The Galway United goalkeeper made a stirring speech at the annual awards ceremony of the union on Saturday night with the Minister’s decision to attend prompting the longest serving player in the league to highlight the mood on the ground around what he described as a ‘sliding doors’ moment for the game in this country.
He referenced the FAI’s €863m infrastructure plan (including a €500m ask from government) which has been compromised by negative publicity around Abbotstown CEO Jonathan Hill’s salary and a suspension of government funding which was eventually lifted earlier this week. A scheduled visit to the Oireachtas Committee on Sport to discuss the infrastructure plan is now likely to be dominated by governance queries.
Clarke believes the plight of the League of Ireland needs special consideration outside the scope of existing funding mechanisms because they are decades behind European rivals, asserting that a ‘stock answer’ from government related to how they bailed out the FAI in 2020 does not take into consideration the struggles of the football people who suffered because of the skewed priorities of a previous FAI regime.
“During my 20 years playing in the League of Ireland, I have seen football on the pitch, improve and professionalise in many ways. But unfortunately, off the pitch, many areas are still the same,” said Clarke.
“20 years playing in this league. 20 years of hearing the same excuses for poor facilities. 20 years of playing on pitches that are consistently not maintained to a professional standard, showering facilities that are simply not adequate and dressing rooms that are not fit for purpose in the modern game. Physios that are having no other option than to set up their treatment tables in the changing room showers, as there is not enough room for them anywhere else.
“The players in this league are athletes and people in charge of the game need to be reminded of that. The environment for athletes to compete to their full potential is crucial for success.
“It is that simple.
“Over my two decades of playing in the League of Ireland it is damningly clear, that we collectively have just accepted that this is the standard that we as professional players will receive in the League of Ireland.
“Sub-standard facilities have become the norm in our league for too long. We have allowed it. We have accepted it. But it needs to change.
“In order for this change to be achieved within the League of Ireland – funding is needed from government and it is needed now.
“For too long, football in this country has been an afterthought when it comes to sporting investment. 2023 saw the FAI launch an €863 million euro government investment strategy for chronically outdated facilities across the country.
“This FAI proposal to government has the 100 per cent backing of the players union behind it. 100 per cent backing from the professional players in this league.
“Investing in proper infrastructure, training grounds and stadiums not only enhances the experience for players and supporters but will also help attract and retain talented footballers.
“Sports Capital Grants are available to clubs. Yes. We are aware of these grants. But these grants are completely inadequate for what we need to achieve with regards to facilities for the League of Ireland.
“Yes. We are all aware that the Irish Government bailed out the FAI back in 2020. Everyone involved in football knows this. But this cannot be the stock answer from government, when further urgent assistance is required right now.
“Players should not be punished for the neglect and failings of the predecessor of the (current) FAI.
“Football must not be punished because of poor management at the top. A player’s ambitions, aspirations, talent, and abilities should no longer be thwarted because of the failings of others.
“Government needs to listen to the voice of the players here tonight, the voice of the very people who are subjected to these inadequate facilities on a weekly basis, with nothing changing and nothing improving.
“Adequate ring-fenced funding, specifically for the League of Ireland, can provide state-of-the-art facilities that will meet the elite standards that we all aspire to achieve.
“It is essential for the Irish government to finally recognise the value of the League of Ireland and allocate the appropriate resources to ensure growth and success.
“This is all within the governments remit to make an impact, to make a decision that will change the landscape of professional football forever, and I urge the Minister here tonight to help the players in this league.
“I believe we are at a ‘sliding doors’ moment for football in this country, and the time for serious government investment and support for our league, is now.
“Funding was needed 20 years ago when I first started playing professional football, let’s hope we are still not begging for it in another 20 years.”
Clarke’s comments met with strong approval from the audience and Byrne addressed them in his subsequent address where he acknowledged that regular attendance at Drogheda United games across 40 years demonstrated clear evidence of how ‘not much has changed’. But he did also stress that clubs need to organise themselves better in terms of presenting proposals.
“I take very seriously what Brendan has said tonight in terms of the investment that’s there,” said Byrne, referencing recent meetings with Drogheda United and Sligo Rovers. “We will be launching a new round of the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund (LSSIF) in the early part of next year. This week it’s likely I’ll be announcing some further funding for a number of existing projects that haven’t fully got off the ground and were awarded money four years ago
“It’s a challenge to League of Ireland clubs to make sure they are ready to apply for the funding.
“I know the Sports Capital (programme) is maybe dismissed but there are clubs in the League of Ireland who have got up to €500,000 in the sports capital in recent years to fund dressing rooms and really important facilities. I do value that, I want that. To be fair to the FAI, we’ve put in a special effort this summer for sports capital (applications) in the amateur game and also the League of Ireland. Quite frankly it’s not a football fund, it’s a sports fund
“But we do want to see football benefit from that because I do know the dearth of facilities and how unacceptable they are – not entirely but for the large part.
“There have been a number of projects funded in recent years including Tallaght Stadium – the new stand going in there was actually funded by the Department of Housing under a urban renewal programme in Tallaght.
“I want to support the League of Ireland and I’m determined to do that, I’m more than happy to meet with any clubs.
“I accept the challenge Brendan has laid before me, and we do know we do need to improve things. The government is not solely focused on League of Ireland and professional sport, it’s focused on sport as a whole but I absolutely do know that the League of Ireland and football is a key part of any successful sporting ecosystem and any successful society in the modern world and I do know how important that is. I certainly want to help and be as much help as I can.”
Galway United manager John Caulfield used his arrival on stage to collect the First Division Manager of the Year gong to send a message to the Minister.
“It is great to see that Minister Byrne is a League of Ireland follower,” he said, “But most of the TDs in this country don’t follow our sport, and don’t follow our league and we, as managers, have a duty to canvass and put more pressure on politicians. We need funding in our league. The more money that comes in, the more professional it becomes, the better our academies become and while sometimes money gets into the FAI at different levels, the League of Ireland is unique and it needs to be backed with serious money.”