It’s that time of year again, the beginning of the English Premier League season, preceded recently by a glamour friendly played in the Aviva Stadium (in this case Liverpool v Celtic in the Dublin Decider) and the time is ripe for that hoary old chestnut of the “barstooler” versus the “real fan” to be brought up. Similar articles were published in the newspapers some three years ago on the occasion of the match between an Airtricity League XI and Manchester United shortly after the re-opening of Lansdowne Road as the Aviva Stadium.
Why I was moved to put pen to paper (or more accurately fingers to keyboard) on the issue was the query raised in recent articles as to whether League of Ireland supporters would “be happy to have their regular seats taken up by the blow-ins without complaining about where they were five years ago?” and whether these supporters have “a genuine desire to see greater crowds at games”. The image painted of the average League of Ireland fan is one of close-minded insularity, if not a form of downright aggressive exclusionism. It seems to be posited in the piece that a League of Ireland supporter would actively discourage new fans supporters from attending a match in some sort of desperate attempt to safeguard a cliquish intimacy in preference to larger crowds and a more financially healthy football club. These quotes from Aidan O’Hara’s piece in the Irish Independent were followed up by former St. Patrick’s Athletic CEO Richie Sadlier a few days later, with these choice words about the behaviour of League of Ireland fans. According to Sadlier, “jeering those who choose to watch better players at foreign clubs playing superior football only makes League of Ireland fans sound like the kind of people most football fans would like to avoid”.
Before we look at this a little further, a confession; I’ve been to Old Trafford, and Anfield, Goodison Park, Camp Nou, San Siro, plenty of different stadiums to see the great names of European football. I was also in Lansdowne Road for the “Dublin Decider” as a result of the generosity of an organisation that regularly works with the company that employs me. What’s more, I got to sit in an executive box. In short, I was both barstooler and prawn sandwich muncher (as a side note, there were neither stools nor prawn sandwiches provided to me). So how can I possibly reconcile this with membership of my local League of Ireland team? Quite easily. I’m a football fan. I was offered a ticket to a match, I didn’t have anything on, so I went to the game. Because I love the game, I of course want to see the best players. Living in Ireland we have relative ease of access to any number of high quality European leagues, and I feel no guilt what so ever in wanting to see Bayern Munich or Real Madrid play live. But crucially I feel that in this regard is that I’m no different from the majority of League of Ireland fans.
I wonder how the journalists who penned the quotes above arrived at a point where they questioned whether local fans would rather have smaller crowds (and consequently have financially struggling clubs playing worse football) rather than welcome new fans to a ground. I’ll use Bohemians as an example, simply because they’re the club I’m most familiar with; the Dalymount club bars screened the “Dublin Decider” for those that couldn’t get tickets, they ran drinks promotions and offers to encourage people into the club. This is not unique, the club does this for Ireland games, the final of the African Cup of Nations, and many other matches. Why? Because they want people to come into the stadium, have a drink in the bar and maybe come back next week to see a game. Many people I know from League of Ireland matches have an English team. I know of two Bohemians members who went to the recent Shamrock Rovers v Aston Villa friendly simply because one of them was a big Villa fan. Let’s just look at that for a second: a Bohs member willingly contributed money to Shamrock Rovers because he is also a Villa fan and nobody was calling him a barstooler. Another Bohemians Member, very active in fundraising for the supporters trust, is a life-long Chelsea fan who regularly travels to Stamford Bridge. I also counted plenty of Liverpool and Man Utd jerseys and tops in the crowd at the recent Bohs versus Rovers derby. Were they new fans coming along for a big game or were they regulars who supported an English team? Well, they were a mixture of both and, most importantly, nobody really cared.
The exclusionary bigot League of Ireland fan, which is so often the pejorative image portrayed, is really very rare. Obviously, as with any football club, there are those loud and condescending fans who attract attention on Twitter or on messageboards (who were, perhaps, the basis of both previously mentioned articles) but, happily, in my own experience, they are very much in the minority. As a regular attendee of League of Ireland games, I can confirm that the overwhelming majority of fans are hugely welcoming to new people in the stadium. In fact, most League of Ireland fans are pretty much unpaid part-time salespeople for their clubs, encouraging people to games, putting up posters, and doing leaflet drops amongst other things. I can say that I have witnessed many of these types of people in grounds up and down the country, including those clubs that I’ve had the pleasure to visit north of the border as part of Setanta Cup games. It is interesting to note that while Sadlier made reference to Pat’s fans making complaints and whinging about the FAI, the GAA and other groups for their clubs shortcomings, in his article he never mentioned the unpaid volunteers who give so much to every League of Ireland club. As a former CEO of St. Pat’s, one can only assume that he was aware of the existence of such people and must have encountered them in his role?
In fact if you take a look around the message boards of certain larger English premier league clubs you can find plenty of posts where local fans wax lyrical about Irish visitors to games. The Irish are often either a figure of fun, derided for their attempts to portray themselves as a real Scouser or Mancunian etc. or are viewed as a nuisance along with other foreign fans who are viewed as being partially responsible for pricing out or excluding local supporters. There is also the slightly more generous view taken by some season ticket holders who see Irish and other foreign fans as a handy market for tickets to less attractive ties, a good source of income for those unwanted tickets for Crystal Palace’s visit. Again this is not to say that this is a view held by all UK-based English Premier League clubs but I would argue it is as prevalent of the League of Ireland bigot that seems to be exclusively referenced in the articles mentioned.
The recent O’Hara article further suggested that schools (which are closed for the summer months of the season lest we forget) and soccer camps should be targeted by League of Ireland clubs as a potential source of new fans, and that free or discounted tickets should be distributed. I can honestly say I don’t know of a club that doesn’t do something like this already. In fact, most have done so for years. Going back to the Bohemians example again; at pretty much every game there is a schoolboy or girl match at half-time featuring local teams.
While there are myriad flaws in the domestic game in Ireland, and Sadlier’s article does highlight a good number and offer some solutions, there is much that goes under-reported, or, in this case, misrepresented. There is often criticism in the media of John Delaney and the FAI, however this type of criticism tends to have a narrow focus centred around the International senior team and management, and little comment is passed on how the league is run or promoted or that the CEO’s salary is several multiples the size of prize money given to the League champions (a reported salary of €340,000 versus prize money of €100,000). It is also seldom noted that the while our senior league is a summer one, all schoolboy football runs on the old calendar, and that rather than providing a logical progression route to senior league football, the football pyramid in Ireland is hugely dysfunctional and riven with competing interests.
When criticising the league in future, and there are many valid criticisms to be made, it would be far more constructive for well-known figures like O’Hara and particularly Sadlier to address them by avoiding perpetuating lazy cliches by the examples of Twitter loudmouths who unequivocally do not represent their entire club or league, and provide a bit of context for the clubs’ various struggles. If there is a problem with our league I find it surprising and illogical for two pieces in a national newspaper to highlight the league’s supporters as a common problem, as though the people who support the league both emotionally and financially are its major drawback. The problem with the league is its fans, not lack of investement, proper youth structure or mismanagment apparently?
There is a power relations dynamic here: if the Manchester United fan is derided as a barstooler by a Cork City fan, does it really mean that much? The Man Utd fan has blanket media coverage and a broad Irish footballing consensus that sees them as normal or valued. The Cork City fan has little wide scale media coverage, and in addition, occasional digs from the press that he or she is in fact the problem that is holding back their team or league. He or she will be asked who they support and when they answer “Cork City”, will usually be met with a confused stare or at best a follow up question: “No, who do you really support? In England?”
If some fans become precious or insular about their domestic league, I don’t agree with them but at least I do understand them; as these two articles prove, they’re told they are inferior or backward on a regular basis. While we all accept that there are some mouths in League of Ireland circles, it bears re-emphasising that the vast majority of supporters are very welcoming and would only be too happy to see new supporters take a seat in your local stadium. I’ve written before about the benefits that are to be had from watching a game live, so I don’t want to re-tread old ground. However, suffice to say that for many reasons, watching a game live is a richer experience, and I think that a curious and open-minded football fan can find these experiences, even in the less glamorous domestic league.