Thursday 24 January 2019

'It inspires blind devotion in some, utter contempt in others' - Let's enjoy our League of Ireland community for what it is

11 February 2018; Cork City captain Conor McCormack celebrates with supporters following his side's victory during the President's Cup match between Dundalk and Cork City at Oriel Park in Dundalk, Co Louth. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
11 February 2018; Cork City captain Conor McCormack celebrates with supporters following his side's victory during the President's Cup match between Dundalk and Cork City at Oriel Park in Dundalk, Co Louth. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Eoghan Rice

This weekend they'll gather across Ireland, armed with the combination of optimism, enthusiasm and fleece clothing that can mean only one thing: the new League of Ireland season is upon us.

No other sporting competition occupies such a curious place in Irish culture as our domestic football league. It inspires blind devotion in some, utter contempt in others.

For most, it's sporting smut. Like a top shelf magazine, people know it's there, know that a small group of men buy it, and are willing to grudgingly accept that reality so long as the men in question are suitably ashamed and don't talk about it.

A friend once brilliantly described the League of Ireland as "the sea area forecast of sport" – the results come on the radio but everyone bar a handful of committed listeners mentally tunes out.

'Bohemians 15 to 25 knots and gusty, Shamrock Rovers force 20 to 24 knots and possibly reaching storm force at times.'

In other countries, football is a culture. In Ireland, it's a sub-culture. Like an obscure musical genre or a desire to fund a sustainable national water system, only a core group of fanatics really understands it.

The life of a League of Irelander is a life spent in the cultural shadows. You walk into a pub and you know that nobody else wants to debate whether Ally Gilchrist can step-up. You go for lunch with colleagues and instinctively know you're the only person who spent the morning googling Krisztián Adorján.

It's part football league, part self-help group. That tends to make us a bit frightening to the rest of society. And they probably have a point. It's probably not normal to spend this much time thinking about Robbie Benson.

The rest of society understands how strange our little cult is, but what they don't understand is the League of Ireland's biggest secret: it's actually quite fun.

Yes, there's probably underlying issues with anyone who voluntarily enters the Carlisle Grounds on a windy February, but that aside, we do it because we get something out of it.

Most League of Ireland fans will tell you that it's more about the social side than the sporting one. It's about meeting your friends, and making new ones; sharing a pint with someone who cares as deeply about the same thing you do.

In a world consumed with racism and hatred, why begrudge anyone who wants nothing more than to debate Sligo Rovers' all-time best full-backs?

The League of Ireland is a community. Like any community, it rallies around itself when required. The deaths of Mark Farren, Ryan McBride and Liam Miller hit us all. They were one of us. We had stood with them in the wind and the rain. They had travelled with us to Oriel, Turner's Cross and Tallaght. We wept together when they fell.

People in our community care deeply about their league. Like any issue in which people are emotionally invested, we get touchy about certain issues. Attendances is one.

The average Premier Division attendance last season was 1,906. For the top three clubs – Cork City, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers – the figures were 4,559, 2,705 and 2,799 respectively.

League of Ireland people tend to look at these figures and rapidly descend into an existential crisis. Invariably, someone will call for jihad against the local Liverpool Supporters Club.

But are our figures really that bad?

Average attendance at the RDS for Leinster's Pro 14 games this season has been 14,317. Munster's equivalent figure is 15,602. Average attendance at All-Ireland Senior Football Championship match is around 13,000.

These are all very healthy figures but they are completely irrelevant to any debate about the popularity of the League of Ireland.

Leinster and Munster are provincial teams, while the GAA Championship is contested by county sides. Comparing Bohemians with the Dubs makes no sense. A more accurate comparison would be with Na Fianna or Thomas Davis.

Likewise, Cork City should not be compared with Munster rugby. A fairer comparison would be with Cork Constitution, the current club rugby champions.

The fact is that the League of Ireland is the best attended and most popular club competition in Ireland. No other clubs in Ireland can attract 2,000 people every second week for nine months.

Rather than crying into our pints about how the world doesn't love us, isn't it time we concentrated more on celebrating that fact and enjoying what we have?

Our league isn't an elite global competition but there's nothing wrong with that. Life would be lonely and miserable if we couldn't love anything that wasn't the best in the world.

We have talented, honest players who always give 100 per cent. We have a community of faces in every stadium; hundreds of people who you've never spoken to but whom you'll always share a nod.

February is too late for making resolutions but here's mine anyway: enjoy what we have and don't worry about what we don't. Let's enjoy our community for what it is and stop fixating on people who don't get it.

We get it. Isn't that enough?

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