Build it and they will come. But will they? Will League of Ireland clubs investing money they don’t really have into facilities they’ll struggle to maintain actually see domestic league grounds filled with Ireland’s “football public”?
The answer is probably not. Sure, some will come. Better facilities for those attending would always be welcome. And there’s the novelty factor, people like new things.
But the reality is that for most, poor facilities has always just been an idle excuse to stay away, something to beat our struggling clubs over the head with. The lack of serious interest in the League of Ireland isn’t something new seats, stands and even grounds will ever fix.
Proof isn’t really all that difficult to find. The FAI Cup Final has been played in a world class venue for several years now at knock down prices, but rarely has it been even close to half full.
Tallaght Stadium, despite being home to a strong Shamrock Rovers club that has worked hard since its arrival in the sprawling suburb to win local support, suffers similarly.
Indeed, the weakness in the facilities line of argument and the often-peculiar behaviour of the Irish football public were brought home to me over the summer. Back in May, I took the kids down to the Carlisle Grounds to watch the European Under 17 tie between Spain and Austria.
To my surprise, I was by no means alone – as Bray’s little ground, as basic in terms of facilities as they come, was full.
A few weeks ago, we went to Tallaght to watch the FAI Cup Second Round game between Shamrock Rovers and Drogheda United, then leaders of the First Division. On a fine summer’s evening, the stadium was largely empty.
A little anecdotal perhaps, but it would appear that facilities have little to do with what drives the Irish soccer public to attend a football match.
If it were as straightforward as that, then Tallaght would throb every home game as it did in the derby against Bohemians, and the Carlisle Grounds would have been as forlorn for the underage European affair as it is on a typical Friday night.
But even if facilities were the answer, just how are clubs always strapped for cash supposed to fund the required infrastructural improvements? They certainly can’t do it from income, and there are as of yet few private investors out there desperate to get in on the ground.
Go to the banks? They’d be laughed out of the branch. Money for a new stand, a roof, seats – for whom exactly? “There’s a super ground in Tallaght,” they might point out “that’s often half empty despite the best efforts of the tenant club in terms of marketing, community involvement etc. – if they can’t get the crowds into their excellent facility, what makes you think fans will come and effectively help you pay off the loan we’re not going to give you anyway?”
Maybe the government might chip in, or the councils? Well, let’s face it, the record there is hardly grounds for optimism, Tallaght aside.
But couldn’t the football loving public make a difference? Couldn’t an increase in crowds going to games change the picture? Couldn’t going to a local game, whilst not letting your club across the water (who don’t really need you) walk entirely alone, be a game changer here? Wouldn’t crowds at games attract the attention of investors, the government, the council, advertisers, TV?
But that brings us to the real question – what actually will consistently make the average football lover in Ireland express that love by passing through a local turnstile? The answer remains largely a mystery.
Channelling money they don’t have into facilities is surely not going to turn the tide – and certainly not on its own. And for all that others may champion marketing, community integration, match day experience – the reality is that the real answer lies with those who have let down football in this country the most over the years.
And no, I don’t mean the FAI – who are more a by-product of the real culprits. And I don’t mean the clubs – for too long an easy target.
No, I mean the vast majority of people in Ireland who profess passion for the game but who fail to see the link between their non-attendance and their dismissiveness and the sorry state of domestic football stretching back decades.
Ultimately the point is this – the game in Ireland is the responsibility of football fans here. No one else cares, and no one else, despite often much fine talk, is going to revive it.
If you want it to be a decent product, one to be proud of – no, not a rival to the Premier League – just one to be proud of, then the onus is on you, if football is your game, to take an interest, to invest a bit of your time and a little of your money through a turnstile. No other grand plan is required. The football public has the power – it always has.