Friday 23 August 2019

Do Irish football fans receive more joy from following the national team or the Premier League?

Ireland supporters in Denmark
Ireland supporters in Denmark

Jack O'Toole

Choosing between Ireland and Manchester United or Liverpool is a lot like picking a side between church and state for some Irish football fans.

You shouldn't have to make a choice between the two, and they're far from mutually exclusive, but nevertheless, there is something interesting developing with regards to how the majority of Irish football fans follow football in Ireland.

For example, what do you enjoy watching more; Ireland or your club team?

Depending on who your club is, and whether they play at Eamonn Deacy Park or the Etihad, will play a large part in how you answer that question, but if you're club is in the upper echelons of the Premier League it's a no-brainer for most fans.

A cold, rainy night in Stoke overwhelmingly trumps any night of football in Copenhagen or Tbilisi, unless you have a particular penchant for watching teams with 28% possession and two shots on target, then, by all means.

But in Denmark last weekend, Irish fans found more entertainment in Victoria Secret shopping purchases than they did in just about anything Martin O'Neill's side conjured up in 90 minutes at Parken Stadium.

When you're able to cheer on the latest line of lingerie and not the ball hitting the back of the net, it tells you everything that you already know.

But what do you receive more joy from? Ireland or your club team?

The Premier League has arguably never had a better product. There's more money in the league than there ever has been before, there's better quality players across the board, and there's more teams with a genuine chance of winning the title which leads to bigger games on a more frequent basis.

But with that said, the atmosphere at Premier League grounds is steadily deteriorating, the commercialisation is steadily accelerating and the price for the average fan is steadily rising.

By contrast, the brand of football that Ireland are playing at the moment is about as bad as it ever has been, the players are no longer playing for Europe's biggest clubs - and the English clubs that Irish fans typically support - and there's not one single Irish player playing in the Champions League, the most glamorous competition in all of football.

But with all of that said, it's probably been 27 years since it has been this enjoyable to be an Irish football fan. From Lille to Cardiff to Copenhagen, is this not the most fun Irish fans have had in nearly three decades?

Singing to nuns, partying on the streets of Europe, setting up camp outside high end retailers and applauding bemused shoppers for their purchases.

It might not be every fan's idea of fun but we would celebrate kicking a ball into an apartment just as quick as we would celebrate if that same ball flew into the back of the net.

There seems to be this communal bond that exists among Irish football supporters, especially at major tournaments, and fans crave this experience every second summer, but on a yearly basis, there's a sense at Premier League games that you're this fish waiting to be swallowed up by the whale. Another punter feeding the monster.

£6.25 for a pint. £18 for the stadium tour. £32 or more for the match ticket. Whatever amount of money you wish to spend at the club restaurant and store.

Even if you have a greater affinity for the prawn sandwich than you do for its less heralded cousin the rasher, Manchester City have you covered with their 'Tunnel Club', an 'experience' where you can watch players ignore you as they walk through to the tunnel before you're then escorted to a restaurant bar area where you are served a five-course fine-dining meal and given a tactical team talk from a member of the coaching staff prior to kick-off, all for the cool price of £15,000 per season.

Nearly everything is for sale in the Premier League and you are fully aware that the disposable income you do spend at Premier League games is in some way or form contributing to the empires of a Russian oligarch, an American tycoon, with a bloodsports television channel, and a Deputy Prime Minister whose family presides over a country with serial human rights abuses.

However, when you go to an Ireland game, you're fully aware that your money will ultimately be spent on branding experts like Jonathan Gabay, who suggested only last year that EA Sports computer game tournaments should be played on giant screens at League of Ireland games and that live scores of league matches should be displayed electronically at bus stops.

Give me stupid over sinister any day of the week.

Even if the funds can be mismanaged at times, I feel better about giving my money to the FAI than I do to Stan Kroenke, Sheik Mansour or Roman Abramovich.

I also feel better about going to Irish games in general, like I am apart of something that is more representative of who I am, as for no matter how much I know about the Busby babes or Bill Shankly, I'll never be a mancunian, a scouser or a geordie to mancunians, scousers and geordies.

A lot has been written about the style of football that this Irish team have played during the campaign; their inability to retain the ball and their supreme ability to crush any sort of love and affection that you may have had for football before the 2018 qualification campaign; but not nearly as much has been written how a team like Ireland can continually sell out a 50,000 seater stadium when that is the product that they are repeatedly putting up on the shelf.

Pep Guardiola reminded us all this year of how beautiful football can be when the ball is passed and players move, while Martin O'Neill reminded us all of how ugly it can be when the ball becomes an enemy of the state, but where would you rather be next year as a fan?

In Kiev for the Champions League final or in Russia for the World Cup?

The answer may be out of your control, depending on results, but it might make you pause and think - do I receive more joy from following my club or my country?

From being the purist or the patriot.

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