Tuesday, 2 December 2014
I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. He was present last week when we engaged in a substantive debate on sport in Ireland. I wish to return to one of the topics I raised with him on that occasion. I appreciate that the matter I am raising is wide-ranging in nature and that the Minister of State has no control over direct funding for League of Ireland soccer. However, as Minister of State with responsibility for sport, as a former soccer player and as a current fan of the game, I ask him to take on board my concerns regarding the League of Ireland and its current status.
The Minister of State will be aware that the league has a long and proud history and tradition which stretches back to 1921. It was, therefore, founded in a difficult period in the country's history. It was a separate organisation, from a footballing perspective, until it merged with the Football Association of Ireland, FAI, in 2006. There were high hopes and aspirations at the time of that merger that the FAI would use its better revenue streams, resources, funding and management structure to ensure and secure the future of the League of Ireland. However, it must be conceded that League of Ireland soccer is at a very low level at present. I am advised that UEFA ranks the various national domestic soccer leagues throughout Europe and that the League of Ireland is currently ranked 40 out of 54. In fairness, the national soccer team's UEFA ranking would be higher.
There are numerous problems with the league and these have been aired on many occasions, particularly during the past two to three years. I refer, for example, to the standard of facilities at most clubs, low attendances at games, the fact that so many clubs face financial disaster, the disappearance of a large number of clubs, other clubs going into administration and poor marketing and management. What can be done about this problem and who should lead the charge in respect of it? If someone such as the Minister of State were to knock heads together, progress could be made. Record numbers of people - tens of thousands at least - throughout the country play soccer each weekend and there are junior and unaffiliated clubs in virtually every parish. However, only a few thousand attend League of Ireland games. We all know how many hundreds of thousands of people watch English soccer games on television at weekends and that thousands more travel to London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow to watch English Premier League or Scottish Premiership games. It is tragic that these individuals do not go to watch local games.
We should aim to put in place a league structure similar to those in Scandinavian countries where there is a strong tradition of semi-professional soccer. If we were to do so, clubs here would have good facilities and we could aim to achieve attendances of between 5,000 and 10,000 at an average home game. These goals should be achievable. If we were to start from scratch, there would be two or perhaps three clubs in Dublin and strong clubs in Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Dundalk, Drogheda, Donegal - where Finn Harps is currently the leading club - Sligo, Wexford, Longford and Galway. The obvious population centres are there to support League of Ireland soccer but we need to give consideration to marketing, developing facilities and improving management structures. A total of 17,000 people attended the FAI Cup Final, the domestic season's showcase game. I am sure the Minister of State, had he been in a position to do so, would also have attended. I congratulate St. Patrick's Athletic on its great win but the turnout at the final was disappointing, particularly when one compares it with the sizes of the crowds which attend national football and hurling league games and European Rugby Champions Cup games, not to mention All-Ireland quarter finals, semi finals or finals.
I appreciate that the Minister of State's hands are tied to some extent. However, I am of the view that he could show great leadership in the context of trying to save the League of Ireland. He is renowned for the work he is doing within the Department and long may such work continue. The Minister of State could leave a very strong legacy behind if he were to become the person responsible for saving and redeveloping the League of Ireland. If clubs from Scandinavian and the new eastern European countries can compete on a serious level in the Europa League or the UEFA Champions League, it should be possible for semi-professional clubs in Ireland to aspire to appear on the same stage at some point in the future. It is rather embarrassing to see Irish clubs being knocked out in the preliminary rounds or first round of these competitions. One can almost predict the results in advance. What is happening at present is not good enough. If we can put the proper structures, management and financial models in place, we can turn matters around. However, leadership is going to be required. I do not think there is sufficient leadership in respect of the League of Ireland project at present. The people working to advance the cause of Irish soccer from an international perspective are doing a good job. However, major tournaments at this level only occur once every two years and we do not always qualify for them. We need to concentrate our efforts on the League of Ireland, which is in operation for 30 or 35 weeks each year.
I ask the Minister of State to reflect on this matter. I appreciate that he will be limited in terms of the way in which he can respond to the matter I have raised. However, I request that he take a personal interest in trying to save the League of Ireland because it is going down the drain.
In the first instance, I propose to only read part of my prepared script before responding directly to the points the Senator has raised. The script I have been asked to deliver does not relate to the matters to which he refers.
I would like to thank Senator Bradford for raising this important topic and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on it. I am aware of his concern with regard to League of Ireland football. However, I have no role in respect of this matter. The development of League of Ireland football is entirely a matter for the FAI, which is an independent sporting organisation. The funding provided to the FAI by the Irish Sports Council is ring-fenced for the non-professional elements of the sport and it is mainly focused on programmes aimed at increasing young people's participation in football.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Bradford. He is quite correct; I am a footballing person and I have a great interest in the League of Ireland. I attended the FAI Cup Final two years ago when Drogheda United played Sligo Rovers. I watch football on RTE, Sky Sports and on "Match of the Day" on Saturday and Sunday nights on BBC. The best game of live football I have seen in the past four or five years was the cup final two years ago. The Drogheda United and Sligo Rovers players gave 100% on the day and the goals scored and standard of play were as good as one might see anywhere else.
The Senator is correct that every weekend thousands of Irish fans go to games in Liverpool, Manchester and Derby but only half of them go to the Irish games in Ireland. There were only 17,000 people at the FAI Cup Final in a stadium that could hold twice that number
I agree that League of Ireland football is important. Three or four former League of Ireland players are playing in the Premiership in England, and Seamus Coleman, to name one, is playing with Everton. Let me tell Members what I have seen happen to clubs in the Premiership, the investors came in and invested money, but they sold off the grounds and the fan base and destroyed the clubs. Some of these clubs in Britain were taken over by multimillionaires with multinational companies who had no real interest in football and for whom it was a part-time interest. I, like many in this country, love my football - I support Leeds United.
The Irish Sports Council, administers the funds on my behalf, to the different national governing bodies. Some €1,510,000 was allocated to support grassroots football in 2014. A sum of €333,503 was allocated to soccer education in 2014. We gave €346,330 to the FAI's emerging talent programme, so that young people with a talent are given an opportunity to broaden their horizons. Some go abroad to play football. Funding of €885,066 was allocated to support the FAI's central and regional development staff throughout the country. We do the same type of funding for GAA and the Irish Rugby Football Union. We gave €142,500 to specified elements of the FAI's women in sport programme. That is one programme that has worked. We now see an Irish player, Stephanie Roche, who I have been told scored the goal of the century, getting rave reviews this week and I hope many Irish people vote for her. I hope she wins the FIFA award.
To respond to Senator Bradford, I will talk to John Delaney at the first opportunity. I have spoken to him before and I will relay the Senator's concerns to him. I know that the Senator is a strong League of Ireland supporter and a strong supporter of Cork. I would like to see a strong League of Ireland. I am aware that the FAI has restructured the League of Ireland and the clubs, which were in serious financial difficulty. Some of the clubs are still struggling with debts from the past but the FAI has put in place good structures and does not allow them to spend more than they are actually taking in or to pay more than they can afford to players. This has worked very well. We now have 20 teams in the League of Ireland, with ten clubs in each division. It is great to see a team, such as Dundalk which had not won the league for many years, win it this year. It is great also to see Galway United come back into the premiership and Longford Town coming back up. In the past it was Dublin, Cork, Dundalk and Athlone that controlled the League of Ireland, but it is nice to see it spreading out to rural Ireland. I would like to see a stronger league in the years ahead.
I assure the Senator that I will take up the issue with the FAI, to see if there is anything that can be done. I believe we should have a stronger base for League of Ireland football. One only needs to look at the fine quality players who have developed during their career with the League of Ireland and have gone abroad. They have done very well. I would like to see the management of the Irish team try to bring on one or two League of Ireland players, and give them an opportunity with the Irish team. However, I acknowledge that every game and every victory is important.