THE LEAGUE OF Ireland may be not quite be ready yet for Europa League play-offs, but its director Fran Gavin is keen on the idea.
Other leagues such as the Eredivisie in Holland and the Northern Ireland Football League Premiership have already embraced the initiative, and Gavin says the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division have considered following suit.
The potential initiative would involve the clubs who finish near the top of the league (excluding the winners who go into the Champions League qualifiers) playing in one-off matches to secure the coveted European spots.
Speaking yesterday at a media briefing at the FAI’s headquarters in Abbotstown, Gavin said the idea had been discussed.
“I’ve looked at it across Europe and we’ve looked at it this year but we didn’t do it, we felt it wasn’t right this year. But it certainly is something that we will be encouraging because I think it is a good initiative. It’s working in Holland, they’ve done it up the north. That is a big match and it keeps the league more competitive for longer.
“Are the clubs ready for it now? I don’t know.”
Elaborating on what format the play-offs might take, Gavin added:
You’d put two or three scenarios on the table. And you’d have to take the [FAI] Cup into account as well — maybe have a one-off two-legged match, not a semi-final, because you’d be going down too far. Uefa aren’t too pushed on having teams too far down the league table coming in to their competitions. At that stage they would feel the weaker teams might come in, because you could win a one-off match.
“The team that wins the Cup mightn’t be in the top-three, so you might have a different situation. You might have to lengthen it and play it afterwards, so there are things that you might have to tweak. Certainly I like the idea. I’ve looked at it. I think the clubs eventually might come around to it.
“We talked about it initially last year when we were looking at the structure of the league. [The reaction to the idea] was lukewarm — put it that way.”
Gavin also spoke about the Premier Division’s schedule of fixtures, which has drawn criticism in some quarters, with Waterford boss Alan Reynolds last month complaining at his side having to play seven games in 21 days.
While acknowledging that the current system is imperfect, Gavin said that coming up with a suitable alternative is no easy feat.
“We’ve extended the league last year by a week, we extended the year before by a week, we’ve cut out replays, the European clubs come in later in it, we’ve got the IRN-BRU Cup on top of that.
“What we’ve seen now is that we’ve had 26 postponements altogether, and three of them were down to international stuff. So as the young players come through there, they are getting selected.
“We’re unique in that players selected for the North, we’ve brought in a number where you can ask for your match to be postponed and that’s due to the Derry situation.”
Asked about reducing the potential for postponements by scheduling the games directly involving the clubs competing in Europe around the Europa League dates, Gavin suggested the idea was too simplistic.
“It doesn’t work that simple, believe me. You can sit down with [Operations Manager at the FAI] Michael Hayes and go through it but believe me, I’ve gone through everything on that.
And believe me, there’s a rationale behind everything we do, every fixture we make, every move we make is like a chess match, it affects something else and you’ve got to be wary of the other clubs in the league because if you take a situation where a club is in Europe and they’re advancing and they are away to a club, one of those European clubs, and you’re asking that club to postpone a fixture for them, which is probably a big revenue earner for them [it won't be received well].”
Gavin also responded to concerns about the health and safety of players having to partake in this exhausting run of fixtures.
“Honestly, I’ve heard those arguments, I’d be as concerned as much as anybody about player welfare and there are lots of people in the FAI that are exactly the same.
“I think some of the concerns are genuine, some of them are very hollow, to be honest with you.
“I’ve had discussions with coaches and clubs where they’re saying, ‘We don’t want matches this week because we’re playing X club, but if we were playing another club, ah yeah, we’ll play a match.’
“You can’t do it like that. Or else, ‘We want a rest completely’, and then there’s a friendly thrown in and it’s, ‘Oh, can we play a friendly against someone else?’.
“And you’re saying, ‘Ah, hold on’. So where’s the balance on it?
It’s not ideal and there will be lessons learned from this year, and it will be reviewed, and we will try and do it as much as we can.
“But we still want to encourage our clubs to progress in Europe. If they do progress in Europe, it’s good for everybody, it’s good right across the whole league if our clubs do better.
“And it’s trying to do that up to a point that you don’t disadvantage the other clubs that are not in Europe, and that’s the trick of doing it and it’s quite difficult.”
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