Full-time football in Ireland: The Danish Lesson

One of the foremost figures associated with the local football scene, Gerry Carlile, has published an article on his new blog (reproduced below) asking the question as to whether or not there will ever be a professional domestic Irish football league.

Carlile is well placed to speak on the subject. As the most renowned Irish football agent, he is known throughout the domestic scene to key figures, both involved in local clubs and on the international setting.

The arguments normally used to dismiss the idea of a professional Irish football league have been challenged by the success of leagues in countries with populations smaller than that of Ireland as a whole, most notably Denmark.

The top flight of football in Denmark has seen average attendances more than double from just under 4,000 in 1991 to almost 8,000 in 2013-14, an average figure above that of stronger leagues in countries such as Greece, Austria and Ukraine.

Improvements to stadia, geographically dispersed teams and a tax incentive introduced by the government all seem to have helped further embed the professional game in Denmark.

The most successful Danish team is FC Copenhagen. Interestingly, Copenhagen were formed in 1992 through an amalgamation of two existing city-based teams, including the oldest continental European football club, Kjøbenhavns Boldklub (founded in 1876.) This gamble appears to have paid off handsomely, with the larger fan base and economy allowing them to compete at a higher level.

The team has qualified for the group stages of the Champions League on multiple occasions in the past decade and secured the feat of qualifying for the knock-out stages (last 16) of the Champions League in 2010/11.

Carlile also references the plight of the many teenage boys who leave Ireland (north and south) to try to make it in England and Scotland, with the vast majority returning after a period of time to play part-time football in one of the two Irish domestic leagues.

It’s an interesting proposition, which has been discussed and dismissed before. Perhaps it will take a number of clubs, north and south, to decisively separate themselves from the chasing pack in terms of both success (on-field) and financially (off-field) to bring about circumstances in which self-interest acts as a driving force. That said, Carlile’s focus is primarily on realising the vision of a professional league capable of more effectively nurturing the homegrown talent, providing for a professional football fraternity to develop and flourish in Ireland. I don’t detect any urgency to move in this direction in the short term, but it’s an idea whose time is likely to come.

For over one hundred years footballers have been leaving Ireland to ply their trade in the lucrative leagues of England and Scotland. The fact that we have no Irish football industry and two part-time leagues north and south means that those who want to carve out a living in the game have been forced to cross the Irish sea to seek their fortune somewhere between John O’Groats and Land’s End.   

The general rule is that players move across the water at the age of sixteen having been attached to a professional club in England or Scotland throughout their early teenage years via Irish based schools of excellence or academies. Young players also frequently go across on trials with various clubs in the hope of seeking their first contract. Typically sixteen year-old footballers live in club digs and earn a low wage. The wage will vary from club to club. Bigger clubs will pay better wages but it is not uncommon for parents to financially support their young footballer son in the formative years of his career.   

Whilst the majority of these youngsters experience positive times at their respective clubs some suffer homesickness and others struggle with the demands of being a professional footballer. In some cases players do not enjoy their allocated digs or they mightn’t click with coaching staff or team mates. In one extreme case one player who I represented later in his career was the victim of fraud when the landlady acquired credit in the players name, illegally running up thousands of pounds of debt. In many instances players return home to Ireland disillusioned and out of love with the game.     But still we continue to send our young players to England and Scotland in bigger numbers than we have ever done before.   

There is a very low success rate for players who make it professionally. The vast bulk of young players come home to play in the League of Ireland or the Irish League, some never play again. So why do we continue to send our kids across at such a tender age when so few of them actually taste success? We wouldn’t send our sons to England or Scotland at sixteen to be bricklayers or office workers, why then do we send them to be footballers? The answer is clear. There is no scope or opportunity in Ireland for a sixteen year old to progress to being a full time, well-paid, professional footballer. 

The perfect scenario would see a full-time football industry established on the island of Ireland. One where sixteen year olds could stay at home and avail of full-time football with the opportunity to progress and establish a career for themselves. Major government backing would be required, both Leinster House and Stormont would be pivotal. Private, corporate investment would be a prerequisite and would allow clubs to grow and flourish but in the first instance stadia development and modernisation is crucial to any long-term success. A significant number of club stadia in Ireland border on dilapidation. Very few people want to bring their families into environments that are sub-standard.

There are too many other spectator sports competing with football and those other sports offer high levels of comfort and entertainment for football to continue the way it is going.     Have we the population in Ireland for a full-time football industry? Well, Scotland has a smaller population than that of the entire island of Ireland and other European countries with smaller populations than Ireland like Denmark and Finland can sustain strong football industries. The average wage for a footballer in Finland for instance is estimated to be just over forty thousand Euros per year, significantly higher than the average wage of footballers in Ireland.

But significantly, in Denmark the Danish Superliga has emerged as possibly one of the top ten leagues in Europe and the performance of the biggest club FC Copenhagen in European competition has made football fans sit up and notice. New stadiums and greater attendances in the past five years have also helped to lift Denmark out the football doldrums. The Danish government has also been praised for making it easier for clubs to attract better players by introducing lucrative tax schemes.     If Denmark can get its act together, why cant we? Ireland is a small island of some six million people. For decades we have churned out high quality footballers. Isn’t it time we tried to keep our best players at home? A full-time professional Irish football industry is possible. Does the desire exist to make it happen?

  • Gopher

    The fundamental is money. The only people with money are the TV companies. The IFA should move the season to a period that suits the TV company in return for cash. The challenge then is to get people to actually watch it on television so you need a good and broader product. The only way I can imagine is to affiliate Irish league football clubs to other associations and clubs to get players, probably youth loanees from big clubs. This would likely decrease homegrown players numbers but increase their quality. If the TV companies were really generous they could provide money to have a draft pick for out of contract players in a summer league looking for new clubs. I also think. the only thing that makes money on this Island with regards football are the national teams and that is down to TV revenue and the advertising it attracts.
    The solution to football like everything else in Northern Ireland is to stop being insular.

  • the rich get richer

    If there could be a Truly competitive All- Ireland League without “””Fan””” Violence then there may be a chance .

    It could happen in the future but……………?!?!?

  • Kevin McDaid


    Nice to see an article about football on the island on Slugger. Something very close to my heart.

    Carlile is as well known, as much for his own self promotion, as actually for the deals that he has done. Yes, he has a number of Northern Irish international on his book but it could certainly be argued that the likes of Platinum One would have significantly greater influence.

    Onto the piece in question.

    One could argue that the League of Ireland 2004-2008 was a football industry. There were a number of full times clubs, and indeed there were a number of players making a decent wage at this point. However, like the country as a whole, the clubs were living beyond their means.

    Throwing the likes of the Scottish of Danish numbers does not account for the different habits of football watching here as compared to those countries. Scotland has the highest per capita “participation” in people watching the game on a weekly basis. People are in the habit of watching their local teams in Scotland in a way that people here are not. Irish people, on both sides of the border, like to follow successful sides, but not 20/30 times a season, 4-10 times does grand for us. Look at the drop off in crowds at Leinster as success has ebbed away, just as it has been falling away at Munster over the past few years. The GAA has the most dedicated support base of any number(Derry v Tyrone in the McKenna Cup will be bigger than every game North or South this season), but the model that works on is not applicable to football.

    The average industrial wage in Finland is significantly higher than the average wage here, so that is a complete misnomer of a point. As regards tax breaks, the Republic has tax breaks for athletes to allow them to get a lump sum on retirement. Again, not sure of his point.

    It is difficult to see past the fact that this is an agent writing this. There is a serious conversation to be had about the future of football on this island. I am not sure this adds to the narrative on this subject. I’ve met many agents, some good and some bad. Fair play to Gerry, he’s made a career out of it and good luck to him. But he hasn’t been one to play the “green card” for the good of the game on this island before.

    It is not in the interest of an agent to see players gobbled up at 16 and move across to England, minimal opportunity for Irish based agents to pick them up then. Much more likely they will sign with an established English agency the earlier that the enter the English system. However if they were to play in the IL, LOI or an AIL then much better opportunity for Irish based agents to get in with these players, see them transfer at 18-21+, where the fees are higher and the agent has a better opportunity for long term work with the players.

  • Graham Parsons

    Interest in local football is diminished by a number of factors that don’t exist in Denmark specifically other spectator sports such as the GAA and Rugby as well as proximity to the leagues in England and Scotland.

    Would like to see an all Ireland league though.

  • kensei

    Not really

  • kensei

    Football is now dominated by money and everyone, Scotland included is now suffering from the EPL sucking in incredible amounts of cash. You need some sort of critical mass in order to have even a semi competitive league and you need to avoid going against the EPL head on. You want something like Portugal, where the clubs can build successful teams including at a European level but know they’ll get broken up.

    An All Ireland league would be a good start, but ultimately you’d need Scotland and Wales involved to have enough critical mass, I think.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the best of the Scandinavians are also sucked up by either the Premiership or the Bundesliga at young ages too, are they not?

    Andreas Christensen, Christian Eriksen, Joshua King etc.

    Scotland has not just rugby and cricket, but its own Gaelic games too, do they not? (Although it is very much a minority sport in Denmark, Copenhagen has hosted Europe GAA games, has its own club too.)

    Denmark although a bit lower down the list when it comes to cricket and a lot lower down the list when it comes to rugby, has intense competition for football from handball, ice hockey and even basketball. It is a silly excuse to bring it up because the one thing that Scotland, Ireland (both parts) and most of Europe have in common is that association football is the most popular game in the vast majority of European nations.

    Indeed we have dual players playing GAA and either League of Ireland/Irish League games, maybe we could perhaps have more joined up thinking between these associations when it comes to fitness training.

  • Big Yellow Crane

    Thinking through the scale of this new industry.

    There are 4,000 members in the professional football association. Pro-rating that from England & Wales (56M) to this island (6.4M) would suggest 457 professional players which is 23 clubs worth with a maximum 20 registered players per club (as per new IFA rules).

    The FAI gets round UEFA restrictions on franchising with a 20 team two tier closed league and licensing so applying that we could have a 24 team two tier league for the whole island with a proportionate number of registered professional players.

    That’s one team per 267K people which sounds reasonable when you think that League One towns like Barnsley, Chesterfield or Shewsbury have 80K – 100K people.

    Again on a pro-rata basis Ulster would have 8 teams across the two leagues – so maybe Derry, Finn Harps and the current IFA top six.

    So fine on paper but is that really a big change in Irish football – the top 18 from the FAI and the top 6 from the IFA?

  • WindsorRocker

    The irony is that the close cultural ties between these two islands is why there will never be a sustainable full time professional league here on this island.
    It’s easy for young players and supporters to travel to GB. It’s easy for TV companies to beam EPL football into Irish homes and pubs.
    The EPL is like a monster that has essentially eaten up the market in the British Isles and bar the Rangers and Celtic model in Scotland (driven by certain, ahem, factors) nothing in these islands comes close. The rest of Scotland is dying, Wales’ own league is no better than the FAI or IL. To succeed in Wales, you need to be part of the English pyramid which is shown when Cardiff and Swansea et al refused to be part of the new Welsh League 20 years ago.
    It’s easier for Denmark etc, there isn’t the same cultural link with the EPL and therefore the football market is more protected.
    The full time experiment has been tried on this island over the last 15 years. Linfield felt able to give it a go when the IFA contract turned upside for them after a barren 20 years from 1986 and were fortunate that Setanta ploughed silly money in at that time but even then that was a half assed effort when the manager wouldn’t go full time (understandably) and it wasn’t even the full team.
    The full time FAI league experiences was essentially a case of who’s turn is it to overspend now, win a league and then have a brush (or worse) with bankruptcy. It was almost the same circle of full time players who were doing it in that glorified merry go round. The likes of Glenn Crowe tempting Shelbourne then Bohemians to break the bank.
    When Sunderland can come to a friendly in Galway and pack the place out, you realise the challenge there is.

  • Niall Chapman

    Would prefer to see GAA players get a decent recompense for their efforts