Denis Bradley: Ireland too small for two national football teams

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley is a columnist for The Irish News and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton celebrates with team mates after completing the rugby grand slam in March this year
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton celebrates with team mates after completing the rugby grand slam in March this year

The numbers one, 55 and 74 tell a lot about two of our popular ball sports. Seventy-four is where the Northern Ireland soccer team stands in world rankings. Fifty-fifth is the Republic of Ireland's position. Two teams very far down the rankings of ability and success.

Number one is the ranking of the Irish rugby team in the world.

Ireland is too small to have two soccer teams that have enough talent to consistently compete successfully against other national sides.

There was a time in the past when that happened but as sport has become a greater badge of national competence and pride, there are more countries pushing themselves forward and more money is going into national teams.

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One Irish team would struggle to improve its ranking and success. Two Irish teams are almost guaranteed to continue to fall even further down those rankings.

Irish rugby was not always on top of the world. Patronised for years as ‘good losers’, the powers within the game grasped the nettle and structured it in a fashion that allowed rugby to grow and succeed at the local, European and on the world stage.

One team consisting of players from the four provinces and one league on the island. Thirteen Ulster teams compete in that all-Ireland league. The Irish rugby team are presently one of the favourites to win the world cup.

Not so soccer. We have two international teams who are struggling to win an odd game. We have two leagues, one north and one south, both riddled with infrastructural problems. For example, don’t jump too hard in one of the stands at Cliftonville in Belfast and certainly do not go to the toilet at Finn Harps’ ground in Donegal.

The southern authorities are around €40 million in debt and the northern ones are being accused of mismanaging millions that was supposed to provide proper training facilities for the national team.

Those same authorities are fumbling around with a public consultation about minor issues like summer rather than winter games and how to attract young people. If they really want to grow the game, they don’t need a consultation. Just do something similar to what rugby did.

Those northern authorities, a few years back, rejected a proper plan that came from an in-depth study, partially paid for by UEFA, the people responsible for soccer in Europe. That plan suggested an all-Ireland soccer league that allowed for the two leagues to keep their identity and their structures while establishing a league for the more successful teams, north and south, to play against each other. The plan didn’t get the courtesy of an airing before being binned by the IFA, the people who run soccer in the north.

Since the end of Covid, both leagues, thankfully, have had an upturn in their attendance levels. More people are going to matches because they are glad to get out of the house. But there is no guarantee that it will last and, even if it does, it is not going to grow a great enough fan base to turn around and to address the infrastructural problems.

Worse still, there is a growing trend of applauding outside companies and individuals taking shares in the clubs. It is being applauded without due warning. It is one thing for local entrepreneurs to put money into clubs. It is an all together different matter for outsiders, with little knowledge and no roots within the community, to take ownership of clubs that have been in community ownership for hundreds of years.

A few fans in the stands would have the right to ask the question as to what is in it for those boyos? They could have a look at Dundalk in the southern league where it has not been a great success. There are a lot of questions to be asked of the soccer authorities.