Tuesday 18 September 2018

Does Dublin really need three state-of-the-art League of Ireland grounds?

St Patrick's Athletic's ambitious stadium plan has sparked a heated debate, with a renovation of Dalymount already on the agenda, but logic lies behind their solo run

'For St Patrick’s Athletic, a third Dublin stadium in the vision for the future is essential. Without it, they may not survive'
'For St Patrick’s Athletic, a third Dublin stadium in the vision for the future is essential. Without it, they may not survive'
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Dublin in 2022 and the floating football fan seeks out the League of Ireland fixtures on a Friday night.

They wonder if there's a game in Tallaght Stadium, an 8,000 seater with plans to expand further.

There might be a match on in the renovated Dalymount Park, with the old home of Irish football now a modern venue that also houses 8,000 spectators.

Or maybe there's a fixture at the Richmond Arena, a brand spanking new 12,000-seater stadium in Inchicore built on top of a shopping centre.

It's an idealistic vision and, at this stage, it's purely hypothetical. In Irish life, and Irish football, it's rare that everything runs to plan.

The example of Tallaght has proven that new grounds tend to be built in stages, that is if they ever get built at all. Already the proposed start date for Dalymount work has been pushed back.

Over the years, we've laid eyes on quite a few artists' impressions that never made it any further.

St Patrick's Athletic's choreographed announcement on Wednesday is effectively part of a campaign to convince Dublin City Council and political figures in the area that their Richmond Arena concept is the best option for the use of land at St Michael's Estate, around the corner from their current home. They are at stage one of a long, long road.

Still, the Saints' eye-catching plans have certainly succeeded in getting people talking and one aspect of that debate is a reasonable question: Does Dublin really need three state-of-the-art, medium-sized football stadiums?

It's a fair query when it would appear that only 6,000-7,000 people are regularly paying in to watch League of Ireland football in a city of 1.5 million people.

Propose

What it does not take into account, however, is the history and the reality for the respective clubs that are involved.

St Patrick's Athletic had to propose a third stadium option, because the alternative is too grim for them to contemplate.

They are a club that is synonymous with Inchicore and Dublin 8, although they also draw fans from west Dublin areas like Clondalkin, Palmerstown and Lucan. In recent years they have been criticised for losing touch with their community and have just appointed a new member of staff to rectify that.

In theory, an accountant coming in from outside with no appreciation of the history would assume that the Saints should go out to Tallaght with Shamrock Rovers, mirroring Bohemians and Shelbourne moving in together in Dalymount on the northside of the city as part of a Dublin City Council (DCC) plan which involves Shels' current Tolka Park base being redeveloped.

In practice, a southside repeat would kill the Saints identity.

This might bemuse any fans of sports where divisions are along county or provincial lines. However, strangely enough, a comparison can be drawn with the opposition to calls to split Dublin GAA into two because of their new dominance.

The obvious compelling argument against the idea is that it would create an unnatural schism that would be out of kilter with the rivalries and relationships which define that code.

League of Ireland football is on a smaller scale, but the same principles remain. The short-lived Dublin City FC proved that a manufactured identity will just not catch on.

The existing Dublin clubs have established personalities that are tied in with geography. They have found it hard in recent years with the pulling power of the Dubs and even Leinster offering higher profile attractions that pull in people from a wider radius under one umbrella.

For regional League of Ireland entities in one-club towns, it's easier to draw support from all sections of society for the same reason.

Dublin's clubs need to spread their tentacles and turn crowds ranging between 1,500 to 3,000 into regular attendances between 4,500 and 6,000 - they are pragmatic targets in a crowded sporting environment and for a 36-game league. The League of Ireland is always unfavourably compared to bigger entities in the locality or multi-million operations across the water, but it would be sustainable with regular crowds of that size.

They can all point to cup finals where they mustered up double that for the big day. What fans need is a reason to make them attend regularly and proper venues will help.

Creative thinking is also required. The inner city operations have been slow to react to the change of demographic in their areas; Bohs have belatedly addressed this.

It helps to explain why a large section of Shels fans vehemently oppose the Dalymount switch, as the venue is indelibly linked with Bohs. The only consolation they have is geographical, as it's a short trip from Drumcondra.

Pat's would have no hope of tapping into a new base out in Tallaght, given that Rovers are a decade ahead of them there - the selling point of going out to Dublin 24 was making inroads into a burgeoning population centre. In truth, the Saints would be leaving greater untapped potential behind them in the south inner city.

Their owner, Garrett Kelleher, has concluded Inchicore must remain home. The council are never going to spend cash on a ground for them there when public funds built Tallaght and will do the same for Dalymount; a third is a no-no.

That's why the Saints had to go their own way - with the significant caveat that they still need DCC to conclude that the best community option would be handing over the land to Kelleher's private project.

The proposed 12,000 capacity for the Richmond Arena drew predictable derision as the Saints' average attendance is around 10pc of that. Vagaries of planning consistently lower those numbers, but the Saints authorities shouldn't be condemned for positive thinking.

Tallaght's capacity will extend from 6,000 to 8,000 later this year, even though Rovers' average turnout is 3,000. Yet during the ground's lifespan it has hosted events which required the installation of temporary stands such as Europa League group games in 2011 and Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid debut.

There is nothing unusual about a stadium size inspired by a best case scenario. Europe is full of them. Take BATE Borisov, Dundalk's old pals, as an example. They play in an ultra-modern 13,000 stadium that is only ever full for their regular European group stage dates. Bread and butter league games in Belarus draw between 3,000 to 5,000 fans.

It has pained Pat's to move to Tallaght when they have reached a stage of European football that demands a higher ground standard, and Dundalk were in the same boat in 2016. Traders and hoteliers in Louth missed out on the economic boost their successful European run could have brought. Tallaght benefited.

A modern Dalymount fit to stage similar events would bring a buzz to the north inner city and the Richmond Arena could do the same for another densely populated area. It's not a crazy proposition.

In the Aviva Stadium, the FAI have a home that can host marquee events, with Euro 2020 next on the agenda, but the week-in, week-out reality for matchgoers is a world away from that trophy venue. That gap needs to be bridged.

Granted, the Irish approach to sporting territory is quite idiosyncratic. The concept of municipal facilities has never truly caught on a grand scale, when it's a common solution around the Continent.

It's only projects like the doomed Rugby World Cup bid that inspires politicians to engage in proper discussion about it, when it would actually be more beneficial at a lower level. The 'It's My Field' attitude is deep-seated, and Irish football's historical failings have left them as the poor relation.

Individual clubs have to fight their own corner and that's what this week was about. The debate it sparked is less about Dublin and more about a substantial community within it.

For St Patrick's Athletic, a third Dublin stadium in the vision for the future is essential. Without it, they may not survive.

Irish Independent

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