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Mar 4, 2011

A new dawn for the League of Ireland

The new Airtricity League season kicks off on Friday after a three-month break, although it feels like it never went away following the demise of one club, the last-minute survival of three more and an ongoing court battle.

The domestic game in Ireland may rarely, if ever, pop up on the radar of an everyday football supporter, but those that do take a closer look will discover that it is a league that keeps on giving.

Whether it is an extended run in European qualifiers, players suspended for betting on games, clubs expelled for operating dual contracts or just the average financial crisis, there is always a story to be told.

Of course, the off-field problems have long plagued a league that is desperate to revert to a structure that works. After switching to summer football, the league engaged in a merger with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in 2007. That helped take the first steps towards a solid base by introducing tighter regulations, a sense of professionalism and luring in new sponsors.

However, a lot of issues have been swept under the carpet, only to reappear and cause serious damage. The most striking example would be the case of Sporting Fingal, who were promoted to the league in 2008 despite only forming the previous year and have since folded after their main financial backer withdrew his support.

Other clubs have struggled to pay off debts and players' wages, with Bohemians, Drogheda United and Galway United barely surviving the bleak winter. And this season sees a 66% reduction in the prize money compared to what was on offer in 2008, which indicates just how far the league has fallen.

League director Fran Gavin is trying to stay upbeat though. He points out that several clubs actually made a profit last year and the structure now in place is actually forcing clubs to keep their affairs in order.

"Two clubs made a six-figure profit last year, nine others made a smaller profit. More than 1,500 businesses went bust in Ireland last year, we lost one club," Gavin said at this week's league launch.

"In any industry you don't know what the future holds for certain but we have sat down with every club and seen their forecasts on income and expenditure. Clubs look in a healthy position but that is not saying that some external issue might happen during the year."

The off-field insecurity has led to some of the league's best players recently departing with Paul Keegan (Doncaster Rovers), Conor Powell (Colchester United), David McAllister (Sheffield United) and James Chambers (Hamilton) all securing moves to the UK.

Some have gone further afield to semi-professional football in Australia, the fourth division in Germany and even to China, just to escape a league where contracts are not always honoured. But the dawn of a new season promises to move past those problems. The FAI are confident that everything is moving in the right direction even though they are locked in a court battle with Limerick FC over the refusal to grant the club permission to host Barcelona in a friendly last summer. Not the kind of leadership that the association should be showing.

The spotlight will swing back towards the football this week though as Shamrock Rovers begin their quest to retain the Premier Division title. Michael O'Neill's team won the league on goal difference on the final day of last season, but their recruitment of ten players should ensure that they are a lot stronger this term.

Undoubtedly, there will be plenty of contenders ready to knock the Hoops off their perch with Sligo Rovers and Dundalk best equipped to mount a challenge. Bohemians, Derry City and St Patrick's Athletic will also be in the mix in what should be another highly competitive ten-team league.

In the First Division, the race for automatic promotion should be as intense as recent years with Waterford United, Shelbourne, Cork City and Limerick strengthening well in the off-season. This season sees two promotion places up for grabs as the top flight will expand to 12 teams for the 2012 campaign.

Shamrock Rovers, who attracted an average attendance of 3,913 last year, will fly the Irish flag in the Champions League qualifiers. After beating Bnei Yehuda and faring well against Juventus despite losing 3-0 on aggregate last year, they could prove to be a surprise package once European football rolls around again in the summer.

The other Irish representatives will be Bohs, Sligo and St Pat's, who will all compete in the Europa League qualifiers. But there is a lot of domestic football to be played before then and excitement is steadily building for what could be a season that marks a fresh beginning for the Airtricity League.

With wages drastically reduced, clubs running tighter operations and a new generation of talented youngsters coming through, the league could finally be at a sustainable level.

As long as the emphasis is on the football and not off-field controversies, then the domestic game in Ireland can start to fulfil the potential it has showed in recent years.

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