“Best fans in the world”? Not quite…

by Niall Farrell

By a lonely harbour wall, She watched the last star falling
And that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she’ll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay.

Gerard Pique said he’d remember it for as long as he lives. 30,000 Irish fans, on the other side of Europe, belting out that staple of rare trips abroad – the Fields of Athenry. “That’s football” exclaimed Pique on his Twitter after his side hammered their Irish counterparts 4-0 in Gdansk. Ireland were out of Euro 2012, a ten-year wait for a major tournament hardly seemed worthwhile. And yet, the fans kept on singing. German and French television cut their commentary with five minutes left to listen to the Irish sing. English commentators roundly proclaimed Irish fans as the “best in the world”. Even Robin Van Persie and Fabrice Muamba, via twitter, joined in. And as a nation, we wallowed in it. The Sunday papers and morning radio talk shows jumped up and down on the corpse of Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign while bombastically roaring about how good the fans were and how it’s great that we have something to smile about at last. Yes, it seemed like it was true. We, the Irish, love football.

Most of the press and public rounded on Roy Keane when he said otherwise, too. Keane, by his very nature a divisive figure in Ireland, wondered whether it was right that Irish fans and players should celebrate coming out of Euro 2012 with nothing to show for it. Yet, for some of us at home, the sight of all those Irish fans in Gdansk, along with many FAI administrators, made us feel a bit queasy.

How could the Irish fans be the best fans in the world when they don’t even bother to go to matches? The Aviva stadium is half-full for most international matches, but the lack of interest in football is felt most keenly in the Airtricity League. Today, Monaghan United announced that they would be leaving senior football.

Mons, struggling at the bottom of the Premier Division, had been in financial trouble for the past season. Chairman Jim McGlone tried to talk about “a new beginning” for the club this morning, but whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be any consolation for players or fans of the 33-year old club. Former Ireland under-21 international midfielder Stephen Maher said that he found out he had no club via Twitter. Manager Roddy Collins had been adamant that the newly-promoted Mons would stay up this season, but he and all of the club’s staff have had their contracts terminated.

Why did Monaghan go bust? Why is Monaghan United the latest in a long line of Irish clubs to go bust? The answer is simple. Not enough people support them. McGlone said in his statement that

[with] the club’s inability to tie down a anchor sponsor, coupled with the rising costs of membership of senior football and the lack of support from the national league… it was felt that no other option was available.

The lack of support from sponsors (and some would argue, the national league) mirrors the lack of support from fans. Monaghan’s record attendance (in their 3,500 capacity Gortakeegan stadium) was 3,000, but that was way back in their first season of League of Ireland football – 1985.

I don’t want to blame those 30,000 people out in Gdansk. True, some have saved up for months to go out and support the boys in green. Many have watched football for years now, convinced that watching British teams financed by capital from the four corners of the earth is a true experience of what it is to be a fan. For those few hard-working people who worked at Monaghan United, as well as the fans who did turn out to see them, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

On trips to Monaghan, it’s quite common to see Celtic, Liverpool and Manchester United jerseys in abundance. I’ve never seen the blue-and-white stripes displayed on anyone on a non-matchday. The ‘terrace talk’ is of Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, or of Ian Rush and Henrik Larsson – not of Billy Bagster or Seamus Finnegan. The ‘best fans in the world’ may be dedicated, but they are not dedicated to Irish football. Tolka Park, Dalymount, Terryland Park and the Carlisle Grounds are half empty, except when a ‘big’ British club comes to play a friendly. Do we really love football? Is singing a song about the Famine every ten years really supporting the sport? Is that football after all?

This wasn’t meant to be a rant. As I said, I don’t blame any fan of British football for supporting ‘their’ team. But if you do one thing after you come home from Poland with the memories of all the ‘great craic’ intact, go to see your local club. 

29 Responses

  1. conor says:

    the over pricing of irish games(internationals) , and the influence of the english game stopped the league of ireland improving from the 60’s an 70’s.Fans where more intrested in english teams

  2. James Young says:

    Really interesting piece Niall and close to my heart. For a while now I’ve been convinced that what I know as fan culture is slowly dying. I grew up watching football in 90% empty stadiums in Belfast and beyond, though at least then the only real competition was from across the water. Now increased TV/internet access to football worldwide means the “kid in the street” is as likely to say he supports Barcelona or Real as Monaghan (happening already here in Brazil).

    This expectation that many younger fans have to be able to watch the best in the world is fuelled by an often sneering media, who pour scorn on domestic leagues that fail to reach such dizzy heights (Scottish football seems to be a favourite target).

    There are probably bigger issues too, such as the changing nature of local communities. To finish, I recently went back to watch a game at Man City, where I was a season ticket holder in the 90s. Watching such fantastic players was great, but the muted, “go on, do something brilliant” atmosphere was a far cry from the old Maine Road bear pit, where the football was rubbish, but there was a tremendous identification between team and fans.

    And yes, I am a Luddite.

    Cheers.

  3. Declan Hughes says:

    Would you be interested in participating in an edition of The Absolute Game on Dublin City FM? We go out on Monday nights from 8-9 on 103.2 Dublin City FM and on the web http://www.dublincityfm.ie contact me via the facebook page listed http://www.facebook.com/theabsolutegame and let me know. Very good piece by the way spot on.

    The so called greatest fans in the world don’t realise that without a domestic league there would be no Republic of Ireland international team . This point forced the formation of the League of Wales in 1992.

    1. Neil Sherwin Neil Sherwin says:

      Hi Declan,

      I’ve passed your details on to Niall so he should be in touch with you in due course.

      Neil (Editor)

  4. Rob Hartnett says:

    Being at a live sporting event has a magic that many don’t believe is worth it any more. It does not have action replays, commentary or dizzying shots from a cable in the sky. It has reality rather than augmented reality.

    The focus for attendance tends now to be around the major events. Waterford Vs Clare yesterday drew only 12,000 and the Women’s Euro 2013 Qualifier in Cork less than 700.

    Facilities are an expensive way to draw people back but promotion is overlooked by too many clubs in the Airtricity Premier League.

    I wrote on http://www.sportforbusiness.com in March about the commercial profile of each of the Premier Clubs and take no pleasure in re-reading between the lines about the lack of sponsors at Monaghan and the reverting to the original name of the once sponsored Gortakeegan.

    Looking elsewhere through the piece Drogheda wer highlighted as having the slickest presentation and lo and behold they have a shirt sponsor. Poor Monaghan were also bottom of our Twitter League table and if you can’t talk yourself up then how will people get excited?

    There are businesses anxious and able to get involved in sport but they need to feel that their investment will have some reward. Loyalty and excitement from the fans is an absolute must.

  5. PoP76 says:

    The fans have very little to do with it. MLS is not just surviving, but almost thriving in a country where football is the 4th sport. Why?

    – At the youth level there is a concentration on skill from coaches
    – The stadia are nicer and size-appropriate
    – Naming rights for teams, creating much needed revenue
    – TV exposure of star league players
    – No relegation means clubs don’t have to worry about income shortfalls in “year 2″
    – Franchise system means if a club isn’t getting support in one part of the country, it will be moved to another part yet retain it’s identity
    – Franchise system also means that the league HAS to support its teams

    What LOI football fails in that MLS gets right?

    – It doesn’t deliver quality football; the games are horrendous to watch compared to PL games
    – The best Irish players are in England anyway
    – Majority of LOI fans would be concentrated in Dublin, Cork, Derry. Having teams in Monaghan and other outposts that are especially strong on the GAA side is asking for trouble in the long run
    – The LOI doesn’t aggressively compete with GAA on a business level
    – The LOI doesn’t work with the FAI to raise playing standards of players to make it more attractive to the watching fan
    – The LOI clubs should look at themselves as selling clubs like Dutch league clubs and focus on developing great youth players to sell on to English/Continental clubs to maintain running costs in an effective, economic manner

    There is a lot of work the the FAI, the LOI and LOI clubs could and should be doing to improve the standard of football to make it attractive for Irish fans to support the LOI teams, before the onus falls on the fans to do their bit. Demand creates supply, and football fans demand a lot more than what the LOI in general has to offer. Be progressive. Make style more important that wins. Put on a show. Stop hiring dinosaurs like Roddy Collins and start hiring young modern coaches who have a different view of training and playing. The LOI in general has to look at becoming the “go-to” people for other, richer clubs for young, relatively cheap technical players who delight the fans for a few years before moving on – and then continuing that conveyer belt ad infinitum

    1. oooitsalady says:

      MLS is America’s fourth sport? No. Just no.

      The NHL still surpasses MLS, in terms of TV coverage, revenue generated (MLS generates millions; NHL still generates BILLIONS), and never mind that many NHL teams have some serious history behind them. Are you going to tell me that people love their New York Red Bulls (are you kidding me with that name?!) more than they love their New York Rangers? Seriously? Nevermind that ticket prices for MLS games are far cheaper than the Big Four Sports.

      And MLS play is TERRIBLE! Flat out horrible. There are very few “stars” in MLS; many good American players go overseas. I’d rather watch Premier League or Serie A football than watch MLS, and this is coming from an American fan. I won’t pretend MLS is on the same level as the NHL or even other domestic league in other countries. The only thing the MLS has that LOI might not have is lots of money to have thrown at it.

      http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/m-l-s-salaries-a-bigger-pot-but-its-still-half-full/

  6. Liam says:

    Great post. I was one of those belting out the Fields of Athenry in Gdansk on Thursday but I’ll also be in Turners Cross on Friday and every second Friday until October 19th. To be fair the LOI is well represented out in Poland but if a fraction of the tens of thousands out there turned up at their local LOI game every now and again Irish football would be a lot healthier.

  7. orieldude says:

    You have thoroughly not got it here.

    I’m a Dundalk fan, just back from Poland. I can’t stand the Fields of Athenry as a song, but when the fans sang the other night it was to show the players that we wouldn’t turn on them and that we were proud of our identity as Irish men and women – despite adversity. We weren’t trying to be ‘the best fans in the world’. And besides even that line is misunderstood – it’s not meant to be taken literally as if you can quantify such a thing, it just means we don’t cause trouble and we recognise when our team has tried its best. In that scenario, and at that time, the club you choose to support is utterly irrelevant.

    As for Monaghan it’s an isolated town of 7,000 in a lightly populated area with sod all public transport and sod all in the way of facilities. The team itself only came into being in the mid ’80s. If the League was a serious League, then a town like Monaghan would never have a team in the top flight in the first place.

  8. Mike says:

    What stadium is Niall pictured at in his profile pic and what jersey is he wearing? Glasshouse, stones etc…

    1. Neil Sherwin Neil Sherwin says:

      Niall goes to League of Ireland games week in, week out. That’s the basic and obvious difference…

      1. Mike says:

        Fair enough. My bad. Thanks for reply neil

    2. That’s a Shels jersey, no?

  9. Neish says:

    Great article, as a Finn Harps fan I was very sad to hear the news this afternoon that Monaghan have had to withdraw for the LOI. Always enjoyed my many trips to Gortakeegan & found every one there very helpful and friendly. Having been involved in various different fundraisers etc with Harp I know how hard it is to get money in the current climate and know how har a decision this must of been for those involved at Monaghan United. I wish them all the best in the future and hope to see them back in LOI at some stage

  10. Oisin says:

    People should check out the docu short The Home Crowd about this very subject. Was put together by LOI fans.

  11. Andy C says:

    Interestingly, the situation is almost the polar opposite of the position in England, where many who devotedly watch club football are ambivalent towards, if not totally disinterested in, the national team.

  12. RG Cuan says:

    Interesting article and I agree with the general sentiment regarding people who support British club teams instead of Irish club teams but there are other factors at work too.

    The Irish national soccer team offers the only opportunity (apart from Rugby in recent years) for the population to get behind their nation. This therefore brings all LOI supporters together as well as the general population who want to see their country do well. Hence the heightened numbers, especially at the big occassions.

    One of the main reasons however that the soccer leagues north & south suffer (apart from the fact that two separate leagues are not fully viable in today’s economy) is that soccer is not the sporting or cultural heart of the community for the majority of Irish people, GAA is. Gaelic footballers & supporters who aren’t interested in local soccer get behind the national team as it’s one of the only times they can show national pride on an international level.

  13. Steve says:

    In all this moral outrage about fans supporting their country in a major tournament, and practically criminalising fans for not booing their own team or going to LOI why is there never a mention that LOI should be ashamed of themselves for not being able to engage with 30,000 – 40,000 people who are really enthusiastic about passionately supporting even the crappiest team so long as there as sense that craic is involved. Wake up LOI, people aren’t morally obliged to go, but you are financially obliged to get them there, which is why these opinion pieces blaming genuine fans for not being enough of a “fan” (like 10year olds arguing over who’s dad is toughest) piss me off, completely missing the point.

  14. gary mccafferty says:

    Great piece and a great site. The LOI needs to be in population centers. Monaghan is not one. They also need a team in Belfast. Forget about the IFA, just put a non-sectarian team ( Belfast Mariners) in that city. You need a core group, and 4 others, which will change. Relegation has to go. It is an English model not suited to Ireland. Delaney and his price tag are a disgrace. Pay the new fella 120.000. The net saving of 300,000 should go to an advertising campaign. I.m sure the likes of Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Robbie Keene, dennis O’brien, would give of themselves gladly to promote the league. How about a shoutout from Persepolis from Eammon Zayed or from England by James Mclean or Wes Holahan. We must be a conveyor gate to the EPL. But remember, the whole world is just such a conveyor gate.

  15. gary mccafferty says:

    Great piece and a great site. The LOI needs to be in population centers. Monaghan is not one. They also need a team in Belfast. Forget about the IFA, just put a non-sectarian team ( Belfast Mariners) in that city. You need a core group, and 4 others, which will change. Relegation has to go. It is an English model not suited to Ireland. Delaney and his price tag are a disgrace. Pay the new fella 120.000. The net saving of 300,000 should go to an advertising campaign. I.m sure the likes of Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Robbie Keene, dennis O’brien, would give of themselves gladly to promote the league. How about a shoutout from Persepolis from Eammon Zayed or from England by James Mclean or Wes Holahan.

  16. D_mc1 says:

    Why do I have to support league of Ireland to be considered an Irish fan… I have no interest in LOI or the English Premiership but I’ll support the national team until I die! Irish fans are the best in the world… ask around… I’m not making this sh#t up!!

    1. Declan Hughes says:

      If there’s no LOI then the Republic of Ireland would lose their national team. This is why the League of Wales was formed in 1992, the Football Association of Wales were told form a national League or lose your representative team. And as for no national team for the Republic of Ireland… well we could always play for Northern Ireland instead right? It would be an All Ireland team by default run from Belfast and playing many of it’s home games in Windsor….

  17. Shane says:

    Good article, agree 100%. ‘The best fans in the world’ are supporters of events rather than Irish football.
    I wonder how many of the 30,000 pay monthly subscriptions to Sky Sports and have never been to a LOI game? …would be an interesting stat.

  18. James Murphy says:

    It’s to with how you grow. Its almost impossible just to start supporting a team if you have no history with them. Then there is the competition. I live on a budget…. I am a dedicated Armagh fan. I choose to spend my money on their games rather then soccer ones. I’m sure many others are the same.

  19. conor o neill says:

    knobend

  20. MonMan says:

    This article has completely missed the point. The fans didnt sing that night to gain any crowns, neither were they in fact to know that their singing was to create such a media frenzy. Probably half of the fans that made the trip to Poland were there primarily for a holiday. I myself am an avid fan of Irish football and have attended games in the Aviva since the Euro’s however, I had, like the thousands of other Irish that travelled, saved for months in advance to get there. I even spoke to people who had sold cars e.t.c to raise the funds to attend, so would it really be appropriate to ask people who had put so much effort into getting there, do be depressed or show negativity just because things didnt go our way. Also the title relates to more than just singing at a match, we set a precedent over in Poland how to behave in a manner that is humorous and respectable too. In relation to the Monaghan United topic, I am from Monaghan, and attended games in Gortakeegan, to blame the lack of fan interest in Monaghan for the demise of the senior team is irresponsible. The way the club is run is absolutely appalling. No effort was made by the club to increase attendance figures. The club built an all weather pitch that they now have debt on, which has turned out to have a completely sub standard surface. Now im sure those in charge have the best interests of the club at heart but they have not got the capabilities of managing a club. So maybe it is worth focusing more blame at the FAI who should be educating those in charge of clubs how to best run them. When we eventually realise that football is as much a business as a way of life, we might actually see a change in fortune of our league.

  21. James Clancy James Clancy says:

    People who actively support the England national team tend to support lower/non league clubs.

  22. Tom says:

    very good point.I have lived in the UK for nearly ten years and I dont know one premiership club fan who is more passionate about the national side. In fact many of them actively don’t really care for a variety of reasons. Namely, their club played more regular and better football against much better opposition. Manchester United Vs Real Madrid is a far better prospect than an away friendly involving England Vs Moldova. To Ireland fans, no League of Ireland game will match Rep of Ireland in a Euros or World Cup. Hence the disproportionate fan turn out and passion. So lets not be critical shall we. Its just logical.

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