Comment: Is the League of Ireland's staged restart plan fair?

Tue, Jun 02 2020

Lee Grace of Shamrock Rovers shields the ball from Dundalk's Michael Duffy. The two teams, as well as Bohemians and Derry City, will be involved in the four-team tournament later this month. Credit: Eddie Lennon (ETPhotos)

The FAI last month announced its plans for the return of the League of Ireland with the announcement a four-team tournament would take place as a ‘pilot scheme.’

Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and Bohemians would return to training on June 8th to prepare for the tournament, while the remaining clubs can resume training on June 29th.

Why these four teams?

As mentioned in their statement, the chosen teams will all be involved in European qualification, at some stage.

Unlike the Premier League or Bundesliga, special provisions for clubs involved in European qualification is supported by a large number of League of Ireland fans.

A surge of togetherness seems to sweep the nation when European success is at arm's length.

Taking Dundalk's 2016 Europa League campaign as an example, we saw a huge surge of media coverage and anticipation in Ireland.

We saw the Irish fans rally in support to attend the matches. Using rivals Shamrock Rovers’ ground for additional attendance is a statement in its own.

The packed stands in Tallaght those cold Thursday nights made the campaign all the more special. 

As well as financial aid for the league and its teams, European qualification increases the status of the league.

More television coverage, as well as more general media coverage across major European news sources (i.e Sky Sports), is the result.

The league becomes more desirable for foreign players, being able to offer the chance to play European football which is such a valuable asset.

Not to mention players putting themselves on the radar of other European leagues, goals that teams throughout both Irish divisions can see benefit in.

The value of European success in the League of Ireland is unmatched. Giving the teams involved the extra help for qualification is hard to fault.

However, the majority of leagues have not concluded seasons or come to a decision on awarding their European places.

This prompts the question of when is qualifying even going to commence?

Both Europa League and Champions League campaigns were forced to a halt before the round of 16 had even completed.

How three weeks at the start of June would benefit clubs that might not see European action in the next couple of months is questionable.

If qualification is put on hold for that expected time, the benefit of this additional training will likely only prove itself in domestic games.

How could it affect the domestic league?

Three weeks is a sizable gap in terms of preparation for a season. You can argue the fact players are capable of training at home, but squad training is much different.

Training solo as opposed to with your squad has significant disadvantages. The League of Ireland is perhaps one of the worse-off leagues in which to trial this restart plan.

As many League of Ireland clubs operate with players on one-year contracts, we see drastic squad changes every campaign.

The financially-stronger clubs such as Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers perhaps see fewer alterations than other clubs, largely due to the fact they can offer better wage and contracts.

Meanwhile, lower clubs work with different squads year by year. It's an unusual circumstance for League of Ireland clubs.

When compared to other European clubs, departures and arrivals are done in a more controlled manner.

We usually see a maximum of 8-10 signings and departures amongst clubs operating on multiple-year contracts.

In the League of Ireland, the likes of Waterford, Finn Harps and St Patricks Athletic could see only five players involved in back to back seasons. 

With this considered, new squads need time to bond. It’s no secret that we see a lack of chemistry amongst teams at the start of the season.

Every club worldwide would reap the benefits of an additional three week training period. Fitness and sharpness is hugely sought after for all players.

But in terms of League of Ireland clubs, squad bonding and building relationships is perhaps just as important.

It wouldn’t be hugely surprising to see a difference in squad togetherness between the four featured sides more so than we’re used to.

The three-week period will only worsen the gap between the featured four and the rest of the league.

In a league that is so unpredictable, it’s hard to see this year's campaign throwing up as many surprises.

Is the four-team tournament Covid-19 friendly?

The four-team tournament will be used as a test run to see how competitive matches can be safely regulated. But is it really necessary?

We’ve recently seen the Bundesliga resume it’s campaign. No trial matches, no friendly matches, just straight in and picking up where they left off.

It has seemingly provoked little to no error so far, so why not follow as such? Both La Liga (June 11th) and the Premier League (June 17th) are jumping straight back into their campaigns.

It makes little sense to take additional steps. If you’re comparing the League of Ireland with the  three major leagues, the LOI surely has no extra factors to consider.

Smaller venues means fewer groundsmen. Smaller league size (quantity of teams) means less exposure. Finally, a smaller nation means less general travelling to and from games.

If involving four teams as opposed to all competitors in the LOI is to stop exposure to the virus, that provokes questions.  

The four teams will meet each other in a short period of time. Between 22-28 players will all come in close contact with each other in each game. 

Depending on the structure of the competition, you could see 100 or more players mix with one another by its conclusion.

The used venues will also welcome club staff as well as players, which will see the grounds welcome a considerable amount of traffic throughout the tournament.

Overall, the plan in place seems to raise more doubt than provide relief.

The reasoning for the tournament and the involvement of particular teams is perhaps questionable, considering the uncertainty of European qualification dates.

It’s hard to argue that three weeks at the start of June will be a crucial factor in entering qualifiers that are not being played for the foreseeable future.

Teams remaining sidelined as their league rivals undergo match experience as well as squad training seems unfair.

If you were to propose Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicster and Chelsea getting that additional time ahead of the Premier League restart, it would cause huge controversy.

Finally, the tournament seems an unnecessary step in getting the league back to where it was.

Being a considerably smaller league than the Bundesliga, it’s hard to imagine the FAI and League of Ireland will run into problems not faced by one of Europe’s top leagues.

The only logical benefit to the tournament is to aid the featured squads.

If you consider the three weeks crucial to European qualifiers, which is unlikely, would resuming the league and playing competitive matches not benefit more?