The time for talk is over, Irish football facilities must emerge from the Dark Ages – The Irish Times


A bright spark is to write a book titled: ‘How Ireland works, through the prism of stadium development (or lack thereof).’

“The League of Ireland facilities at all levels are horrendous when compared to Gaelic,” Damien Duff observed in November 2021. “Who is responsible and where did it go wrong? It’s the future of Irish football and it’s poor, so poor.”

Equipment generates European nights, or is it the other way around? Either way, Irish football’s chronic lack of suitable venues for Europa League qualifiers parallels, but is in stark contrast to, the last two summers of progress on the pitch.

The same goes for Dundalk reaching the Europa group stages under Stephen Kenny. Oriel Park remains unused. RTÉ is reluctant to send an outside broadcast truck to the east coast due to health and safety concerns.

Optics matter. Dalymount Park is a bunch of beautiful bones draped in colorful graffiti. Richmond Park and its three-sided terrace forced St Patrick’s Athletic to use Tallaght Stadium to host CSKA Sofia.

Similarly, the Bohemians switched to the Aviva last year for three games ignored by RTÉ as the national broadcaster managed to unite rival League of Ireland clubs faster than a decade of gaslighting by John Delaney’s FAI.

“Irish football looks so much better played in a good stadium,” Bohs chairman John O’Connor tweeted. “The clubs, the FAI and the government need to speed this up.”

As a world exclusive, Rovers gladly accept.

“I think everyone is looking in the right direction and these things don’t happen overnight, but the pace could be much, much faster,” said Shamrock Rovers board director Mark Lynch. .

“Europe shines a light on how clubs and their facilities work. The Dalymount project was to be a legacy of Euro 2020 and we are back to a planning phase in 2022.”

Lansdowne Road is too big to be the answer, although Rovers will likely head back to Dublin 4 if they snag a Manchester United or Arsenal beating Hungarian champions Ferencváros (both legs are live on RTÉ). Otherwise, West Ham or Fiorentina would pack Tallaght to the rafters.

When construction of the 2,500-seat North Stand swells capacity to 10,500 in July 2023, Tallaght will be the shining light that others will follow.

Rovers currently average around 6,000, which should increase alongside Europe’s steady progress under a solid structure. Stephen Bradley and Stephen McPhail run the football side of the house, while BDO chairman and partner Ciarán Medlar oversees a club that never boasts of Robbie Keane’s quiet relationship or Dermot Desmond’s cautious investment.

The current 11.5 million euro renovation is being funded by South Dublin County Council. As is the case across Europe, Rovers are anchor tenants.

“Tallaght has grown alongside Rovers into a fantastic stadium since 2009,” Lynch continued. “When you go abroad, even to Ludogorets [in Bulgaria]Stadium [Huvepharma Arena] is relatively small at 10,000, but what they have done is develop the infrastructure from media facilities to hospitality to medical rooms to the level of a 60,000 seat stadium. It’s first class.

“None of this is beyond us. This must be our goal as a league.

Irish clubs continue to punch above their weight, particularly St Pat’s but also Sligo Rovers after John Russell’s side edged out Motherwell. But the cringe factor is palpable with every first leg as municipal build-ups in Malta, Bulgaria, Norway, Slovenia and Hungary highlight a lack of progress from the FAI, Irish government and councils during the boom years of Irish football.

Dusty facilities hamper the emergence of strategically minded coaches like Bradley, Tim Clancy, Russell, Duff and Ruaidhrí Higgins, who work with teenage talent barred by Brexit from entering the maze of English football.

“We have a pattern, from our travels, as South Dublin develops Tallaght and I know Dublin City Council [DCC] are working with Shels, Pats and Bohs,” Lynch said, noting that Rovers are continually expanding their rented Roadstone training facility.

Hot on the heels of Sligo Rovers’ famous 1-0 loss to Motherwell, club chairman Tommy Higgins and a gang of volunteers set out to pick up all the rubbish and fix The Showgrounds so UEFA wouldn’t force a round trip of 420 km to Tallaght to entertain Stavanger Vikings from Norway.

This autumn Rovers will seek planning permission from Sligo County Council for an €18m (and growing) project to revamp the stadium and create a training facility nearby.

“That’s how it is all over Europe,” Higgins said. “Stadiums built by the municipality and rented by the clubs. Governments would say the money has gone into rugby and Gaelic, but in Norway there are plenty of indoor sports and alpine activities, shooting and skiing.

“The Vikings have a wonderful stadium funded by the local authorities in Stavanger. I think they have a budget of €12m against our budget of €1.7m, so it’s a different league, but it’s part of every European city’s budget.

“The Showgrounds has been around forever, we are just modernizing it. There is a clear path and being a greedy I would like it to be done before 2028.”

To understand how Ireland works, head to Leinster League club Tullamore FC, opened in July 2008 by taoiseach and local TD Brian Cowan, to witness a setup superior to that of most clubs in the League of Ireland.

Those inside the football tent have not been idle, nor have CDC and its chief executive Owen Keegan. The threads are intertwined as Keegan’s deputy chief executive, Richard Shakespeare, sits on the FAI board and direct access to the highest echelons of government comes in the form of Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Health, who is also a board member.

No one denies the need to ‘accelerate’ massive upgrades, with the FAI promising a long-term strategy to ‘co-fund’ infrastructural improvements in its strategic vision (2022-25).

“The type of stadium that Finn Harps could build could become the prototype of the future,” FAI CEO Jonathan Hill said last February. “Overall, we might end up saying, ‘We need 15 lots with 5,000 to 6,000 and five with more than 10,000’, for example.”

The time for swear words is long gone. Still, all the right noises are made to show that there is a will to guide football facilities out of the dark ages.

Unfortunately, Irish society has never run on willpower alone. The builders and a political class disconcerted by football still need a little help.

Even Michael D, the poet-politician turned president, is a football fan, but it was his words last June that resonated – 100 years after the founding of the Free State, an Uachtarán broke the shackles of protocol to attack Ireland’s ‘great, great failure’ as a nation.

“Housing and the basic needs of society should never have been left to the market,” Higgins said.

To quote The Wire creator David Simon’s consistent storylines on every branch of the city of Baltimore, “every piece counts” as century-old monoliths begin to thaw.

A little problem. The recent economic downturn has caused the construction industry to crack under runaway inflation. This goes to the heart of the matter of stadiums; Bohemians remain positive despite Dalymount Park’s renovation being pushed back until 2026, after the idea of ​​land sharing was slurred by Shelbourne to convince DCC to ‘save Tolka Park’ from the blight of the apartment.

So, in an Irish twist that makes no sense anywhere else, two venerable footballing institutions have said goodbye to an uneasy alliance. Separated by a two kilometer walk through the Royal Canal, conveniently come 2030 Tolka and Dalyer with light up Friday evenings on the north side.

To imagine.

Watching Shels return to the Premier Division has proven to be fascinating and not just because an old-time street footballer learns how to coach, manage, recruit and house his young team.

Duff is a box office draw domestic football hasn’t seen since Johnny Giles returned home, and Shels has a firm hand at the helm in Andrew Doyle as chairman and David O’Connor as the l player-turned-CEO, with club announcing ‘significant stake’ in Irish-American firm Closebreak Ltd.

The club’s rippling progress under Duff remains encouraging, but Tolka Park feels like stepping into a time machine. The 1890s tannoy breaks records when you step into a shed (the main stand) to be greeted with a faultless warm welcome.

That hasn’t changed since correspondents in their 40s started freelancing in their 20s. Duffer has already gutted the status quo as he spent 20 years inside English cathedrals.

But that’s the norm.


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