The Irish footballing revolution which is currently being spearheaded by Stephen Kenny, only the second manager to take the Republic of Ireland hotseat having previously coached in the League of Ireland since 1985, has provided Irish fans of all ages with the hope that the future is bright for football on the Emerald Isle.
It would not be absurd to present the argument that League of Ireland clubs throughout the country might become indirect beneficiaries of the recently rekindled bond between the Irish international team and casual football fans in Ireland.
With the 2022 SSE Airtricity League campaign kicking off on Friday, February 18, here are four reasons why you should buy into supporting your local club this year, to help plug the gaps in your calendar between the national side’s staggered fixtures:
The price is right
As Eric Cantona once said:
The real fans of football come from the working class. Now they cannot afford to come and watch the game.
The biggest attraction to giving the League of Ireland a chance this season is that the words of the Manchester United legend do not ring true on this side of the Irish Sea.
Whilst the cost to visit the likes of the Emirates Stadium or Stamford Bridge has drastically increased over the last few decades, the #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld provides Irish football lovers with the opportunity to cheaply access the beautiful game on their own doorstep.
The most eye-watering season ticket price boasted by a League of Ireland club is Finn Harps’ €5 primary school student season ticket. For the same €40 that the Glazer family charge for a simple pair of Manchester United Adidas three-stripe joggers for a child aged 4 to 5 years old, a similarly aged child from the hills of Donegal could book their place at Finn Park for the entirety of their primary school education.
A club offering a child the opportunity to attend each of their hometown club’s 18 top-flight home games for less than 28 cent a game is utterly remarkable, and is the sort of initiative which can help to foster a positive relationship between the Irish youth and their native league.
As a recent tweet from League of Ireland champions Shamrock Rovers put it:
Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a TV show.
As has been the case in recent years, Tallaght Stadium once again reigns supreme in regard to being the place to be for older football fans, with Rovers offering €200 adult season ticket prices, as well as providing the most accessible prices for students and OAPs, with their concession tickets coming in at €100.
The easier accessibility to domestic football in comparison to that overseas is an integral reason for why Irish football fans need to realise that there is far much more to football than solely watching the Cristiano Ronaldos, Mohamed Salahs and Kevin De Bruynes of the world from their armchair.
Jack is back
From Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles in 1970 to Michael Jordan’s abrupt retirement from basketball in the midst of the 1993/1994 NBA season, it has long been evident that the departure of the most illustrious name from a group or organisation can have a significantly negative effect on the audience appeal generated by a certain product.
This can clearly be seen in the case of Jack Byrne who traded Dublin for Nicosia when he signed for the Cypriot outfit APOEL FC in January 2021.
During his time in Tallaght, the former St. Kevin’s Boys starlet not only claimed the PFAI Player of the Year in both 2019 and 2020, but also earned international call-ups from both Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny, ultimately paving the way for Byrne to make history by becoming the first League of Ireland player to receive a competitive cap with Ireland since Pat Byrne, also of Shamrock Rovers, in November 1985.
Losing a player of this calibre undoubtedly weakened the marketability of domestic Irish football. Whilst it would be outlandish to put forward the claim that the League of Ireland lost any fans following the former Manchester City youth star’s exit, it can certainly be argued that the hole left by losing its most prominent player resulted in the league failing to attract some new potential fans in the past year.
However, after calling a halt to his time in Cyprus after a turbulent nine months which featured the sacking of former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, and saw Byrne only take to the pitch on a mere five occasions due to a back injury, the 25-year-old midfielder has made the decision to return to his hometown with the objective of helping Rovers clinch a third consecutive league title.
The four-time-Irish-international was unveiled to the Rovers crowd at the back end of the 2021 season prior to the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Drogheda United.
The video of this unveiling is necessary viewing for anyone sceptical of just how big this development is for Irish football. As Byrne took to the pitch serenaded by a rousing rendition of Dirty Old Town, he was swarmed by a large group of children, each of which desperate to get a photograph with the prodigal son.
Following this impromptu photoshoot, as Byrne made his way down the Tallaght Park sideline basking in the adulation of the Rovers faithful, his beaming smile may lead one to wonder whether he was envisioning a prolonged European adventure with the Hoops in 2022.
Whilst it goes without saying that Byrne’s return will be most fondly received by Rovers followers, it is difficult to dispute that fans who are eager to get involved with the League of Ireland for the first time might be attracted to the story of one of, if not the league’s most talented player looking to get his career back up and running.
Britain’s pain, Ireland’s gain
The Republic of Ireland was recently named by FIFA as the country that had transferred the most players under 18 years of age to clubs abroad, with a significant proportion of the players in question following the journeyed path of trading in Irish football for the opportunity of making a name for themselves in England.
It is often difficult to dispute the decision of these young players to set sail for Britain, considering the financial benefits accrued, as well as the fact that throughout time the Irish national team has primarily been made up of English-based players.
Up until recently this trend has continued at much the same pace as it always has, with English clubs picking and choosing which 16-year-old prodigies would become the newest additions to academy set-ups nationwide, much to the detriment of Irish club football.
After leaving the European Union however, British clubs can no longer avail of the exemption which permits European clubs to sign under 18s from fellow EU sides.
This significant sporting implication of Brexit has somewhat levelled the playing field between the ‘mercenaries’ of English football and the Irish outfits who can now in many cases keep hold of their rising stars, at least for another year or two longer than they may have previously been afforded to.
Notwithstanding this, some of Ireland’s most promising teenagers will still depart their respective Irish clubs at an early age, as we have seen in recent weeks with the well-documented moves of James Abankwah and Cathal Heffernan to the Serie A.
However, the dream of playing in the Premier League has been instilled in the mind of every Irish youngster from Malin to Mizen, and will likely result in many of Ireland’s most highly touted teenagers hanging around for a while longer than they may have initially expected, meaning that the quality of the League of Ireland should only prosper over the coming years.
Anyone intending to hop on the League of Ireland bandwagon this season might want to keep an eye on upcoming talents such as Mayowa Animasahun of Dundalk, Jad Hakiki of Shelbourne, Jamie Mullins of Bohemians and Conor Walsh of Sligo Rovers. Mullins and Walsh in particular, are two prime examples of players who may spend an additional couple of years in Ireland due to the implications of Brexit, with the pair having already spent time training with Brighton & Hove Albion and Everton respectively.
Duffer’s at the wheel
An article published by The Economic Times which outlined the ‘moments that broke the internet in 2021’ ranged from the storming of the US Capitol to the blocking of the Suez Canal.
It remains to be seen whether or not the writer of this article purposefully omitted the unveiling of Irish football legend Damien Duff as the new manager of Shelbourne FC from the list.
Described by Brian Kerr as the “highest profile person to come back and get involved in Irish football since Johnny Giles”, the announcement of Duff as Shels manager last November has added to the collective buzz and unity amongst Shelbourne fans, which had already been elevated by last season’s promotion, as well as growing support for the Save Tolka Park campaign.
The acquisition of a man who has worked in a coaching capacity with the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Celtic and the Republic of Ireland senior team is a clear statement of intent from the Drumcondra-based club, who will be desperately hoping to beat the drop in the top-flight for the first time since 2012.
Whilst it is too early to say whether or not the two-time Premier League champion’s winning mentality will rub off on his squad, it cannot be denied that the decision made by the former Chelsea winger to take this job will result in a lot more eyes veering towards the product of domestic Irish football.
This has been proven by RTÉ’s decision to broadcast Duff’s first competitive game with the reds as Shelbourne begin their 2022 campaign at home against St Patrick’s Athletic on the opening day of the new SSE Airtricity Premier Division season.
The arrival of Duff’s former Irish teammate Joey O’Brien as assistant manager at Tolka Park highlighted the pull which Shels now have, a point which has been reinforced with arrivals such as loanee Jordan McEneff from Arsenal.
The announcement that this was the club’s final foray into the transfer market put a temporary end to the romantic rumours that Duffer is extremely attracted by the possibility of bringing Wes Hoolahan back to Drumcondra after almost two decades on the other side of the Irish Sea.
However, good things come to those who wait.
The first round of fixtures for the 2022 SSE Airtricity Premier Division can be found below:
- Friday, February 18 | Dundalk v Derry City | KO 19:45
- Friday, February 18 | Shelbourne v St Patrick’s Athletic | KO 19:45
- Friday, February 18 | Finn Harps v Drogheda United | KO 20:00
- Friday, February 18 | Shamrock Rovers v UCD | KO 20:00
- Saturday, February 19 | Sligo Rovers v Bohemians| KO 19:45