium was fit for purpose. Clubs need to look towards grounds like Tallaght Stadium as the rule, not the exception.
This naive mind-set, never mind the finance, is what prevents us from moving to the next level. We cannot expect to attract new investors or players to our league if the clubs won’t make the first step themselves?
Focus On The Kids
Trevor Clarke has thrived at Shamrock Rovers
The introduction of the National Leagues at youth level now provides a pathway for our young talent to follow. I firmly believe that given the right support and coaching, it will be more beneficial for players to progress through the ranks at League of Ireland clubs rather than eaving for England at 15/16.
It has been encouraging to see a number of clubs partnering with third level colleges to offer sports scholarships. This gives players the opportunity to play at a good level here in the domestic league while being able to secure a third level qualification and a solid foundation for life after football.
Having suffered a serious knee injury which resulted in my early retirement from the game, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of having alternative career options.
To say that I was under prepared for what lay ahead of me when I left UCD for Sheffield Wednesday as a 21 year old would be an understatement
I believe we need to improve our coaching at youth level. It would be great to see more ex-professionals involving themselves with the various underage League of Ireland sides. As a spectator at underage games, I am often surprised at the lack of understanding and poor communication from coaches.
Players need to learn from coaches, my fear is that a lot of the coaches are well intentioned but short of knowledge when it comes to the basics of how the game should be played.
I would like to see a structure built in and around younger players. For the ones fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play overseas we must build a support structure and educate players on managing their money, dealing with the pressures of big crowds, dealing with social media and how to live your life given the fact you are away from your family & friends.
To say that I was under prepared for what lay ahead of me when I left UCD for Sheffield Wednesday as a 21 year old would be an understatement.
We need to be proactive by providing support and education for players from a young age and not just presume that they will be able to deal with these challenges when faced with them.
Having witnessed young players trying to make the breakthrough I can assure you that many fail to deal with some of these challenges, which can significantly halt their progress.
Lastly and most importantly, it would be great to see the best young players in the country given an opportunity to blossom. Game time and experience of playing in first team games is ultimately what every young player needs for progress and to "learn" the game.
We have seen great examples last season of players being handed opportunities and thriving. Trevor Clarke, Conor McDermott, Ronan Curtis to name a few made big impressions last season.
If they to do the same this season, you would imagine there will be British clubs lining up to sign them.
And, should our own clubs tie players down on more long-term contracts, these moves could become valuable sources of revenue.
More Promotion From Clubs Themselves & The FAI
2018 season kicks off Feb 16th. Be a part of it! #TerracesNotTv pic.twitter.com/fSX4fzXujX
January 29, 2018
People are quick to point the finger at the FAI and the media when it comes to promoting the league. Yes, the FAI can do more, but in fairness, they’ve really upped their game in terms of their website and social media channels around the league over the last year.
Clubs need to be more relentless with their own promotion and advertising. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all key ways for clubs to engage with their current and potential followers. With the season about to kick off, it is great to see different clubs so active on their different forms of social media, but more can be done.
The "#TerracesNotTV" promotional video by Bohemians has been very effective and shows the work that is being done by clubs.
Promo videos, competitions and polls should be run on a daily basis and interaction with fans both young and old needs to be constant. Social media is a free form of advertising. Once-off campaigns are not good enough and will not bring about any significant change .
The willingness to kick-start these campaigns needs to come from the clubs and the back-up and support needs to be driven by the FAI.
The Big Kick-Off
Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk side finished last season in excellent form and for me are the team to beat in 2018. Despite having lost Patrick McEleney and David McMillan, they have added well to what is an already formidable squad.
Limerick will struggle - a club that has lacked stability and ambition since the sacking of Martin Russell, a year fighting relegation looks likely.
One to watch is Conor McDermott. 2017 was the first I came across the Derry native. A style not dissimilar to that of Seamus Coleman, McDermott is excellent in both defence and attack. If he were to add to his impressive displays last season, Derry may struggle to keep a hold of the young full-back.
I’m sure every player is looking forward to lacing up their boots this weekend. Like the fans, they can’t wait for the big kick-off. Let’s hope we see lots of great games, packed with great goals. Let’s hope, too, that all involved do what is needed off the pitch to give us the sort of league we all want.
Are you ready? Let's go #RTEsoccer pic.twitter.com/ii1jgeiG3K
February 12, 2018
Watch Bohemians v Shamrock Rovers live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player from 7pm on Friday.