ON HOME GROUND Mayo League secretary John Durkan (left) and chairman Gerry Sweeney are pictured at Solar 21 Park in Castlebar recently. Pic: John Corless
We need to talk about the idea of a Mayo League of Ireland team
IN their Strategic Plan ‘2016-2020’, the Mayo Association Football League committed that the league would apply to join the League of Ireland (LOI) for the 2020 season.
The plan states: ‘The ultimate goal is to have a Mayo-based team in the SSE Airtricity League, allowing a direct path for all Mayo players to play at the highest standards.’
While the idea was very honourable – commendable even – it smacked of a certain naivety. There is no restriction in place to prevent Mayo players joining the League of Ireland – indeed nearly twenty of them are signed to LOI clubs for the current season.
Secondly, it’s difficult to see how it would be the ‘Mayo League’ that would apply.
League of Ireland clubs are separate entities – not representative sides of their local leagues or counties. The Mayo AFL could, however, facilitate the establishment of a LOI club in Mayo by providing some direction in the process, by making Solar 21 Park at Milebush available to the club, and by scheduling fixtures to facilitate the LOI programme.
Investment would also be needed in Milebush. Floodlights would be required. The press facilities would need re-development and it is debatable if the current stand with its 274 seats would be adequate.
The Mayo News recently asked Mayo League chairman, Gerry Sweeney, and secretary John Durkan about how much consideration had gone into the proposal before it was committed to print five years ago.
“We had five years in the Under-21 League of Ireland,” John explained. “It seemed a natural progression for the players, we were doing the Strategic Plan, so we put it in. It’s fair to say that not much thought went into it at the time. One or two people in the League thought this was the way to go and the rest simply agreed without proper discussion.
“Something like this needs a lot more thought than we gave it.”
But what has happened since? And why did the application not go in, as planned, in 2020?
“We were very busy with other issues,” said Gerry. “We were running the Mayo League and there’s always things to do. The FAI was getting a lot of negative national attention at the time, and we simply didn’t prioritise that aspect of the Strategic Plan.”
He added that the costs associated would be astronomical, but admitted that the League hasn’t costed the proposal. It became obvious during the course of our conversation that the financial aspect was a major consideration, with figures of €150,000 a year to €1.5m for three years mentioned.
“You cannot just go in for one year, you’d have to plan for three years,” said Gerry. “The plan to join the LOI was mentioned a few times since 2016, but there was little appetite for it because of other issues we were dealing with at the time.”
“It was mentioned from time to time,” John Durkan added. “But we never had a proper discussion on it. I’d welcome a proper discussion on it because we want our players to have the best possible opportunity to progress.”
INTERESTINGLY, the long-serving Mayo League secretary said the league had received conflicting messages from the FAI regarding entry to the LOI.
“There was an official push from the FAI to establish more clubs in the regions, and on the other hand, others in the FAI were advising us otherwise,” he admitted.
One FAI Board member even advised them to, ‘Stay well clear of the League of Ireland.’
Gerry Sweeney believes that a League of Ireland club in Mayo would need to be based on a community model with Mayo players and a Mayo manager.
That structure, which is popular with many clubs, has not yet been explored by the Mayo AFL.
Current annual running costs for League of Ireland clubs run from €100,000 to over €2m. The best comparative examples are Finn Harps based in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, Wexford FC and Cobh Ramblers. All three operate on relatively small budgets.
Harps sit mid-table in the Premier Division while Cobh and Wexford lie at the bottom of the First. All three are part-time clubs.
While many point to the failed clubs, (Monaghan United, Kilkenny City, Kildare County, Thurles Town, Home Farm, Dublin City, etc.) the aforementioned three clubs, along with smaller outfits like Athlone Town, Drogheda United, Cabinteely and Longford Town, prove that it can be done. Cost management is key.
One of the biggest hidden costs for LOI clubs is the running of their under-age academy. Sponsorship can be found for most other things. Players travelling expenses, for example, are often sponsored by a garage near the individual player’s home.
In general, managers are paid around the average industrial wage. Coaching staff vary in number from club to club. The academy can run into money however, and it is vital to clubs for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it usually turns out players for the first team, over time. Not enough of players usually, but some. Secondly, it builds a support base in the locality and in non-Covid times, support is everything.
This writer has watched Mayo League games for over 40 years. (Sometimes I watched them as a player, too!)
In recent years, thanks in no small part to the mid-1990s decision to switch to summer football, the standard of player has increased greatly in Mayo.
In the 70s, 80s and early 90s it was about endurance. Suddenly it became a game of skill.
There are a number of players currently playing in the Mayo League who could make it at LOI level, if they increased their fitness and conditioning, and were up for it.
The fact that so many from Mayo already play there is a great testament to the under-age structure in the county.
It seems however, there is a lack of leadership and desire within the county to drive the idea forward, which is a shame. Mayo is a huge county and its people are sports mad.
I, for one, would love to buy a season ticket for a Mayo side in the League of Ireland.