As the economic crisis affects all areas of daily life in the Republic of Ireland, Lee Daly looks at how the football league has suffered and discovers that not everything can be blamed on the politicians.

Football clubs in the Republic of Ireland are in line with the rest of country's institutions right now, in that generally speaking they're broke. Just this past week two players from 2009 League of Ireland (not to be confused with the Irish League, Northern Ireland’s top flight) champions Bohemians started wind-up proceedings against the club for unpaid wages. The Dublin based team are just the latest in a long series of clubs to be riding high in the table whilst battling for their very existence in the courts.

Of the five teams to have won the title since the turn of the century, three (Cork City, Drogheda United and Shelbourne) have been relegated to the First Division as a direct or indirect result of financial troubles, with only last year’s champions Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians not to have suffered the same fate, although if the latter survives in its current form it will be nothing short of a miracle.

Stephen McGuiness, the head of the player’s union, was unforgiving about the club’s actions 'There's been a complete lack of urgency on their part and a lack of communication; when this sort of thing was going on at Drogheda United and Cork City, there was frantic activity.  You had kids out selling their PlayStations to raise the money.'

McGuiness is certainly correct about the frantic activity which has surrounded clubs in the midst of financial trouble, although the willingness of fans to sacrifice playing Call of Duty to have a football team to watch is not as thoroughly documented. In the past, even as creditors were pounding at the door demanding to be paid, club owners and officials would remain defiant.

Nowhere was this bravado in the face of disaster more evident then at Shelbourne FC, a Dublin club which this blogger has supported since being taken to games as a 5 year old. In 2006 there was a meeting held by the late Ollie Byrne, the chief executive of Shelbourne. Although they had lead the league from start to finish, the club was in dire straits, with the taxman ready to shut it down and players going unpaid for weeks. However Byrne’s response was to defiantly name a new manager and a handful of players who had agreed to stay on for the next season. He was met by applause from the fans in the room. The majority of those players never took the field and the club was relegated to the First Division by the Football Association of Ireland a few short months afterwards.

In order to understand why so many clubs have faced this nadir it is necessary to examine the very foundations which professional soccer was built on. In 2003 the league switched to a summer season, running from March to October. As most Irish soccer fans follow English Premier League teams, it was argued that more attention would be paid to the domestic league when Manchester United et al were not playing. Many clubs also went  to a full time professional set up in an effort to improve fitness levels and attract Irish players playing in England.

This lead to rapid progress in European competitions as Irish teams took advantage of their superior match fitness against continental opponents who had played only a handful of friendly games by the first qualifying rounds in late June.  The high point of these efforts was probably Shelbourne’s European adventure in 2004, which saw them beat KR Reykjavik of Iceland and Hadjuk Split of Croatia on the way to the 3rd qualification round of the Champions League. A crowd of nearly 20,000 turned up at Lansdowne Road to see them draw 0-0 against Deportivo La Coruna in a match they could easily have won. Deportivo won the return fixture 3-0 but Irish success continued with victories in early rounds of European competition setting up glamour ties against the likes of Dynamo Kiev, Steua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade, although no clubs have yet reached the group stages of the Europa League or the Champions League.

At the same time grand plans were made for new stadiums and a merger of the league, which had been run collectively by the clubs, with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) produced an emphasis on marketing and improving the “product”. At the end of 2006, this lead to an expansion of the Premier Division based on criteria on and off the pitch. Dundalk FC, a team from the First Division who had won a promotion/relegation playoff, were not allowed to compete in the Premier Division, losing out to Galway United, due to the potential growth administrators saw in the latter’s business plan.

Galway United’s business plan was largely spearheaded by Nick Leeson, whose speculations on the international stock market had caused the multi million dollar collapse of Barings bank in 1995, an incident immortalized in the Ewan McGregor film “Rogue Trader”. If the idea of a man who had brought down an entire multinational bank being seen as a model of responsible financial planning was bizarre, it paled in comparison to what came next.

A disgruntled Dundalk FC fan stormed FAI headquarters, dousing himself and a Christmas tree in petrol and threatening to self-immolate until his demands were met. The protestor, a taxi driver named Maxi who quickly entered fan folklore, was eventually persuaded to give himself up. He later revealed his lighter was actually without a flint and the whole stunt had been a peaceful protest. You can judge for yourself at although the clip is unfortunately without sound.

As equally useless as Maxi’s lighter was the financial planning of the clubs. Expenditure was running at unsustainable levels with players earning vast amounts of money, funded by deals secured against the value of stadiums. Part two of this article will be up on Wednesday and will delve into some of the financial recklessness which was eventually to destroy full-time football in the Republic of Ireland.

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