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Thursday 8 December 2016

Why League of Ireland diehards loathe the sound of the bandwagon now approaching Dundalk

Published 17/08/2016 | 02:30

European glory beckons: Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile
European glory beckons: Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile

As a League of Ireland supporter, I should be thrilled by Dundalk's Champions League odyssey, which continues with a play-off against Legia Warsaw at the Aviva Stadium tonight.

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The Louth club is just one step away from participating in the group stages of the biggest annual competition in world sport. It's a march to glory that has transfixed the nation, securing for this scrappy team from a historically disadvantaged town newspaper front pages and pride of place on sports bulletins. The league - our league - is suddenly newsworthy. Fashionable, even.

So why am I not pinching myself? (Setting aside the fact that, as a Cork City diehard, it's obviously strange to cheer our fiercest rivals of the past several seasons). The problem is that Dundalk seem in imminent danger of becoming the new 'boys in green', a Munster for followers of the beautiful game, an 11-headed Conor McGregor.

The bandwagon is whistling down the track at full steam and, like anyone who has devoted a chunk of their life to supporting an Irish club, my suspicion of overnight fandom runs deep.

The League of Ireland, after all, is the anti-bandwagon.

We don't go to games because it is fashionable or because it provides fuel for office banter with our colleagues. We go because we are supporters and that's what supporters do.

But now, suddenly, those who have had a merry time sneering and rolling their eyes at the league - or, connoisseurs that they are, refusing to even acknowledge its existence - are all on board Team Dundalk, and it fills us with unease. They're welcome of course - but our delight that they are finally showing up is tempered by the knowledge they probably won't hang around once the spotlight has faded.

Consider that, several days after Shelbourne brought 25,000 to the old Lansdowne Road in 2004 for a Champions League third round qualifier against Deportivo La Coruña, they played a knock-out League Cup game. Fewer than 1,000 attended.

Sunshine fandom is woven into Irish sport.

One of the excuses trotted out by the Great Irish Sporting Public for not attending the league (along with the traditional guff about "standards" and "facilities", as if a complimentary massage and smoothie should be available at half-time) is that they will not be welcomed by the diehards.

That's mostly untrue. We're glad to have you - with the proviso you are here to cheer. Not scoff or applaud sarcastically (or suggest clearing off 10 minutes into the second half for "pints").

The scoffers, I fear, will be present in numbers at the Aviva.

I am reminded of the time I dragged myself to see Bohemian FC against Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League in 2009, only to end up plonked beside a pair of day-trippers with broad Dublin accents, who spent the entire time moaning about Bohs' awfulness (as they saw it).

This or that player, they complained, would never make it at a "higher level" (ie, in the UK). And when Salzburg scored a knock-out away goal, the daytrippers were, if not delighted, then at least satisfied.

Crisis over: they could go back to laughing at Irish soccer.

Their superiority complex - how it came to be 'theirs' exactly, I'm not sure - was secure. Over their shoulder, a group of Bohs regulars had meanwhile spent the entire game singing rude chants about Shamrock Rovers. I was glad they were there. These were my people (of course, as a City fan, I would have preferred that their vitriol was directed as Shelbourne).

I'm probably coming off a little Grinch-like here.

Look, we'll obviously all be delighted if Dundalk overcome Legia Warsaw over two legs, beginning with tonight's Aviva encounter.

Yet it will also be strange to find the ranks of league supporters swelled by people who literally a fortnight ago were laughing in our faces about our devotion to club soccer in this country.

So here's my plea to the first-timers headed to the Aviva. Enjoy yourselves, but don't let this be the only match involving a League of Ireland club you ever see.

Stay with it and you'll understand why it's better than the artificial highs of pretending to follow a team in the UK.

It's the difference between watching the Travel Channel and going on holiday, between fancying Taylor Swift and having a girlfriend. Between faking it or being part of something real.

Irish Independent

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