By Ronan Murphy
Anyone who visited a League of Ireland ground this year, or even watched a game on television will tell you that the entertainment on offer is equal to any football stadium in Europe. Sligo Rovers won the Premier Division with attractive attacking football - a nice antidote to the Irish national team, where results and style do not have to be separate entities. The season was successful on the pitch, but off the pitch there are still too many problems.
With Sligo ending the dominance of Shamrock Rovers, and the emergence of Drogheda United as one of the country's best-run clubs, there were plenty of talking points on the pitch. The Under-19 league went from strength to strength, and the emergence of talented young players like Chris Forrester and Sean Maguire bodes well for the future.
However, the failure to build on the success of Shamrock Rovers in Europe and the demise of Monaghan United show that the league remains at a crossroads. Dundalk were days away from going under, while the majority of senior players in the League of Ireland will be signing on in the unemployment office next week when their contracts expire.
As with most of the problems in Ireland these days, Irish football's biggest stumbling block is a financial one. Attendances are down once again, while being on television is actually detrimental for clubs. In a time where many people are feeling the strain of the recession, watching their local team on RTÉ is a more frugal option than paying 40 euro to bring a family to a game.
Many of the grounds in Ireland aren't up to scratch, but the investment isn't there, as the FAI fail to put money into improving facilities. The FAI's financial input into the league is a disgrace, with total entry fees costing more than the amount of prize money given out at the end of the season. How are clubs meant to survive when they have to pay to participate in the first place?
Monaghan United are the latest club to join the League of Ireland graveyard, following the likes of Kildare County, Sporting Fingal, Kilkenny City and many others. Yet the FAI continues to let clubs go under. More should be done to ensure that there is a financial safety net as well as checks on spending.
Irish people are willing to spend money watching football. This was shown by the sheer amount of green jerseys in attendance at Euro 2012, as well as recent figures stating that the Irish spend €100 million per year watching teams in Britain. There is a common attitude among League of Ireland fans that you should support your local club only, but people should be encouraged to support football at home as well as the other. It doesn't need to be an either/or situation. Why can't you watch Shamrock Rovers on a Friday evening before heading over to Manchester to watch United the following afternoon?
The league needs investment. It's as simple as that. We're already producing excellent talent, as shown by the amount of ex-League of Ireland players succeeding cross-channel and now in the Ireland senior squad, but unless the teams have money themselves, there is no way clubs can afford to keep their good players on their books.
We have a fantastic domestic game in this country, and there's no reason our clubs shouldn't be able to compete against the best Denmark or Cyprus have to offer. If more money was invested from the FAI as well as fans coming through the turnstiles, then everyone would benefit. Not just the clubs themselves, but the national team too.