“About a hundred,” he said, hopefully.
Three hours later, the same man confessed that just 38 people had paid to get in. A Div. One match in the country’s so-called professional league drew less than would turn up at a decent Munster or Leinster Senior League clash.
Whatever else we feel about Limerick FC’s current financial plight, we shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised by it. So many denizens of this league exist in a state of permanent financial peril that seeing this particular club on the brink of extinction for the umpteenth time in recent memory inspires nothing but compassion fatigue.
It really is difficult to care a jot what happens to Limerick. Not because we don’t think that city has a proud tradition worth upholding. Not because so many decent individuals have invested time keeping the club on life support these last few years. But if they finally, mercifully slip into oblivion, the FAI and the National League might actually decide to confront what has been staring them in the face for 10 years or more. As currently constituted, the domestic soccer competitions do not work. And haven’t for some time. Piecemeal changes like opting to play in more clement weather are not just what is needed here either. No, this is a root-and-branch job requiring imagination, determination and some real business savvy.
It’s often easier to count the number of league clubs that haven’t flirted with bankruptcy in recent seasons rather than try to tally up those who had. Still, each time this happens we are fed the same sob story. This will be a terrible loss to the city/large town. The game needs a strong Limerick/Cork/Drogheda team if it’s to flourish. Blah blah bloody blah. Spare us the rhetoric and the violins. This league has been on its knees for years and needs to be put out of its misery. Maybe then everybody can face up to some home truths.
A country of this size cannot sustain two divisions. A league in which half the participants in the top flight at any given time are from one city should not be described as national. Professionalism will only work if there is a strict salary cap in operation. An unofficial ban must be placed on expensive has-beens and never-weres being imported from England. If fans don’t come out to support a team over a number of years and that club ends up repeatedly going out of business, it should be left die peacefully, not artificially resuscitated. Nobody with a criminal record should be allowed to serve in an executive position and be the public face of a club.
There are some great people involved in the National League. This is not meant to do down the hard work and effort they put in, merely to point out that drastic measures are required if the long-term future of the competition is to be assured. It’s no good limping along, a few clubs pushing forward, a couple more slipping back while everybody moans about the evil Premiership on their doorstep destroying morale. Minor league baseball clubs in America exist in the backyards of Major League teams and they thrive through a mixture of imaginative marketing, player development, and rigorous financial control. Three items so often missing in Irish soccer.
If there’s a good reason why Shelbourne and Bohemians have both largely refurbished their respective stadiums in recent years we’re still searching for it. When soccer was one of the only leisure industries in the 1940s and ’50s,
and automobiles weren’t commonplace, it probably made sense for them to have separate grounds. Not anymore. Not when half their fans are coming in from other parts of Dublin’s north and west sides in. Were Bertie Ahern the sports lover he claims to be, he would have forced them into a ground-sharing agreement when they both came to him looking for capital grants a couple of years back.
Instead, he handed over the cheques, and the existence of two competing stadiums within a mile of each other sums up the ludicrous way this industry operates.
That’s another thing. Once players are paid, the game is not just a game anymore, it’s a business. Far too many people involved don’t realize that. When you run out of money in the real world, the doors on your shop get locked and you hopefully learn a harsh lesson about spending beyond your means. When you run out of money in the National League, you can go squealing to the media for help, bemoaning this supposed ill-fortune that came your way. Maybe those involved with Limerick FC need to ponder whether the locals have their appetite for the sport fully sated by the thriving junior scene, and the ridiculous number of games available on television. This may be a city that just doesn’t need a club anymore. The attendances in recent years certainly suggest as much.
Those of us too young to remember Cork soccer in the 1970s often thumb the sepia prints of Flower Lodge in its pomp, listen to tall tales about the Hibs and Celtic rivalry and wish we had experienced it firsthand. But we can’t. That was another era and like all eras, it eventually passed. The same goes for Limerick’s time of dominance at the Markets Field. Cork and Limerick were different places then. Ireland was a very different country. The problem with so many in the professional game is they are constantly trying to sustain things that may just be coming to the end of their natural lives anyway. Too much pining for the past and not enough planning for the future. Could be the motto of the National League.