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Dec 1, 2009

Fears grow for Irish game as exodus begins

The aftermath of a season can often be the most troublesome period as clubs struggle to balance their books, players seek new employers and the league attempts to deal with all of the issues that have cropped up over the previous months.

This is certainly the case for the League of Ireland, where mysterious and disgusting facts are being discovered the deeper the autopsy goes. And there is a feeling that something sinister is hidden way beneath the surface, just waiting to come out.

By now the financial difficulties suffered by almost every club have been surpassed by the bewildering revelation that Derry City had tricked its players into signing two contracts. The FAI (Football Association of Ireland) had no choice but to throw them out of the league, but the fact this happened just hours after they played their final game of the season left a bitter taste for those associated with The Candystripes.

With the campaign done and dusted, fingers have started to be pointed with some clubs questioning the spending of others and letters arriving at FAI HQ in Abbotstown complaining that one team didn't play fair by fielding an ineligible player. From the outside looking in, the accusations and denials seem on be on a par with playground whining, yet it is indicative of the state of the league that so many problems are continually bubbling up.

Perhaps it is discrediting the good work already done by the FAI to focus on the negative points, but it is hard to avoid chilling facts like over 90 percent of the players that featured in the 2009 season are now out of contract. While the talented youngsters are being cherry picked by clubs in England and Scotland, the majority are left in the dark not knowing what the future holds.

A mass exodus is expected to erupt over the next couple of months. The best goalkeeper for the past two years, Brian Murphy, has already departed champions Bohemians to link up with Ipswich Town in the Championship, and he could just be the first to make the short journey across the Irish Sea in search of more stable employment.

"We can't continue the way that we're going. From a union point of view, we have done everything in our power not to strike," said PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness. "There will be an all-out strike if this does not get better. We'll bring it to the FAI that if we don't see the right changes in the off-season this year we would be willing to speak to our members in relation to next season not starting (on time).

"A problem for the FAI is that they have the likes of Padraig Smith (FAI compliance officer), a great guy from an accountancy point of view, but he has no power to do anything. We've got to get people in there that have the power to make the right decisions.

"I'd say that clubs have treated players in a deceitful way. As bad as it is that players aren't getting paid, clubs are now being deceitful and that is not a nice thing to see within the game."

Despite all of these problems the product on the pitch has never been stronger. The Premier Division title race had a thrilling end with Bohemians being pushed all the way by local rivals Shamrock Rovers, while the relegation battle rumbled right to the final day (and beyond due to Derry's expulsion).

Sporting Fingal were the surprise package as they clinched promotion after beating Bray Wanderers in a play-off and also won the FAI Ford Cup following a superb comeback against Sligo Rovers.

The reason why Sporting's achievements were so remarkable is because the club was only founded two years ago. Despite their lack of history and fan base, the Dublin-based club now has its first trophy, is in the top flight and will be playing in the Europa League next year.

For the League of Ireland to produce more stories like Sporting's rise to the top, it needs stability. Rather than seeing three managers (Paul Doolin, Sean Connor, Pete Mahon) depart from Premier Division clubs not long after the season has finished, it needs long-term commitment from managers, directors, sponsors, and players.

The FAI has to lead by example. If they do, then the domestic game will surely hit an upward curve in popularity as the football being played suggests that it is just the off-field issues that need to be sorted out.

Gareth Maher covers Irish football for ESPN Soccernet. Check out his website www.garethmaher.com to read more of his writing.

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