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'If you look at Niall Quinn's document, there’s nothing new in it. I’ve been preaching this for the last 10 years'

Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson speaks to The42 about Shane Ross’ football forum, Niall Quinn’s grand plans and forming a League Managers Association.

Updated Jun 14th 2019, 8:39 AM

IT WAS NOT by design that the bulk of League of Ireland managers were unable to attend last month’s Football Forum hosted by Shane Ross, which included about 200 stakeholders in the domestic game.

It was ignorance, according to Cobh Ramblers boss Stephen Henderson.

Stephen Henderson Cobh Ramblers boss, Stephen Henderson. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

On the same evening, six of the 10 Premier Division sides were in action, while in the First Division, a full schedule of games kept managers from Ireland’s second tier occupied.

Keith Long was among the few able to attend, with his Bohs’ side notching a 5-3 win over Finn Harps that night. 

And so the first step on the clunky, but otherwise well-meaning, path towards reforming Irish football was underway.

But in many ways the scheduling of the forum was almost symbolic of how some of those interested in genuine reform view domestic football.

“Over-looked and under-loved” were the descriptions chosen by Henderson, exasperated by the latest silver bullet plan that looks to ‘fix Irish football’.

“When I say ignorance, I think they [the organisers] probably didn’t even realise that there was a full fixture list on that Friday,” he tells The42.

“That’s where we get our noses up a little bit. I had spoke to Stephen [McGuinness, PFAI General Secretary] and he said they could organise for managers to be invited.

“But it was just disappointing that they held it on a matchday. That can be stressful for most managers, you’re obviously doing a lot of preparation in terms of travel and talking to players.

“So it wasn’t feasible for managers to be there. But managers are the face of it, aren’t they?

We see what improvements are there and we see what the problems are. This was a wonderful opportunity to sit there and explain where we feel things can improve and take it to another level by adding to what was already there.

“I thought it was disappointing that it was done on a day where league managers couldn’t attend. League managers have a lot to say.”

While not entirely reflective of those in attendance — Pat Fenlon, Shane Keegan, Alan Matthews and Paul Doolin were among those with managerial experience in the domestic league who took part — it again demonstrated the plight of Irish football’s current situation.

Those in the football fraternity who feel they have the most to say again feel forgotten.

“There has to be a voice there from the managers,” Henderson continues, adding that the formation of a League Managers Association would offer serious representation to discussions going forward.

As reported on these pages during the time of forum, McGuinness had spoken “of the novelty of the players being given a voice – flagging the fact that no FAI board, council or committee has had player representation in its 98-year existence”.

“You have the PFAI and Stephen there who will speak for the players — but I think there should be a body there to speak for the managers and who will take their word to these type of forums.

“We’re actively involved in discussing [the formation of an LMA] — I am talking with a couple of key stakeholders at this moment in time.

It will allow League of Ireland managers to sit down around the table and have a frank discussion about what they feel is right.

“You won’t get to everything because we all have different grievances, but what are the core issues? There will be a discussion to highlight what the problems are.

“Can we come up with solutions to the problems? We’re great at identifying the problems within this league. In fact, you don’t have to be a genius. They’re right there in front of us everyday.

“What happened with the FAI exposed everything. We’ll call them problems but [the league] is under-funded, under-loved and there’s no respect for us.

What we have to start doing is show the quality of people that are involved in League of Ireland football. That includes players, that includes managers and administrators. There has to be a voice and as I said, there’s representation for the players. There should be representation there for the managers. There should be structured conversation about how this thing goes forward.

“If you look at Niall [Quinn]’s 30-page document, there’s nothing new in it. Personally I’ve been preaching this for the last 10 years. So frustrating. You’re constantly hitting a brick wall.”

Forum Over 200 people attended May's forum. Source: MAXWELLS DUBLIN

As for Quinn’s plan – you can read the 10 main points of the report here – which addresses marketing of the domestic league, better promotion of women’s football and loftier targets such as having one League of Ireland team qualify for the group stages of the Uefa Champions League by 2027, Henderson sees fawning over the document as an insult to those in the league.

“It’s the final kick in the balls. It takes someone who hasn’t mentioned League of Ireland before and who probably hasn’t attended a League of Ireland match since he started playing football — I don’t know if he has or he hasn’t.

“But this is somebody with a high profile who can come out and start getting the publicity.

The publicity machine is there. He has his mates in the media. Ex-Ireland international, used to run Sunderland Football Club. All this kind of stuff is great. I think it’s a huge insult to the people of Ireland. It’s just a huge insult to the people who are actively involved.

“I deal with them everyday. I meet them every week. I have some really intelligent people here [at Cobh Ramblers] who have a real understanding of the game of football. We know how the game works. We have good ideas on how the game could work — it’s not rocket science.

“When I saw this document coming, before it came along I was thinking to myself ‘I hope this isn’t a generic document with buzzwords and fancy names’.

That’s exactly what it was. I was disappointed with that. It’s a sad indictment of what people think of the Irish football fraternity. It took a former Irish international to come out and say what we’ve all been saying for the last 10 years.

“We’ve hit that brick wall consistently but I think what’s gone on with the FAI for the last six months shows why we’ve been hitting that brick wall.”

As for identifying problems without solutions, Henderson suggests that the biggest issue threatening League of Ireland football is the need for greater transparency at governance level.

“We have no one to go to. Managers can’t talk about issues or you’re fined. If you’re not fined, you’re suspended. There needs to be more transparency.

“That’s first and foremost. You need to be able to talk about the issues before we can solve them. Let’s stop fining people and getting people to shut up. This is what people’s grievances are and see how we can fix them.

“We have to ask ourselves why is our league in the condition that it is? That’s the most important question and it’s a question I’ve always asked.

“I found it quite amazing that [The42's League of Ireland columnist] John O’Sullivan wasn’t invited to the forum. He’s been involved with three clubs that have nearly gone out of business and then gone on to be really successful.

“Cork City went from almost being relegated to league champions. He went to Limerick City who went full-time, Athlone were in turmoil and got them promoted.

“These were all times when John was there. This is a man with a huge knowledge of the league. These are the kind of people you want in there. But first and foremost, there has to be transparency.

We have to look at our weaknesses and our strengths. In terms of the finances, we have to see where it comes from and how it’s distributed. It’s no secret other domestic leagues get good backing from their governing bodies. We don’t. You just look at what you get for winning the league here. It’s a pittance. It struggles to cover your costs over the course of a season. If you go further down the table, it gets worse.

“You have to look at how to make the league more sustainable. We have to put a product on the pitch and that product attracts people in the gates. When that happens, commercial entities start to improve, community entities start to improve.

“If the product is constantly getting knocked and the people of Irish football are getting knocked, it’s a hard sell.

I want to do everything and promote this league in a positive manner. That means funds being put into the teams and put into the infrastructure; stadiums, playing facilities. We’re training on pig farms. That has to stop.

“We’re trying to bring these people into academies and you’re telling them they’re coming to the best league in this country and then you go out to train on a pig field. It’s outrageous.”

The42 understands that discussions regarding the formation of a League Managers Association were ongoing this week and included meetings with leading trade union officials.

Premier Division Fixtures

LOI Fixtures Source: The42 Score Centre

First Division Fixtures

LOI2 Fixtures Source: The42 Score Centre

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