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'They didn’t need to flex their muscles' - How the FAI is ruining the LOI's best chance to develop

The Premier Clubs Alliance could give the SSE Airtricity League a massive boost, writes John O’Sullivan.

Initial meetings of the PCA were very positive.
Initial meetings of the PCA were very positive.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE 2013 CLUBS’ Convention in FAI Headquarters was the moment I knew something had to change.

It was only the second time in 24 months where all clubs and the FAI were in the same room and it was defined by apathy. The clubs put just a single item on the agenda, with Dundalk asking for advice on how to deal with flares; the only other notable business was the unopposed re-election of the league Vice Chairman, who hadn’t been at a clubs’ meeting in years. It was a serious low point.

From that low came a potential high, a small number of clubs finally came together to take responsibility. There was an acknowledgement, and acceptance, that the FAI hadn’t a penny to put into the league; it was time for clubs to work together.

From those initial meetings a decision was made to invite all the Premier Division clubs to meet on a regular basis to look at ways that we could co-operate and improve our lot collectively and put a proper means of regular communication in place. The Premier Clubs’ Alliance [PCA] was formed.

First division clubs were not invited for two main reasons; firstly, there was a desire to get established gradually and walk before we could run. Secondly, the problems facing the Premier and First Division clubs are very different; neither lesser nor greater, just different. Inclusion of the First Division clubs was planned, just not immediately.

Over eight months, the clubs began to meet and build a strategy. I sat in meetings thinking, “At last.”

In 2010, I’d raised the issue of collective bargaining and cooperation at a league meeting and a delegate from another club said, “You’re talking about clubs that rob balls off each other at matches”. But in those early PCA meetings, there was a sense that clubs were finally going to start rowing together on a strategic plan, while continuing our difficult individual battles to stay afloat.

Discussions revolved around improving finances, the U17 League, collective bargaining and negotiation, sharing best practices and greater cooperation on match night to help increase away supporter numbers. Sub-groups were assigned to work on high priority projects including marketing.

Clubs had committed to putting a portion of their budget into a central fund to drive those projects.

We were upbeat; it felt we were going somewhere. There was unprecedented openness and honesty.

We wanted to get ourselves organised before approaching the FAI, not to be half-arsed. There was general recognition in all those meetings that we were getting good individual support from staff of the association. There was no intention to break away. While there was discussion about the limitations the participation agreement put on clubs, and a need to renegotiate that document, the PCA was about improving our lot, getting organised, and working with the FAI.

The most surprising thing for me was that there were no leaks. In an environment where no clubs could keep a secret, the PCA stayed in the background. This was huge, there was trust and that was vital for those involved. Projects were moving slowly, but they were moving.

Then the first snag — league officials tried to gain access to a PCA meeting held against the backdrop of a match at the Aviva. It led to an embarrassing standoff, before reassurances on what the PCA was about.

Commitments were made to sit down formally with the Association once we were at a stage where the strategy could be presented. The feeling on the club side was that it had been cleared up, but it seems that the feeling was not shared on the FAI side.

There was clearly a mistrust of the PCA intentions. I was contacted. I’m sure others were too I reassured them the PCA was a positive. The clubs did not put forward a candidate in opposition to Eamon Naughton as chairman of the league, which was clear evidence that the group was not about rattling cages or change for its own sake.

However, it’s hard to shake the belief that the FAI simply do not want clubs speaking to each other unless they are in the room. It wasn’t long before the FAI engineered such a situation.

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Before the 2014 Club convention, one year on from the opening paragraph, the PCA met. A few new members were welcomed to the table and discussions continued in the usual vein. I’d left Limerick months earlier so wasn’t in the PCA meeting or the Club convention later that day, but every club that I’ve spoken with over the last few weeks has told me exactly the same story.

The PCA clubs went into the FAI Clubs convention and had the contents of their meeting regurgitated to them from the top table. Not just that, the information was delivered back to them with a smug smile. The sense was, “We know what you’re at now, lads.” Trust across the group was shattered, though every club has a clear sense of the leak’s source, a club [or club official] putting themselves first.

Since then, the PCA has stuttered. The earlier trust had been essential. The infuriating thing is that the FAI didn’t need to flex their muscles or get involved. This was a hugely positive development for the league, one that might have taken much of the headaches and responsibility for success away from the FAI.

Divide and conquer is a popular tactic. Unfortunately it’s the exact opposite of the tactic that is actually needed if this league is to have any future at all. Having been in PCA meetings, I think it’s possibly the league’s one great hope.

Follow John on Twitter @johngosullivan

– First published 13.15

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