Growing up in Ireland I was never given the choice, so to speak, to support an Irish club as my ‘first team’. Like most Irish football fans, I support Liverpool.
Strong cultural and historical links between Liverpool and Ireland make the connection, alongside the fact Liverpool were immensely successful for over 30 years straight, quite easy.
I did attend Irish club games in my youth though, my local side, Bohemians FC. Through attending a nearby school I’d be given free tickets from time to time – a clear incentive to try and gain a strong youthful fan-base.
After a few years I stopped going though. The facilities were very poor and the quality of football equally bad. Most of all though, it was the fact I already supported a side – Liverpool, and didn’t feel the same nor did I want to for Bohemians.
The ‘problem’ I suffered is indicative throughout Ireland. Fans are generally not given the opportunity to fall in love with a local side. The same issue, perhaps not on the same scale, exists in England too.
I know of many fans of lower league sides in England, who adopt a Premier League side as their ‘first team’. I’d assume this ‘two-team dynamic’ is apparent in Scotland too, where facilities and infrastructure throughout many clubs is also downtrodden.
This issue is exacerbated by Irish club fans who not only resent the FAI – Ireland’s football ruling body – but Irish national side fans who don’t support a club side.
This mentality only serves to widen the gap between club and national fans.
The FAI isn’t alone in the blame game though, much of the ownership of Irish club sides reflects the flagrant nature of spending throughout Ireland’s time of false wealth in The Celtic Tiger.
It’s widely acknowledged during this time of profligate spending, some players were earning up to €2,500 per week – way above anything sustainable. In recent years many clubs have met their end through financial difficulties. Sporting Fingal and Dublin City were lost completely while Limerick, Derry and Cork all had to reform following dissolution.
Only two clubs remain fully professional – Shamrock and Sligo Rovers.
More stringent financial ruling by the league means the likelihood of dissolution is less likely now, yet any incentives for growth remain sparse.
Since the appointment of Martin O’Neill as manager of the national side, he’s said he may have a look at players from the domestic league and assess if they can make the cut. Some players from the domestic league have featured in the past decade or so, such as Jason Byrne and Glen Crowe. Yet they were never close to being long-term fixtures in the side – and that was when the league possessed a higher quality.
Of the few who play domestically who stand out, are usually poached by English clubs. Kevin Doyle left Cork City for Reading while Wes Hoolahan left Shelbourne FC for Livingston – though he now plies his trade for Norwich in the Premier League.
Whether it should be the fans to start serious reform or the FAI, it seems like a is a case of chicken or the egg.
Yet something needs to happen. Reform of any kind always needs to start from the ground up, and if the FAI were seen as serious about instigating the growth of the domestic league, perhaps all football fans may join in on widespread reform.
As another league season in Ireland kicked off on Friday night, I hope it might see some new youthful fans taking the plunge and attending a game. You never know, you may find me there too.
By Kevin Kelly