ALMOST 48,000 football fans flocked to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening to watch Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez start for Barcelona against Celtic in the International Champions Cup.
Barca won the game – their first pre-season work-out – 3-1. Touts, with match tickets hidden up their sleeves, offered me two for €100 before the game.
The match came at a difficult time for Celtic, four days before the second leg of their Champions League qualifier against Astana.
Little wonder, then, that while manager Brendan Rodgers started a strong team, 30 names appeared on the Celtic team-sheet.
The most notable from an Irish point of view was Corkman Eoghan O’Connell, who has just returned to Parkhead following a loan spell with his local League of Ireland club.
Fourth official Rob Harvey was a busy man, supervising 21 substitutions during a slow-paced game, which was played at almost a pedestrian pace for much of the second half.
Barca head coach Luis Enrique, who some fans described as being “dressed like a Spanish tourist” on the sideline, picked Messi and Suarez to start the match – much to the delight of the near sell-out crowd.
Arda Turan opened the scoring with a brilliantly taken goal before some suicidal Barca defending gifted an equaliser to Leigh Griffiths. An Efe Ambrose own-goal restored Barca’s lead before Munir El Haddadi made it 3-1.
A huge section of the crowd was made up of parents with their young children, possibly visiting the Aviva for the first time, with many wearing the latest club shirts as they cheered on Messi and Suarez and some of Barca’s stars of the future as well as their Celtic favourites. The question is how many of those fans were among the 3,402 who turned up to watch Shamrock Rovers beat Bohemians in the Irish ‘El Clasico’ in mid-July? The answer, unfortunately, is not very many.
Anyone who was in Tallaght Stadium that night, including myself, enjoyed a cracking match, with four goals, a missed penalty, numerous chances, a red card and the unquestionable passion of both sets of fans combining to create a cracking atmosphere.
There are many reasons why the vast majority of Irish football fans don’t attend League of Ireland games.
As the match on Saturday proved – as did Shamrock Rovers’ friendly match against what was a Liverpool reserve team in 2014, which sold out the Aviva – the fans are there and they will come if they feel the product is up to scratch – and know about it.
The FAI announced at its AGM on Saturday that nine meetings have been held with the League of Ireland clubs since the release of the Conroy Report to try to improve the League.
Up to €100,000 in development funding is to be made available to the 20 clubs, but how can we actually get more people into League of Ireland grounds on a Friday or Saturday night?
The answer is to target the kids, but their parents have to bring them.
Would an eight-year-old enjoy watching Rovers against Bohs, or Dundalk taking on BATE Borisov in a Champions League qualifier tomorrow night? The answer is a 100 per cent yes.
Would their parents? Yes. So why don’t they bring them?
The first part of the answer relates to the how the games are marketed and promoted by the clubs, and more widely by the FAI.
Saturday’s match was a brilliant opportunity to promote our League, starting with Dundalk’s massive game tomorrow.
The 46-page match programme for the International Champions Cup game was “compiled for and on behalf of the FAI”.
Sixteen of those pages contained squad, player profile and fixture information on both Barcelona and Celtic.
As for any mention of the League of Ireland, a two-page spread on Barca’s visit to play Derry in 2003 was a good as it got.
Could some promotional material for Dundalk’s game, or the next series of SSE Airtricity League games, not have been included somewhere along the way?
Could some pictures of our league’s best players have been carried alongside those of Messi and Suarez?
Could Brendan Rodgers have met up with some of our managers for a photo-shoot or question-and-answer session?
Daryl Horgan– the League’s best player – will be playing for Dundalk tomorrow night, while Sean Maguire – another exciting player with huge potential – will be in action for Cork City against Genk in the Europa League on Thursday night.
Remember, the League of Ireland has produced Chris Forrester, Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and Wesley Hoolahan, among others.
A parent could bring his two children to the Dundalk game for €40 in total (that was the price of the cheapest ticket in the house for Saturday’s match).
Am I suggesting that Dundalk against Bate or Bray Wanderers against Longford Town would be as exciting as watching some of the world’s best players? No.
Am I suggesting that parents should not bring their children to watch Barcelona on one of their rare visits to Dublin to witness the best player the world has ever seen? No.
Am I suggesting that these same parents could bring their young children to cheer on their local League of Ireland club every week? Yes.
Do the clubs and the FAI need to do more to promote the game and try to attract new fans? Yes.
Is the League of Ireland a perfect product? No. Not at the moment.
We can talk about development funding or trying to get millionaire sponsors on board, but in the immediate future it’s about getting more people into League of Ireland stadiums every week.
The official crowd for Saturday’s match was 47,900. Just over half that number (25, 103) were there to watch Dundalk beat Cork City in the 2015 FAI Cup final.
These young fans are the future of the League of Ireland. A way must be found to get them to go to watch their local team.
If they went along, they and their parents might start supporting the team on a regular basis. They might even enjoy it.
If Roy Keane is harbouring any notions of combining his role as Ireland’s assistant manager with a full-time position at the helm of a major club, he might want to have a word with Martin O’Neill.