by John O’Hara
I wrote recently about the pressure the Ulster Senior League is under in terms of participation levels, and recent developments in the world of Donegal soccer has seen the confirmation that Ramelton Mariners have pulled out of the Donegal League, after twenty four years in the Saturday League.
They have cited problems trying to get players for the forthcoming campaign and are hopeful that they can re-join the league down the line, but the problems being suffered by the Ramelton outfit are all too common among small clubs in Donegal at the minute. It is sad day for the club and their dedicated club volunteers, who have worked tirelessly over the past two decades to provide football for local players.
One of the big talking points in relation to the Saturday League is the decision by the committee to change the structure of the Saturday division, with clubs who do not have reserve teams in one division and clubs who do have reserve teams in another division. This will see the likes of Glenea United, St Catherine’s and Milford United play in one league, while the likes of Glencar Celtic, Mulroy Celtic and Arranmore United play in another. There will be no relegation or promotion from these divisions and this will surely take something from the Saturday leagues. I would like to add that the club delegates representing the clubs in the league voted for this change, but it has not gone done well in some quarters, especially with players.
A major problem facing Saturday League managers is the long journeys that teams have to travel and it can be very hard to get eleven men willing to travel to Keadue or Arranmore from Fanad, Ramelton or Letterkenny. The other big problem facing teams is the fact that a lot of young players have emigrated and it is now starting to be highlighted more significantly, as older players start to retire. Look at the majority of teams in both soccer and GAA at the moment. There are a mixture of 18-22 years olds along with the thirty plus contingent, who are starting on their final years in the sport. There is a lost generation from 23 to 29, who are scattered across the globe, plying their trade in different continents.
The Saturday League always ignites debate among the soccer community about its merits and drawbacks. Some would suggest that there are too many teams and this argument could certainly be made in the case of Ramelton Mariners, who are battling with Swilly Rovers, Milford United, Rathmullan Celtic, Whitestrand United, Mulroy Celtic, Kerrykeel 71 club, Cranford F.C. Kilmacrennan Celtic and Fanad United within their own catchment area and some of these clubs have two teams in operation. If you talked to the managers of all of these clubs, you would find that they are all having difficulty getting a squad together to challenge in their respective leagues. There are only so many players to go round and the other negative aspect of this is that a player can pick and choose who he wants to play for and train as little as possible, given that the team don’t have enough players.
The other side of the argument is that the Saturday Division offers players the chance to play organised games in a competitive environment, giving young players a chance to showcase their talents, while some are happy being able to play the sport they love each Saturday. With the rise in obesity and the increase in sedentary lifestyles, surely the more sport that is played the better and if the Saturday league provides an outlet for players that aren’t in a position to give the commitment necessary for Sunday league football, it should be viewed as a positive thing. Look at Ramelton Mariners, for example. There are a number of players who will now be left with no football as a result of them pulling out of the league. Yes, some may go on to other clubs, but others simply will walk away from the game. I notice the absence of Tullyvinney Rovers from the Saturday League also, a club that provided weekly football for both young and old in their area. Likewise in Cranford, the lack of a Saturday league team will mean players will no longer be part of a team that is competing in an organised league. Something is being lost in each of these villages and people might think nothing of it, but it’s another nail in the coffin of rural areas. Not every player who dons a pair of boots is going to be a superstar, but it doesn’t mean that everyone, regardless of ability, should not be allowed to enjoy the beautiful game. Football provides a break from the daily toil and can be enjoyed by all.
Some great players have played in the Saturday leagues, players who have finished playing at the top level but want to continue playing to keep themselves fit. The experience of players like these are of great benefit to younger players, who can learn from them in match situations. One of the best systems in recent times, before the introduction of a full-time youth league was the reserve league, where teams had to play six players under the age of eighteen at all times. This provided the right mix of youth and experience and worked very well until the introduction of the Donegal Youth League.
A reason for the new structure that has been announced for this season, is that teams who had no Sunday League team were proving far too strong for reserve sides, whose best players were operating in the Sunday team. Some of the players who lined out in recent seasons for the top Saturday teams were indeed of a high calibre and Glencar Celtic were able to call on the likes of Chris Malseed, Ruairi Kelly and Paddy Rafferty, who would be more than welcome in any Sunday league dressing room.
But with the new move, there will be just eight teams operating in the newly formed Old Orchard Saturday Division One, while eleven teams will compete in the Glencar Inn Saturday Division Two. It was clear for the past number of seasons that changes had to be made in these leagues, but I’m not sure that the recent changes will be enough to make the league attractive to players and managers. Ramelton Mariners pulling out before the season began is a fairly bad omen to begin with. The other issue that has not been addressed is the travel that teams have to do on a weekly basis and this, form a manager’s point of view is a big problem. Take Glencar Celtic for example, who have to travel to Arranmore, Strand Rovers, Fintown and Drumbar, which are fairly long journeys and requires players to give up the whole day for football.
In the other division, Glenree United have to travel to Killybegs, Donegal Town, Glenea, Ballyshannon and Keadue, among others. This is a serious amount of travel on a fortnightly basis and it would put a number of players off playing in this division and it is the type of commitment that players in the Saturday league are not willing to make. It also adds considerable cost to clubs, who may have to hire buses for the journeys.
Surely a better system would have been to divide the two divisions into areas to make the league more attractive to potential players. You could have a division with Mulroy Celtic, Milford United, Ramelton Mariners, Glencar Celtic, Orchard FC, Glenree United, Drumoghill F.C, Curragh Athletic, Glenea United and Castlefin Celtic, with minimal travel for most teams and the rest of the teams in another division, which would be from the south of the county. These could be adjusted with whatever is fairest, I’m just giving an example. The top four from each league could meet in a quarter final and the league would be played off on a knock-out format from there. It would result in a lot less travel for players, who might be more willing to commit, it would give players the opportunity to pit themselves against the best from each league, if they are successful enough and it would ensure a competitiveness in Saturday football.
One of the big advantages that the GAA has is the fact that you cannot transfer between clubs, which means they know the players they have at the beginning of the season and they don’t have to beg players to sign. The other advantage is that reserve games in GAA are played before the senior games, which cuts down on transportation costs and players who are on the subs’ bench for the seniors can line out for the reserves.
Now, I understand that this cannot be replicated in soccer, but it certainly makes life easier for GAA clubs, who despite having issues with emigration are gaining in popularity, in a county that was once predominantly a soccer county.
The committee of the Donegal League have an unenviable task in trying to stem the tide against emigration, players joining academy teams at Finn Harps and Derry City and players leaving to concentrate on GAA. These are issues that will require a lot of discussion and it will take a lot of effort and sacrifice to ensure the sustainability of Donegal Junior League soccer and they will need all the help and feedback from clubs in the leagues to help them to prosper.