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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 14 August, 2020

League of Ireland may be the ugly duckling of Irish sport, but it's primed to take flight

Conan Byrne knows the problems in the league, but there is good to be built upon too.

MIRROR, MIRROR ON the wall, who is the greatest of them all?

Well it’s certainly not the League of Ireland.

 That’s what we’ve always been led to believe. We know it has poor crowds, sub-standard infrastructure, shameful investment and laughable administration, at times.

Tell us something we don’t know.

But not everyone wants to woo the prettiest girl on the dance floor; sometimes we want more than the glitz and glamour. Sometimes we just crave a connection.

The League of Ireland may be the ugly duckling of Irish sport, the difficult child if you will.

Yet dismissing it as nothing more than a Ragball Rovers set-up would be a failure in recognising the signs of its maturity. Just like a bird leaving its nest, full of trepidation, it is now plucking up the courage to flap its wings and take flight.

Yes, there have been more than a few crash landings but if you look closely you will see the winds of change are starting to take effect. The domestic game, as a whole, is making notable advancements, as we saw with the furious reaction from grassroots volunteers to a schoolboy leagues’ attempts to literally move the goalposts in the face of real progression.

In the League of Ireland, the underage tiers are producing more home-grown (and home-based) internationals than ever before. They are pitting the best against the best on a national scale, which improves the overall standard. Plus, they are giving more opportunities to young coaches eager to get a start at the elite level. This is something that we can all connect to – a vibrant, developing structure full of exciting talent.

john-mountney-and-brandon-bermingham Dundalk's John Mountney and Brandon Bermingham of Drogheda during a return-to-play friendly in Oriel Park this evening. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Away from the pitch, progress has been, admittedly, slower. But one could argue that progress is progress, regardless of its pace. We are finally having constructive and meaningful conversations that will shape the future of our game. These are conversations that would never have taken place if the bird had remained in the nest and we all decided that this League wasn’t worth fighting for.

Forget about bloated consultation reports, about JJ Gabay’s marketing jargon, and comparing us to similar-sized nations (or other sports for that matter). Instead, focus on what is needed to elevate the League to something that the general public can appreciate for its efforts to change. It wasn’t so long ago that Leinster Rugby were an amateur set-up playing home games in Donnybrook, now they are one of the world’s leading clubs in their sport. There were many sceptics who would never have believed that to be possible to achieve.

The League of Ireland doesn’t need a Seventh Cavalry to race over the hills and save the day. It needs a well-constructed plan that intersects with 20 businesses (aka clubs), that is backed by real Government funding, and is led by a competent leadership who are transparent and as passionate as the hardcore fanbase that keeps it all going.

It will take time to build new stadiums and get all stakeholders sticking to the same script (one that they don’t feel the need to leak and hinder attempts to implement real change), but it will be worth it in the end.

Why? Because this League offers a connection to local heroes, to small businesses, to communities, and to a future that creates a football industry that consistently produces talented players for our international teams, that competes regularly in European competition, and that becomes an entertainment model as attractive as anything that rival sports can produce.

We can dream big because we’re prepared to work harder, and smarter than ever before to achieve it.

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