Finally! Another dismal season of League of Ireland football shudders to a merciful halt. The final table may reflect Bohemians' supremacy on the pitch, but as ever in the shambolic League of Ireland the real drama occurred off the pitch.
Eight of the twelve Premier Division clubs hit major financial problems. The most spectacular meltdowns, so far, have been at two of the country's most successful clubs of recent years, 2005 champions Cork City and 2007 champions Drogheda United. Both clubs based their budgets on unrealistic financial projections and fell apart when the cash dried up. Cork's budget was built on an apparent guarantee from erstwhile owners, venture capital company Arkaga. It became apparent that no legally binding agreement was in place when Arkaga pulled out and City hit the rocks. When planning permission for Drogheda's proposed new ground was denied, and with the club's town centre home ground no longer a lucrative development prospect, the businessmen bankrolling the club soon skulked away. Both clubs entered examinership , the Irish equivalent of administration. Cork have emerged, chastened, from the process, while Drogheda's future hangs in the balance.
Things are far from rosy at champions Bohemians too. Pat Fenlon's expensive all-star squad swept to the title but the club's finances are in a parlous state. Fenlon's flamboyant spending and Bohs' ever increasing debt were based on the assumption that many millions were coming Bohs' way from the sale of Dalymount Park. However, Bohemians recently lost a court case over ownership of part of the ground, and will not be able to sell Dalymount as planned. At best Bohs should still be able to sell, build a modest replacement stadium and clear their debts, though the value of the venue has been slashed. At worst the ground will be pretty much unsaleable, the potential purchaser will want his seven-figure deposit back, and Bohs, owing many millions, could soon be homeless and pretty much penniless.
In another league in another season the stories of Galway, Sligo, Finn Harps, Cobh and Bray all failing to pay wages at various stages, St Pats' Gary Dempsey betting on his own team to lose , Drogheda's Stuart Byrne tapping up team mates, the arbitrary decision to reduce the Premier Division to ten teams and Dundalk's extraordinary last-gasp promotion would be headline grabbers in their own right, but in the quagmire of the 2008 League of Ireland season they were mere footnotes.
It is now apparent that the touted professional All Ireland League is dead in the water. Clearly there is not enough interest in Ireland to support a professional football league. It is a pity because some progress has been made in Europe, with good performances from Pats and Drogheda this year, and others recently. It seems unlikely that a semi-pro league will be able to sustain those recent improvements, which is a sad state of affairs, but one which the 'great Irish sporting public' (who are watching rugby this week, I believe) deserve.