Right now, the sport of football is basking in the glory of one of the greatest World Cups ever staged, with the FIFA carnival in Russia providing lovers of the game everywhere with a treasure trove of thrilling matches without any of the undesirable features that detractors of the sport are only too happy to point out. Gianni Infantino has every right to look back on the tournament with a broad grin across his face as the host nation put its best foot forward in every respect. Unfortunately, while the world was entranced by the Russian festivities, the game in Ireland was going through an episode which one might politely describe as farcical. In the space of a couple of days after the World Cup final, two clubs from the League of Ireland Premier Division were hit by ‘sanctions’ amid financial turmoil so grave that those clubs couldn’t guarantee they would be able to pay their players for the rest of the season. Already reeling from the delaying of previous months’ wages, the players of Bray Wanderers and Limerick FC decided that enough was enough and they would take strike action.
If players from most other professional clubs around Europe tried this, they would be eviscerated as greedy, ungrateful mercenaries. By stark contrast, supporters of the two clubs affected have voiced strong support for the players’ actions, applauding them for refusing to take any more nonsense from boards of management at club and national level who have let them down immensely. To non-League of Ireland observers, it must be stressed that full-time footballers in the league receive a blue-collar wage; no flash cars or reclusive villas in these parts. The failure of Bray and Limerick to pay their players has put 40 or so adults in a situation where mortgages and bills might not get settled on time. Many of the players have young families who are feeling the domino effect from the egregiousness of those in elaborately-titled jobs who’ll never have to worry about scraping together a breakfast the next morning.
In Limerick’s case, it has been clear that current owner Pat O’Sullivan has been trying to sell his majority stake in the club for some time. He has spelt out in black and white to supporters that he cannot continue to plough his own funding into the club’s accounts, especially with his core business, Galtee Fuels, going to the wall earlier this year. Limerick fans are no doubt appreciative of how much money O’Sullivan has invested in the club over the last number of years, rescuing them when they were on their knees less than a decade ago. However, his condemnation of an element of the Limerick support, along with regular welcome speeches to away fans, have seen a lot of that goodwill evaporate.
Also, a lot of questionable decisions have been made at board level, both this year and in recent seasons. Millions of euro were spent on a training base in Bruff, a village more than 30 minutes’ drive from Limerick city, and that investment has yielded scant productivity. Some local businesses approached the club for sponsorship but were turned away. At the start of the season, ticket prices for high-profile home games against the likes of Cork City and Dundalk were hiked up to €18, an excessive figure for a League of Ireland match. Attendances dwindled as a result and, despite having well over half of their home fixtures for 2018 shoehorned into the four months prior to the mid-season break in June, severe cash flow problems forced manager Tommy Barrett to let five of the squad’s highest-earning players leave as soon as the July transfer window opened. All that, allied to the execrable wage situation, created a cocktail which tastes quite rotten to Limerick fans who have not been slow to vent their fury at the way things have gone.
As for Bray, financial farces are an annual event by this stage. This is the fourth consecutive season in which the Wicklow club has been dogged by humiliating money problems and it’s no coincidence that it’s always in July that these come to a head. The entire squad was recently put up for sale and a few players quickly jumped ship quite simply because they need money to raise families and Bray need money to avoid going bust. Last week, manager Martin Russell resigned from his position in frustration at the whole sorry mess, having only been in the job since the beginning of June.
The FAI belatedly intervened last week to impose so-called sanctions on the two clubs which, quite frankly, were tragi-comic. Both were barred from signing any more players until the end of the year – remember, neither can guarantee their ability to pay the players they currently have, while the league’s transfer window closes at the end of July anyway. Furthermore, Bray were removed from the Irn-Bru Cup, a competition which has zero appeal to fans in Ireland and would involve the expense of overseas travel. Limerick would have been next in line to replace the Seagulls in that competition, only for them to be barred also. These decisions were described as ‘sanctions’ in an FAI statement; in reality, they are massive sources of relief to both clubs.
If the FAI truly want to be serious about taking action against the maladministration of clubs in its flagship domestic competition, they would at the very least make strong threats to kick them out of the league for failing to honour what would seem to be basic tasks of running a football club. League of Ireland licenses are awarded every January and the clubs then have them for the year. There is no continuous assessment system of any sort, so once a club gets its license, it is not accountable again until the following year rolls around. Given the tumultuous recent history of so many clubs in the country, this is a ridiculous situation. A system of ongoing assessment throughout the season needs to be implemented so that clubs will get serious about keeping their houses in order.
League of Ireland fans often bemoan those who dismiss Irish club football as a non-entity, but the league will continue to have a serious public relations problem if cases like those of Bray and Limerick become the norm once more. That it has taken two sets of players to take strike action in order to make a genuine statement is a sorry state of affairs, especially when they are the victims of the heinous mistakes of others.