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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

The time to halt the League of Ireland is now, but measures must be taken to protect clubs and players

If plan B isn’t already in place, it might already be too late for some clubs, writes John O’Sullivan.

Shamrock Rovers’ Neil Farrugia and Michael Barker of Bohemians.
Shamrock Rovers’ Neil Farrugia and Michael Barker of Bohemians.
Image: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

I’M NOT A doctor, but I think I’ve some common sense and I work in an industry where clean rooms and microbial control are paramount.

As you’re reading an online column right now, do me a favour and have a think; look at the laptop or phone you’re reading on and ask yourself when last it was cleaned. Sure, you washed your hands, as instructed while singing a 20-second tune in your head, but then you picked this phone back up, or retyped your password on a grubby keyboard. You may even be reading this sitting on a toilet.

There is a huge amount of information out there right now and while I’m wary of just adding to the noise, it’s of paramount importance in order to protect the public at large and to give our health service a fighting chance, that sporting events, including League of Ireland, are halted. Right now, before the lads come back from Cheltenham.

The walk into any League of Ireland ground on match night (or any ground or code) is a virus containment nightmare. As the buzz builds and your heart beats faster on seeing the floodlights, you remember your club is effectively a cash-only enterprise; you stop at the ATM and tap the keypad that a thousand index fingers have touched and collect the banknotes a thousand pockets have held. You swap that money for tickets and a programme and collect change in the form of more notes and coins. Your ticket is scanned, and you push through a turnstile that a thousand hands have touched before you.

a-general-view-of-dalymount-park-ahead-of-the-game A general view of Dalymount Park. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

No League of Ireland club has hotel-quality toilet facilities, so maybe we’ll just skip that discussion. Let’s just say a visit doesn’t make you safer.

Then, you walk to your usual spot in the ground and settle into a seat that has held a thousand arses before your own. The crowd around you cough and sneeze and this time it’s more noticeable among the cheers and groans. Then, GOAL! And you jump up, high-fiving and hugging as someone else’s happy howl throws spittle on your neck.

Your hands rest on metal as you queue for tea, for the exit and for chips – the food server wearing gloves both for your food and the handling of coin.

You go home and scroll through tweets about COVID-19 causing the cancellation of games all over Europe.

bohemians-fans-celebrate-after-andre-wright-scores-a-goal Bohemians fans celebrate after Andre Wright scores a goal against Shels. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

If you stay away from your club’s ground this weekend out of understandable concern, the club will suffer from a virus that it can’t catch. When the inevitable decision is taken to cancel or postpone matches, COVID-19 could kill your club, unless plans are put in place to provide safety nets.

Games simply must be halted. ‘#flattenthecurve’ is trending as I write, highlighting that while the same number of people may eventually catch the virus, it is important to slow the spread to a level at which our health system is not overwhelmed.

Playing games behind closed doors will be touted by some but it’s not a solution for the League of Ireland. Limiting attendance to a ‘safer’ number or streaming games is only slightly better. Gate receipts are the lifeblood of practically every LOI club, even those with wealthy benefactors.

In the continued absence of a television deal for the league, we are more exposed to fluctuations in attendance levels than any other league in Western Europe. Without gate receipts, wages and bills don’t get paid.

We budget better these days and clubs typically reach the end of the season in a reasonable financial position, but our continued reliance on gate receipts means that cashflow is always going to cause issues.

If a club has budgeted for an attendance of 2,000 people, once you factor in the in-ground spend, a prolonged delay could be a €30,000 hole in the budget every fortnight. Meanwhile, bills will continue to roll in.

cork-city-fans-ahead-of-the-game A Cork City fan waves a flag at Turner's Cross. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The reality is unfortunately harsh, but it needs collective thinking from the Department of Sport, League of Ireland clubs, the FAI, the LMA and especially the PFAI.

The biggest expenses at most League of Ireland clubs are wages. The salary cost protocol limits the percentage of revenue that can be spent on your playing and management staff but it’s likely no club spends under 50% of income in this area, with many clubs also working with off-field staff.

After wages, the next ongoing cost is around match nights themselves, either in travel to away games or hosting home games. Postponing matches will pause these costs though it will have a knock-on effect on suppliers.

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The real issue is how you manage wages during the hiatus. It’s not unlikely that all professional sportspeople will, at some stage, have to face a postponement either because of a situation wherein the government is forced to issue a blanket ban or because a sportsperson or associated staff member has become infected, forcing self-isolation upon members of a club or even an entire competition.

Even if the league doesn’t shut down, the closure of schools, universities and workplaces could see the requirement for self-isolation make the decision to postpone fixtures for the clubs.

stephen-mallon-celebrates-his-goal Derry’s Stephen Mallon celebrates a goal against Bohs. Source: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

The PFAI need to, and likely will, recognise that their members’ immediate income may be placed in uncertainty. The government, the PFAI and the FAI will need to create a situation in which players can sign on while possibly continuing to train in a contained environment, in small numbers, perhaps with the club offering a supplement to wages similar to what many people have experienced while on enforced sick leave from a company.

It’s not ideal, but the quickest way to lose player wages would be for the PFAI to demand them in a situation where all clubs have no income, causing clubs to fold.

Alongside this, clubs need to get creative — for example, introduce online/virtual tickets so that supporters can support the clubs through the likely crisis. It doesn’t have to be entirely charitable: clubs can organise online Q&A’s with the managers/players using existing technology, or online competitions and raffles which might raise a couple of grand to support ongoing costs. Additional online shop offerings for those who have them should be investigated.

This crisis is unprecedented. In 2001, foot-and-mouth saw games in the league impacted on a smaller scale by comparison, though the reaction to it was swifter and more certain.

The FAI, PFAI and League clubs need to get ahead of the issue and announce their strategy in the event that games are cancelled. If plan B isn’t already in place, it might already be too late for some clubs.

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