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Should Derry return to the Irish League?

Joel Taggart | 10:22 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

As I read this week about the problems facing Derry City, my mind went back to a Setanta Cup semi-final last season when Glentoran played Drogheda United.

Drogheda were facing financial meltdown and winning the Setanta Cup was the only chance the players had of getting some of the wages they were owed.

Tam McManus and Thomas Stewart of Derry City

Now, apart from the obvious irony that Setanta were to be the financial saviours and they themselves have fallen on hard times, I cannot help but wonder why so many of the teams in the League of Ireland got it so wrong when it came to chasing the full-time dream.

I remember speaking to an official at Drogheda that night with Roy Walker who was working with me on BBC Radio Ulster. He told us that the weekly wage bill for players, coaches and other staff at the club was somewhere in the region of $40,000 Euros. I nearly fell off my seat.

This was a club with a ground capacity of less than 3,000. I am no accountant but to me it did not seem to make economic sense.

This road to nowhere for Derry, Drogheda and the rest probably started in 2004 when Shelbourne reached the third qualifying round of the Uefa Champions League, just one tie away from reaching the group stage.

Such was the interest in the game against Deportivo La Coruna that it was switched to Lansdowne Road and Shels managed a 0-0 draw in front of their home fans before losing in Spain despite a heroic performance.

The problem came when Shelbourne, and many other clubs thought this type of progress would be the norm and that it was only a matter of time before an Irish club side made it through to Europe's top table and the promised land of the group stages of the Champions League.

Looking from the outside, it appears to me that a fundamental mistake or oversight, call it what you will, occurred at this point.

When the clubs decided to go full-time to follow the dream they forgot one small detail. While budgeting for the best case scenario of winning the league and booking their place in the qualifying rounds, it would appear that nobody had the sense to point out that only one team could qualify for the Champions League qualifying rounds each year.

This reality was forgotten in the excitement and nobody thought to ask the question of what happens to the teams with full-time players and staff who do not make it into the moneybags matches in the Champions League.

We all know the answer to that question now. Just ask the fans of Drogheda United, Shelbourne or Cork City who appear to avoid administration as often as Cheryl Cole cries on X Factor.

Now it is Derry City where the axe is about to fall with players being left without wages. Six years or so of full-time football has still failed to deliver a league title. So where do the Candystripes go from here?

Well back to part-time football and possibly the Irish League. When you sit down and look at things in the cold light of day it is probably the most viable way of Derry City being able to maintain their senior status.

Manager Stephen Kenny has already hinted at the possibility of the current financial problems forcing the Candystripes to drop down a division in the League of Ireland.

Former Glentoran chairman Stafford Reynolds has already leant his support to the idea suggesting that he and many others associated with Irish League clubs would be happy to roll out the welcome mat after an absence of almost 40 years.

Former Derry and Glentoran striker Liam Coyle told Sportsound on BBC Radio Ulster that he thought Derry returning to the Irish League was the best way forward if the club was to survive.

However, it is important to remember that the Irish League is not some sort of footballing paradise, free from the evils of financial ruin. Certainly not.

Another crazy figure that left me almost speachless came from a colleague of mine who told me that the combined wage bill for Linfield and Glentoran for one season is currently in the region of £1.1million. Is that sustainable?

Glenavon chairman Adrian Tear on the programme rammed home the point that 75% of the revenue at his club has to be generated from income streams other than gate receipts.

Having said that, I have no doubt that Derry City in the new Carling Premiership would make it a better league. It would be foolish for those in authority not to make representations to the Brandywell to investigate the possibility of bringing a club of that size and stature back into the Irish League fold.

With such a fan base and travelling support such a move could only be good for the game here and surely politically the time is right.

If Derry City decided to come back to Irish League football then the top flight north of the border would be stronger for their presence and it would be another reality check for those who believe that full-time football is sustainable in Ireland.

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