Saturday 25 November 2017

'Plastic' fans should be wooed, not slated

ON THE same weekend as 80,000 crammed into the Oxegen festival, several Irish musicians were playing to loyal followers, and curious onlookers, in smaller venues throughout the country.

Most of the attendance at the lesser gigs probably enjoyed themselves, but resisted the temptation to ram the message down the throat of the Punchestown partyers: that they should have been supporting their own.

In that genre of music, there are two simple reasons why such bands aren't invited to play in front of thousands rather than hundreds -- either they haven't been discovered yet or, more likely, they simply aren't good enough.

Fast forward a few weeks to the Aviva Stadium, where tens of thousands cheered for foreigners instead of their own. A rather different reaction was forthcoming from those who look down from a self-appointed pedestal, proclaiming that anyone who went to support Manchester United, rather than the Airtricity XI, is somehow not a "real" football fan.

The beginning of the Premier League season tends to bring out the venom in the League of Ireland Jehovah's Witnesses who, not content with enjoying their own experience, feel it necessary to point out how those who don't feel the same way are following the wrong path.

Over the weekend, the "barstoolers" at whom they aim their ire were packed into pubs throughout the country, celebrating if their team (referred to as "we" or "us") won.


Tonight, many of the, ahem, 49,861 who went to football's opening night in the Aviva will be parked in front of the television to watch United open their Premier League campaign without giving a second thought to the League of Ireland's highlights show, MNS, an hour earlier. The ratio of viewing figures would probably be something similar to United's winning margin.

Yet there are those who continue to pontificate that there is something less worthy about their support even if, from Liverpool to Lincoln, the team has been in their lives longer than anything other than their family. And you can't choose your family.

Those who denigrate the ability of players in the league ought to try training with them for a day and see how long they last. Yet, despite being the best the domestic game has to offer, there aren't enough people who want to see them. Until that changes, all the positive spin in the world won't pull the wool over people's eyes. The laments are familiar: if only the media would give it more coverage; if only the reported stories surrounding the league weren't relentlessly negative; if only the Premier League monster wasn't on our doorstep. If my auntie had...

The problem with such a rationale is that supporters are more intelligent than they are given credit for and can see that, since the turn of the century, three of the league's champions -- Shelbourne, Cork and Drogheda -- have tried to live the dream and woke up in a financial nightmare. The only other champions, Bohemians, are now contemplating a return to part-time football. That there are clubs in Ireland paying players figures higher than their attendances are reaching can't be camouflaged by any amount of happy thoughts.

Yet even with a captive audience of over 40,000 in Ballsbridge, there was little attempt to bring a few of the alleged plastic supporters back to grounds around the country in the following weeks. How many of the "95,000" to whom John Delaney referred as having been at the first two games in the Aviva caught the bug of live football so much that they went back to a game last Friday night?

Perhaps free entry to a League of Ireland game with an international ticket stub might encourage a few more to come through the turnstiles. Even a reduced rate for an adult bringing a child, or a free bag of chips from Burdocks in Dalymount, might help the situation, where the same people go to the same games season-in, season-out while the teams they watch go from one crisis to another.

The loyalty of those supporters is commendable but not automatically more so than those, whose weekend is made or ruined by events across the water. Watching a team lose a game in the flesh or via teletext or its modern equivalent still brings on the same level of misery.

Tonight, the "we" brigade of United fans will rub plenty up the wrong way but, much like the game on the pitch, it might be easier for highly sensitive supporters to put up with the Premier League monster rather than taking on a fight they can never hope to win.

Irish Independent

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