THE LOCAL SOCCER season is almost at a close and yet there remains uncertainty as to the make up of the next.
If, that is, there’ll even be one under its current guise.
For the six clubs of the Ulster Senior League, there is not even a guarantee that there will be a 2016/17 season. In fact, there appears a very distinct possibility that there will not be one.
The haemorrhaging of clubs in recent years has dwindled the numbers down to the half-a-dozen who competed in this campaign.
While the League Secretary, Niall Callaghan, has insisted that the show must go on, efforts to recruit appear to have been in vain.
Jason Gibson bowed out for management – for now, at least – at USL level on Sunday, his six-season term as the Swilly Rovers boss coming to an end with a low-key, season-ending 4-1 loss at Bonagee United.
Gibson was player-manager of his native Lagan Harps before Swilly – with whom he played for a season-and-a-half – came calling ahead of the 2011 season. Gibson is enriched in local football and is passionate about its direction – or sometimes the lack of it.
“I’m a wee bit disillusioned with it,” Gibson says.
“It could be the players’ attitudes or it could be the league structure. How do you ring a player up and say: ‘Come and play with me in a six-team League?’
“Cockhill have an advantage down there in that they don’t have the competition for players for the Ulster Senior League that we do, but they still find it hard.
“It is going to be a big month for the League. I know they’re trying to get new teams, but that’s going to be a lot easier said than done.”
The standard is not in question for Gibson.
He’s been on the management team of the Ulster Senior League’s inter-provincial side. Twice in the last three years the USL won the Michael Ward Trophy and the League now has one of its own, Letterkenny Rovers, in the FAI Intermediate Cup final, for the first time in 20 yards.
There is a problem, though, and Gibson concedes that it may well be time for the USL as we know it to be disbanded, 30 years after its formation.
“I think the way it has to go is for the clubs to go under the umbrella of the Donegal League. What’s the alternative to that? I can’t see a viable alternative,” says the Manorcunningham native.
“There is an intermediate-standard of footballer in Donegal, so could we still have an intermediate division? We could but not as it stands.
“Everyone should be rowing the one way on it rather than fighting their own wee corner. You take the Inishowen League, who won’t engage in any form of dialogue. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen – everyone in Donegal should be involved in these discussions and plans.
“It’s part of the problem in Donegal where you have too many people running the game.
“There are so many committees spread all over the county and everyone is only interested in their own wee areas.
“What’s wrong with the County Board model in the GAA, where the one group oversees all the adult games in Donegal? Donegal soccer could easily combine resources and appoint a secretary or an administrator to run the game.”
Gibson won two Knockalla Caravans Senior Cups with Swilly, in 2013 and 2014, while he was beaten by Cockhill Celtic and a late Garbhan Friel goal in the League Cup final of 2014.
Swilly finished third in one of his seasons, but this was a campaign that highlighted their travails: Only one League win, and that was in the first League outing of the year at Fanad United, the only team beneath them in the standings, back in September.[adrotate group=”37″]
Competing in the USL is something that many have tried, with limited success.
It’s been a cyclical League since Fanad United’s dominance was halted in the late 1990s.
Two years ago, at the USL AGM in January 2014, Dessie Kelly, the League Registrar drew open-mouthed reactions when he put the cards on the table.
‘There is a perception locally that the Ulster Senior League is a semi-professional League,’ he said. He told a stunned audience, including a handful of the local media: ‘Some clubs are paying out a few bob to players and a few bob to managers – and my own club wouldn’t be exempt from that.’
Former Finn Harps manager Felix Healy once touched on an issue that is taboo in local quarters. It bothered Healy, who felt that some young players were happy to get, as Kelly put it, ‘a few bob’ rather than stick it out at senior level with Harps.
At that same meeting in the Mount Errigal Hotel, then Drumkeen United manager Mickey Rodgers ventured that ‘these days some junior clubs seem to have bigger budgets than Ollie Horgan has at Finn Harps.’[adrotate group=”38″]
Gibson had listened and watched to the various arguments and this season urged Swilly to dispense with investing in the first team.
“It was a matter of steadying the ship and then building,” he says of his early days as manager at Swilly Park.
“When I first went, I brought a big influx of Donegal League players with me when I left Lagan.
“Right now, it’s evident that you either invest in the team or go to a level where the team should be playing at.
“We took the decision this year to take investment out of the team and to go with a mostly local team. We knew what was coming. Even at that, I’d still have been disappointed with the commitment levels of some of the players.”
The League’s hierarchy has long since harboured the feeling that loyalty was a long-lost trait in players. Gibson saw that at close hand. ‘It is a sad state of affairs when we are playing second fiddle to the junior leagues,’ Fanad United’s Patrick Sweeney once put it.
“The summer-winter thing really highlighted the attitudes of players,” says Gibson.
“A player got an opportunity to play 11 months of the year. It showed that there was no loyalty.
“A player signed for a club in August but, if that club wasn’t competing for a League title in January, he was away to the Ulster Senior League. It worked the opposite way then coming into August.
“Players just started to club-hop and it was the clubs who suffered.”Tags: