In a great week for Irish football, it has become abundantly clear that RTÉ are now holding the game back here.
While we all couldn’t wait to tune in to the national broadcaster to watch the Republic of Ireland take on Wales on Monday night, the station’s coverage and lack of coverage in the 48 and 24 hours either side of that game showed up its deficiencies.
With 9 of Ireland’s 12 goals in the World Cup qualifiers being scored by ex-League of Ireland, the importance of the domestic league to our national side is crystal clear. That is only set to grow in the years ahead with young players finding it increasingly difficult to break through at English clubs whose search for talent is now much broader than ever before.
It’s no secret that it’s a battle to promote our game when most of the population would rather watch the Liverpool’s and Man Utd’s of the world. Given only 13 counties have an active League of Ireland club, many don’t even have a local side to support.
There is a hardcore following of the league but adding to those numbers is close to impossible when the national broadcaster is allowed to dictate what happens with matches.
There are countless examples over the years and even this season where RTÉ have suited themselves rather what is good for the game here.
There was perhaps no better than at Finn Park in Ballybofey on Saturday when the cameras rolled in for Finn Harps’ game with Dundalk, which was brought forward to 5pm to accommodate TV coverage.
Given it was on TV and given the earlier kick-off time, it was no surprise that the attendance suffered with the official attendance given just 626.
While to most neutrals Saturday’s game was a rubber duck affair, it was anything but to Ollie Horgan’s men given their ongoing battle against the drop. While it was effectively shown incase Dundalk slipped up to hand Cork the title, as a neutral the game with the most obvious appeal would have been either Bray’s game with Galway Utd or the St Patrick’s Athletic v Limerick tie.
It’s not an entirely accurate means of assessment but Dundalk’s previous visit to Ballybofey in May 2016 had seen 1,320 turn out, meaning TV coverage had more than halved the sort of crowd the Donegal club might have anticipated.
The 694 bodies would have brought in €8,328 in additional revenue to the club based on their €12 ticket price and it could easily be argued that the sum would have risen to five figures when additional on-site sales for tea, coffee, chips and snacks were added into the equation.
In place of these lost supporters, Finn Harps received not a single cent in compensation from either the FAI or RTÉ. Even some of the players on show were out of pocket having had to finish work early to make the game.
This isn’t the first time in recent weeks Harps – who have had their financial difficulties this season – have been left out of pocket by the cameras.
Their match against Cork in August was also broadcast with similar knock-on effects.
To add to the problems, games at Finn Park do little to draw in the neutral. The pitch on Saturday wasn’t a far cry away from a ploughed field while a Dundalk supporter wasn’t being overly harsh when he commented that the stadium was more of a cow shed than a stand.
That’s not to have a go at Finn Harps. They’re operating on limited resources after all but the surroundings mean that no matter what the fare is like on the field, it is never going to act as a good advertisement for the league. How can the sight of one of the worst stadiums in the country on TV possibly compete with your Old Trafford’s, Wembley’s and Anfield’s?
On a pitch like that, you could put out Ronaldo and Messi and they’d struggle to look the part.
Perhaps had RTÉ pumped up money for the games they’ve shown at the Donegal venue then some of it could have gone into pitch maintenance.
Fast forward 72 hours and Dundalk were in action again, this time in the Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup semi-final replay.
RTÉ had shown the first game, which finished 1-1 at Oriel Park, but opted not to show the second.
This isn’t new territory as they also didn’t show Dundalk’s replay with Derry City last year. The difference on this occasion is that the turnaround between the first game and the replay was far greater – coming nine days later as opposed to two.
Given the fiery nature of the first leg and the fact that the League of Ireland’s best supported club Cork City were awaiting the winners, there would have been plenty of neutral interest in this. Dundalk had sold out their allocation of 600 away tickets and, as a result, many of their supporters were forced to rely on local radio and social media to keep tabs on what was happening in Tallaght.
It wouldn’t have been going head to head with any Champions League matches and was a far more absorbing contest than the previous night’s international affair. Given Tallaght’s setting, this tie with its blood and thunder nature and six goals would have been a fantastic advertisement for the league and helped drum up support for an FAI Cup final that will be going head to head with a Super Sunday double header of Man City v Arsenal and Chelsea v Man Utd.
While there have been better games perhaps this season, last night’s cup game had everything and featured some of the finest talents in the country.
It was an enormous opportunity lost for not only RTÉ but the league as a whole.
While repeats of Secret Eaters and Dragon’s Den were being shown by the national broadcaster, one of Irish football’s fiercest rivalries was being played in front of less than 3,500 people.
Neutrals could only have been impressed by what was served up by Dundalk and Rovers but unfortunately they will have to be content with highlights in almost a week’s time.
RTÉ dropped the ball by not showing the game and the league lost out on a fantastic advertisement of its qualities.
While there are many passionate League of Ireland fans working for RTÉ, amongst them Alan Cawley, Tony O’Donoghue and Brian Kerr, the powers that be at the station don’t really care about the domestic game.
It’s time for that to stop and if the FAI are brave in any way they need to cut their contractual ties between selling the international rights and the domestic rights to games. League of Ireland clubs deserve better.
As it stands, clubs are losing out financially and missing out on revenue that could be used to better their facilities and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the general public are missing out on the sort of matches that might encourage the so-called barstoolers to tip along to their local ground.
It might have been derided in the past but the League of Ireland is very much the future of Irish football. Its future would be a lot brighter though if the puppetmasters in Donnybrook weren’t continually pulling the strings.