Sports Update: One of the longest off-seasons in the world is killing Irish football

“It’s far too easy for a club to turn the lights out in September and do nothing until February,” writes John O’Sullivan.

THE LEAGUE IS over. It’s done.

If it was a black and white Lars Von Trier film, we’re at the stage where we’d see the word FIN on the screen, unsure what the film was about, but pretty sure we were meant to take it seriously. Instead, we’re watching a black and white team; the word FIN is implanted on our brains but this piece is not about the Premier Division title run.

Dundalk are already deserved champions with league games left to play, and the FAI Cup final is a few weeks away, but the league finished a long time ago for the majority of First Division teams. In mid-September six clubs played their last league game and turned off the lights in their stadia until pre-season at some stage next February. It’s one of the longest off-seasons in world football — it will be 22 weeks between competitive games for those First Division clubs, a massive 42% of the calendar year.

That’s 42% of the year without a competitive match for a player to earn pay, to train in a professional environment and to develop. For a young player at Cobh Ramblers for example, after pushing Derry City in the EA Sports Cup Final, that player now has to effectively work on his own, with a training plan from the club in his hand, unable to test himself in matches and unable to put himself in the proverbial shop window in the hopes of enhancing his career.

Any First Division player is effectively free to hear out approaches from every other club in the league and has so much time to make up his mind. He has the chance to skip a planned fitness session – he can catch up later. He has a chance to enjoy his Christmas and pile on a few pounds. If his focus and support structure aren’t strong he could go backwards, turning up to pre-season out of shape, reducing his chances of making the cut.

Being out of contract he can register for a local Munster Senior League or Leinster League side and keep his fitness up, play at a decent level and keep getting matches, but that would be to play football from January to the following September without any break, increasing the risk of burnout and injury. It might actually hurt his chances in the long run. Best to put the feet up for a few weeks.

First Division managers and their committees now have to worry about what to do and how to keep supporters, coaches, players and the general public engaged with no games to play and no contracted players to show off. It’s the busiest time of the year in many respects and there’s no income to support the needed activity and work. How do you put news out on a website when there’s no match previews and reports to push, when there’s no players around to do a school visit, and even if there were, there are no matches scheduled to give away tickets to the schoolkids?

Managers will talk to each other to put rough pre-season plans together. It’s the one time of the year there’s an advantage to being a First Division team as it’s easier to get a pre-season friendly against Premier Division opposition; that might bring in a few quid and away supporters. Then once they hang up the phones on each other, they ring each other’s players, sound them out, make offers and accept that the players have so much time to decide. February is still a long way away.

Running a club office over the winter is a pain. No games, no reason for people to be there that often but at the same time, there’s an opportunity to move some merchandise around Christmas so that has to be factored in. The club officials have to sit down and work through the licensing application, and list their manager, assistant manager, goalkeeping coach and countless other roles. It’s that time of the year when ‘to be determined’ gets written a lot.

A 22-week off-season hurts the ability of First Division clubs to be sustainable in any way, shape or form. One of the key impacts of it is the fact that like every human on the planet, Irish football fans are creatures of habit and it’s very easy to get out of the habit of Friday or Saturday nights at your local home ground. There are 22 weeks for rival sports and entertainment options to get their hooks in, for a supporter’s head to be turned.

Structure gets discussed quite a lot in the league. Mid-season fixtures are a thorn in the sides of Premier Division clubs, but one of the biggest reasons for the FAI and Clubs having a proper look at extending the league seasons is to look after the health of those clubs most affected by the length of the off-season. We need even amateur clubs to be as close to 12-month operations as possible, if only to keep promotions going and fans engaged.

It’s far too easy for a club to turn the lights out in September and do nothing until they turn them back on in February. It’s too easy to wonder then why the supporters haven’t come back. It’s too easy not to hold yourself accountable.

We can’t keep talking about a full-time league at the upper levels when our second tier plays football for just over half the year.

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