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'I was asked if we could bring Barcelona to Thomond Park'

There are typically four types of friendlies offered to Irish clubs, writes John O’Sullivan.

Europe's top clubs invariably command a high appearance fee for friendlies.
Europe's top clubs invariably command a high appearance fee for friendlies.
Image: Manu Fernandez

AT THE 2013 ‘City of Culture’ launch in Limerick, I was asked by a senior official if we could bring Barcelona to Thomond Park for a friendly match. The truth was that we could, so I asked what the budget was. The response was that there wasn’t one; ‘Would you have to pay for them to come over?”

There are typically four types of friendlies offered to Irish clubs. First are the clubs who have planned a pre-season tour to Ireland and know they can’t command a fee, typically lower league UK clubs and non-Old Firm SPL clubs, they’d be happy to play behind closed doors, but clubs know they can make a few quid… Second are larger clubs coming here anyway for a training camp, looking for high-tempo matches, who have a support base here that might mean they’ll ask for a fee to help cover costs. Third are the high-profile clubs who send their ‘XI’ side or a legends side, often charging, sometimes sending U18 teams. Fourth are the costly ones, where you usually need FAI intervention, as with the Shamrock Rovers v Liverpool game in the Aviva last year.

That fourth type of friendly rarely happens. The financing of high-profile friendly matches is an area that the League of Ireland struggles. In early 2014, I was offered a range of friendlies from top European clubs, featuring Ballon D’Or nominated [and winning] stars. It came through a representative with whom Limerick FC had enjoyed a great relationship. The appearance fee for the ‘least attractive’ team was €750,000, which rose to €1,250,000 a few days later when a ‘bid’ was received.

We looked at the costs and the benefits; we spoke to another League of Ireland club about spreading the risk by playing a mixed team attracting two sets of supporters. We asked about broadcast rights for the games, but they would be retained by the visiting team. The risks were too great.

We struggle for the very highest level of friendly primarily because, outside of Thomond Park [which was used for the visit of Man City in 2012, attended by 20,000 people] and the Aviva Stadium, we don’t have sufficiently large stadia to sell enough tickets to bring these ventures to a level where people can afford tickets. If you need to spread €1,000,000 in cost in Turner’s Cross or Tallaght stadium, it’s €150 per ticket and you need to sell it out or you lose money. Even in Thomond Park, you’re realistically looking at having to charge on average €70 across all tickets for a high-profile friendly if you can’t control the TV rights.

Roque Santa Cruz Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

(Limerick played Man City in a 2012 friendly)

There’s potential reward at this level, but there’s huge risk. Largely you’re reliant on contacts and previous connections to bring a club to an area. West Ham have trained in Fota House in Cobh over the last couple of years, they played Cork City last season, while this season, their Europa League commitments meant they had to return without a game arranged. It’s worth noting that they returned based on previous experience, with a new manager accepting it as a destination.

Smaller-scale friendlies are low cost but largely low return. With the exception of Manchester United and Liverpool XI sides, where the name alone is enough to attract a solid level of fan, it’s largely the hardcore fanbase that will turn out to see MK Dons, Aberdeen or even Ipswich, despite their numerous Irish connections. The Celtic brand has been decimated with familiarity breeding contempt and Cork City failing to break the 1,000.

Returning to the Barcelona coming for Limerick’s ‘City of Culture’ example, there was a clear expectation that Limerick FC would get the benefit, but would have to accept all of the risk, even though every facet of the Limerick business would have benefited. I saw a report today that said the most recent England v Ireland Rugby International brought over €11,000,000 into Dublin. Football needs to wake up and start looking large.

While at Limerick, I spoke to the GAA, the Council and Thomond Park about establishing a fund where the City could get together to bring large events into the City, not just football matches, but concerts and other events that would give the ‘City of Culture’ there a lasting legacy. Following the City of Culture, there was a proven experience and appetite for big events. The idea was that a variety of groups would contribute to a central fund where groups would have leeway to pay a deposit or book a big event after putting the proposal to the group, repaying the fund once successful.

At a minimum, League of Ireland clubs who want to attract decent standard friendlies need to look beyond the 90 minutes they can offer. Visiting clubs need a top-class training surface, high-quality accommodation facilities and organised activities to fill the players’ downtime. A club partnering with a local golf course and hotel/resort to attract a club, which will boost the profile of all parties, is the simplest approach until we finally get to see Barcelona at Thomond Park.

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