Aidan O'Hara: Real football, real fans, real nonsense
League of Ireland must reach out to new supporters instead of alienating them
Published 12/08/2013 | 05:00
OVER 100,000 people went to see Bruce Springsteen in Cork, Limerick and Kilkenny – people who, in the same week, would have had the opportunity to see dozens of talented musicians in their own area for a fraction of the price of a Springsteen ticket.
The local musicians are certainly more talented than your average guy who grabs a guitar and sings 'Blowin' In The Wind' at a house party but, compared to the Springsteen show, they just aren't at the same level. Greater crowds flocking to see bigger names and better shows rather than going to watch the local four-piece is just an accepted part of the music industry.
Perhaps there are people who go to the IFI in Temple Bar to watch locally produced movies who deride the Pick 'n' Mixers who will only go to Cineworld when the latest Hollywood blockbuster is released. If they do, it's unlikely that it would come with the same kind of venom that came in the direction of those who filled the Aviva Stadium on Saturday to watch Celtic against Liverpool. They were the bar-stoolers, the gullible, the ones sucked in by the Sky Sports hype machine who were somehow lesser people because they wouldn't go to watch a League of Ireland game.
Real football and real football supporters, they were told, go to local games – although if that logic is followed through to its conclusion, the person who will go and watch Kilnamanagh in Dublin or the Munster Senior League version of Everton and Leeds is a far more real fan than the relative glory-hunters supporting Shamrock Rovers or Cork City.
The reality is that the poorer the quality of the football you watch really has nothing to do with how much you know or feel about the game, and the "real football, real fans" argument is actually real nonsense because it gets nobody anywhere.
Those who say that League of Ireland is rubbish don't deserve any credence because the players in it are of far better quality than most have ever played with or against. Throw the vast majority of League of Ireland players into your average man-on-the-astroturf five-a-side and their quality will stand out immediately.
But those who argue that it's a terrible league and those who argue that it's real football for real fans are on two sides of the same coin – the one that leaves the game stuck in this rut of fury and bitterness and causes its problems to go around in circles.
Of course there are glory-hunting supporters of Liverpool, Manchester United or Celtic who will ask questions like "what time are we playing at?" but there are enough of them whose mood is genuinely affected for the day by their team's result who don't deserve the vilification.
Most people choose their football team – be it English, Irish or Scottish – at the age of six or seven meaning that, other than family and maybe one or two friends, there is nothing that has been in their lives as adults for as long as their football team.
Why should they have to apologise for wanting to see their team or even share it with younger family members?
There are plenty of reasons to lament the fact that 50,000 were willing to pay around €60 for an adult ticket to watch a pre-season friendly when the cumulative attendance for the six domestic Premier Division games this weekend wouldn't have reached one third of that even allowing for three of its best supported teams – Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers all playing at home. Shamrock Rovers striker Karl Sheppard summed up a certain mood by tweeting about a "brain dead country".
Yet, rather than complain about the crowds while at the same time dismissing or insulting them as unreal football fans, the question
has to be asked about whether there is a genuine desire to see greater crowds at games. If 5,000 suddenly turned up at Dalymount or Tolka Park next week, would the supporters react in the same manner as those who love to discover a music band in small venues but go off them as soon as they become popular among the masses? Would they be happy to have their regular seats taken up by the blow-ins without complaining about where they were five years ago?
Either there's a desire to get more people into the grounds or there's not and, if there is, what can be done to achieve it, because moaning that supporters would rather watch Steven Gerrard than Stephen Bradley is pointless. For starters, why not offer free entry into a League of Ireland game with every 'Dublin Decider' ticket? It's unfair on those who pay their money every week but, again, it's worth trying something because, at the moment, the numbers just aren't there. When the next school year begins, offer 300 tickets to a local primary or secondary school for free and allow any people accompanying them in for €5. There would be costs in ticket printing but, that apart, there would be nothing to lose. For the next home game, offer the same ticket deal to another local school because steering a pestering child's mind in a particular direction can be wonderful for forcing parents into action.
There are lots of current and former League of Ireland players coaching in soccer camps throughout the summer where the local game could be promoted with the result that the kids who have been coached by these players have the opportunity to see them in the flesh.
Leinster Rugby have far more money behind them than the entire budget of the League of Ireland but the battle for hearts and minds with children is such that it would not be a surprise to see Leo Cullen or Brian O'Driscoll hanging around the delivery suite in Holles Street to tag a new-born child with a Leinster jersey.
It's impossible to compete directly with Leinster, the GAA or even the English Premier League but it's only when all other possibilities have been exhausted that it can genuinely be argued that there aren't enough "real fans" to go around. Unfortunately, we're still a long way away from that point.
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