Last Saturday was a busy day for Irish sports fans. Aside from the usual Premier League games to keep an eye on, the draw for the group stages of Euro 2016 cast a long shadow over the day.
If it felt as though we were waiting a long time for that draw to start in the early evening, it was a longer wait still for those brave (or foolhardy?) souls who stayed the course a further 12 hours to watch one of the most talked about Irish sporting events of the year – Conor McGregor vs Jose Aldo in UFC 194.
A cursory glance at social media showed just how many Irish fans had made the trip to Las Vegas to witness the bout in person. An apparently even larger contingent had decamped to ‘Sin City’ for McGregor’s previous fight in July.
The exponential growth in popularity of the new UFC featherweight champion has been incredible to witness, transforming as he has from a marginal attraction to the biggest selling name in Irish sport in just over two years.
McGregor is a new breed of Irish sportsman. Whereas before, we were a nation of humble, quiet athletes, McGregor craves all the attention he can get and carries himself with an enormous amount of arrogance and belief. He does not just think he is the best, he lets it be known very vocally. He is arrogant enough to call his shots but talented enough to back this up by landing them.
This attitude, this swagger and cockiness is one which has been copied by many of his adoring fans, who also have tailored their appearance to also mimic their hero: beards, tattoos, brightly coloured suits and sunglasses indoors. They still sing and chant as much as any Irish crowd ever did, but now it is mixed with insults against McGregor’s opponents.
It is not enough that their man should taunt his victim in the build up, the fans want to play their part too. They can do this because they believe that their man will back it all up by winning. McGregor’s new breed of sportsman has born out a new breed of Irish fans.
Many of the (mostly) young groups of Irish fans who travelled to Vegas for the fight, and more still at home who are equally in thrall to McGregor, will now be feverishly applying for tickets to follow the ‘Boys in Green’ to France in the summer of next year.
But how will this new breed of fan deal with the culture shock of supporting the Irish football team as opposed to McGregor? They are going from cheering along a swaggering confident champion to getting behind a team of men who will be likely underdogs in every game they play at the Euros.
Following Irish football tends to batter the arrogance out of a fan. The footballing history of Ireland reads mostly as a sporting tragedy, certainly not one that allows its fans to ever develop a swagger.
As much as it is the team’s duty, and definite aim, to progress as far as they can in the European Championships having qualified, for Ireland at major championships, to flip a famous McGregorism, it will always be about taking part rather than taking over.
That will be a bumpy return to Earth for those Irish who have become attached to McGregor, a man who has conquered every obstacle he has met in his sport with assured ease. There will be little or nothing either assured or easy about Ireland’s journey next summer.
Speaking in the wake of the draw on Saturday, Martin O’Neill admitted that Ireland’s group of Belgium, Italy and Sweden could scarcely have been tougher. He lamented the fact that Italy had been a Pot 2 team, claiming that it was, in effect, akin to having two Pot 1 teams but that regardless, it was time to begin preparing for what would be three very exciting games.
Can you imagine what McGregor’s reaction would have been to that draw? He would have called Zlatan an old gorilla and said that he was young, hungry and here to kill Zlatan and take everything he owned.
He would have looked at Italy with their history and tradition and told them that their time was up and that it was his time now. For Belgium and all their vibrant attackers, he would have had instructed them to wake up, that it was already over.
Maybe it is the constant down-trodden nature of Irish sporting fans that caused them to accept McGregor so whole-heartedly. Perhaps, having become accustomed to glorious failure and moral victories, they figured out that they like the taste of actual glory and victory far more.
Whatever the reason, McGregor’s bona fide superstar status means that his fan-base is only set to grow. Quite what that means for Irish fans at the Euros is unclear as yet.
While it is possible that this new-found Irish sporting confidence will be transferred to the football team – Shane Long may grow out his beard and Jon Walters may start to wear bolder suits – it is far more likely that a strange new duality will exist for those McGregor fans who will also support Ireland next summer.
By night – or 5am in the morning – they can swagger and preen along with their UFC champion and by day, they can be as nervous and worried as the rest of us watching Ireland go into battle in Group E.