Thursday 23 November 2017

Brian Kerr: Homegrown heroes are deserving of much wider support

FAI Cup final ideal opportunity to promote domestic game

Greg Bolger and Patrick McEleney typify the quality of the players who will line out for Cork City and Dundalk in tomorrow’s final. Photo: Sportsfile
Greg Bolger and Patrick McEleney typify the quality of the players who will line out for Cork City and Dundalk in tomorrow’s final. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

It was in the 83rd minute of a moderate evening's entertainment when suddenly the Aviva Stadium crowd were prompted towards a standing ovation.

As those renowned footballing adversaries from Moldova continued to dominate possession against an Ireland team lazily lounging on their early lead, those that hadn't scampered to beat the traffic were in need of a jolt.

Last year’s FAI Cup final match-winner Sean Maguire with Cork City manager John Caulfield. Photo: Sportsfile
Last year’s FAI Cup final match-winner Sean Maguire with Cork City manager John Caulfield. Photo: Sportsfile

At first, it seemed as if departing sub Shane Long was the focal point of the impromptu celebration but no; instead of sympathetic support for a man who hadn't scored a goal since February, the crowd were acclaiming a replacement who can't seem to stop.

This was Seanie Maguire's moment. He didn't score that night but there is no doubt he will soon enough.

The crowd were applauding another homegrown hero, a player who vividly illustrates that the road to success is often curved, but whose recent exploits at Preston, after leaving the League of Ireland, were now announcing themselves to a much wider audience.

Given Ireland's difficulties at centre-forward, it was almost like he was being heralded as a saviour of sorts.

It seemed like a perfect opportunity to announce the League of Ireland to a much wider audience, too.

All these people knew of Seanie Maguire but they didn't really know Seanie Maguire or where he came from or why it was possible to come from there.

It seems like the FAI didn't want them to know either.

Appropriate

As the crowd settled back in their seats to watch the Moldovans spray the ball around, it would have been appropriate, one would have thought, to see the following day's vital domestic fixtures displayed prominently on the big screen or the perimeter advertising hoardings.

A fleeting glance perhaps, they wouldn't have to let them linger too long as there is an understandably pressing need to let the drinks and betting companies have their 15 minutes of claim too.

But no, not one mention. How many of these people would even know there were a series of matches on the following day, when they might see the next James McClean or Seanie Maguire or Shane Long or Stephen Ward?

In the match programme, at least, the fixtures were listed. First, you had to get past the five pages about the mighty Moldovans and their menacing threat.

Then careful not to skip too far to the full-page advertisement listing all 58 men and women of the FAI National Council, the Board of Management, Life Members, Past Members and so on.

There they are. Page 51. A nice little box on the bottom right-hand corner.

Blink and you'll miss it.

That seems to the policy alright. Maybe it might form a centre-piece of a new advertising jingle around the FAI Cup final.

In case many haven't noticed - amidst the presence of three massive Premier League games - the showpiece of the domestic game takes place tomorrow. Ignorance and indifference is clearly contagious.

Apart from the competition sponsors - thankfully a newspaper! - there has hardly been a blizzard of publicity and promotion about a clash between the country's leading professional teams.

Even the managers have done their bit with a bit of a ding-dong in the media but, from the FAI, it is almost as if their attitude is 'Well, we've given you the stadium and the pitch and a bottom row of seats, what more do you want?'

They've started to sell tickets to clubs or, rather, give them away - two adults and 8 children for €20! - but it's a bit late in the day now.

It is understandable that the senior team is the financial engine of the FAI but, as has been demonstrated, the domestic game provides necessary fuel.

It's almost as if this match is a nuisance which is hobbling the preparations for the sold-out play-off match against Denmark; there has been nothing clever or inventive about the build-up apart from the best efforts of the media and the competing squads.

We all remember the famous picture of the eight players at Euro 2016 wearing their League of Ireland jerseys but that commitment hasn't followed through.

There is an indifference about promoting the domestic game which saddens all of us who are passionate about it.

You could see it when Cork City were presented with their league trophy last week in Turner's Cross.

The TV cameras were there, three sides of the crowd were heaving so naturally the lads in the suits constructed the podium in front of the stand where there wasn't a sinner.

It's not the lack of brains that is frustrating but the lack of passion.

The standard of football, on decent surfaces, has never been stronger after a worrying dip in standards during the recession, when the League of Ireland often resembled a League of Boy Scouts.

Then, a lot of younger players who weren't good enough to be in the first team were there by necessity and, whether they took Charlie McCreevy's tax rebate or emigrated, too many older players left.

There is a better balance of youthful and experienced players now while the levels of fitness and sports science support have improved substantially too.

The football is pleasing to the eye and both Dundalk and Cork have shown that playing the game with artistic merit is not incompatible with success.

Sadly, the facilities remain a blight; why would people swap the RDS or Croke Park for Richmond Park or Dalymount Park?

Some have improved - Sligo, Cork, Galway, Shamrock Rovers, while Derry City's return to their spiritual Brandywell is eagerly anticipated.

But predominantly attending a League of Ireland match is off-putting due to the lack of facilities at too many grounds.

Iceland reinvested a respectful amount from the their Euro 2016 profits into facilities at their league clubs.

The FAI, dependent on the league for producing so many of its senior players, decided to avoid such an obvious step.

At least the Aviva is a fitting venue for the third successive final, after filling the two league positions for the past four seasons. Only St Pat's, in 2014, have interrupted the sequence.

Dominance

We have seen dominance before, from Waterford in the 1960s to Shamrock Rovers in the 1980s, but rarely have we witnessed two teams enjoying an oligopoly at the same time.

Their emergence had been relatively sudden, particularly given their parlous state a decade ago.

Dundalk looked as if they might streak away from the pack but Cork chipped away and deserved their title success.

Dundalk garnered so much support from the wider sporting community for their wonderful accomplishments in Europe last season but they were tired by the time the FAI Cup final arrived and Cork seized their moment.

And John Caulfield's men continued that charge this season, setting a relentless early pace thanks to Maguire's prolific form as Dundalk struggled to cope with the departure of more key players.

Dundalk have showed better recent form as City struggled in the run-in but even their recent meeting in Turner's Cross demonstrated that City might still have an edge.

These teams deserve the respect to have a decent crowd watching another chapter in their fascinating rivalry and, whether it is Kieran Sadlier or Patrick McEleney, see the emergence of more homegrown heroes before they become famous.

Irish Independent

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