Comment: A league split could solve League of Ireland fixture burden

The FAI is considering introducing a league split for the 2020 season.
The FAI is considering introducing a league split for the 2020 season.
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DERRY CITY go into an unwanted three week break in league action after being pegged back for a share of the spoils in Waterford on Friday night but could there be a system on its way designed to avoid these unnecessary and untimely lay-offs?

With just six games remaining in the run-in, it must be so frustrating for Declan Devine and his troops to have to take such an extended break at such a crucial time. Momentum is key when challenging for honours, whether it be the league title or Europe League qualification, and the last thing we want is a stuttering end to the season.

Of course this most recent lay-off is due to Derry’s exit from the FAI Cup with the quarter-finals scheduled for next weekend and their participation in the EA Sports Cup Final.

The latest idea floating about FAI headquarters is that of a league split for the 2020 season. Apparently the FAI are still considering Kieran Lucid’s ambitious All Island League proposals and will meet once again with the steering group on September 10th next to further discuss the idea. Should all parties agree to pursue that avenue of change and merge with the IFA then it won’t be put into place until 2021.

For next season, however, the FAI are exploring the idea of a split. The National League Executive Committee (NLEC) met in Dublin last week for talks on the future make-up of the league and its governance. The FAI is likely to continue to act as the SSE Airtricity League’s governing body next season but the NLEC has asked for details on introducing a top half, bottom half split for the run-in.

The format was experimented with in the 1990s before being shelved and it has re-emerged as a solution for the current 36 game format with too many midweek fixtures and postponements to facilitate teams in European competitions. The proposal would see the top six and bottom four split after three rounds of fixtures.

The top six would then play five further games for a 32 game season while the bottom four would face each other twice more for a 33 match campaign as opposed to the current 38 game format.

I suppose the format is expected to make the title run-in, the fight for European qualification and relegation more exciting. It could create dramatic end of season finales and perhaps the likes of Dundalk and Rovers wouldn’t find themselves so far ahead of the chasing pack if they were to meet tougher opposition rather than the almost ‘gimme’ games against the bottom clubs during the final stages.

I’m sure Derry fans would rather go to watch games against Dundalk, Rovers, Bohemians, St Pat’s and Sligo Rovers for the final five games of the season for pure entertainment value and it would certainly become more competitive.

It could also increase the potential for a powder-keg title decider if the race came down to the wire with the odds increasing of the top two meeting on final day. Likewise for a relegation decider with teams battling it out for survival. It also minimises the fixture burden on clubs which has been such a headache for the past number of seasons. And it could do away with those meaningless, end of season matches where one set of players would rather be on a beach.

However, like most changes in format and rulings, the idea will have its critics. It certainly has its critics in Scotland while it seems to be generally accepted with minimal fuss in the Irish League. I prefer the more traditional approach though and there’s no doubting the best team in the league is crowned champions in the end.

A league split creates imbalances and you can never have the perfect set of fixtures post-split. Indeed, you have the frequent anomaly that clubs in the lower six finish the season with more points than clubs in the top half of the division which makes a mockery of the league.

In the 2017/18 Dankse Bank Premiership campaign, seventh placed Glentoran finished the season with three more points (51) than sixth placed Ballymena United (48).

In the SPL the split format was introduced in 2000/01 season and last year it was the same, as seventh placed St Johnstone finished a point better off than sixth placed Hearts. And in 2015/16 Inverness, who finished seventh, were actually two points better off than FIFTH placed Motherwell.

Now that’s something which could happen with some regularity given a team which narrowly misses out on finishing in the top half when the split comes, gets to play against poorer quality teams for the rest of the season. But it just looks awful.

A team could also have fewer home games than their opponents so fans will no doubt complain about the potential for fixture disparity. But it’s proven to work in the SPL and is regarded to be by many as the best thing about its structure.

It certainly does have its merits and given the absolute nightmare the fixture congestion which preceded a lack of games and postponements this year, it’s worth giving it a go and it’s good to see the FAI appear to be willing to transform the league for the better.

Meanwhile that draw in Waterford on Friday night might not be a bad result come the season’s end. With Bohs losing in the Dublin derby, it means Derry have closed the gap on the Gypsies to just two points with six games to go.

I wasn’t able to travel to Waterford on Friday but from all accounts it was a difficult night for football given the blustery conditions at the Regional Sports Centre. The pitch isn’t best protected against the elements and Declan Devine felt it had a major impact on the quality of the game.

He targeted seven wins from the last seven but he won’t be overly concerned about the dropped points on Friday, especially with that cracking clash against Bohs lined up for Brandywell on September 20th next.

It’s all to play for and let’s hope this latest extended break in action can prove to be beneficial to Devine’s EA Sports Cup preparations.