Column: Kerry FC rekindled my love for football and that’s what the LOI does best
The League of Ireland should continue to prosper from here.
Last weekend’s sell-out FAI Cup final between St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians was another touchstone moment for a competition that is fast becoming one of the must-see events in the Irish sporting calendar.
It was the largest crowd ever to witness the Cup final. The fact it was two Dublin clubs involved obviously helped boost the numbers, but the Cup final has been steadily increasing since the FAI started marketing the event more cleverly in the 2010s.
While the Cup final can be seen as a standalone event, rising attendances are part of a wider trend of increased crowds at League of Ireland games more generally. Premier Division attendances have more than doubled since 2016 while attendances at First Division games have more than tripled.
What is behind this rise? One obvious answer is a growing disconnect between Irish football supporters and Premier League clubs. Those of us who grew up watching football in the mid to late 1990s would have been used to Irish players being key components of the biggest Premier League clubs.
The FAI Cup Final crowd of 43,881 exceeded the attendance for 2023 finals in Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark 🤯
— LOI Radar (@LOI_Radar) November 13, 2023
Premier League disconnect.
Now, most Ireland internationals operate at Championship level. Of Stephen Kenny’s latest 24-man squad, only nine are on the books at Premier League clubs and two of those, Mark Travers and Troy Parrott, are out on loan. Of the other seven, two, Caoimhin Kelleher and Andrew Omobamidele, have yet to play a single minute in the league this season.
Another reason for the growing apathy regarding English club sides is the sheer level of money involved. No one would begrudge the players the wages they are getting – if there is that much money swirling around any industry then it’s better it goes to the workers than the suits – but it makes it harder and harder for the ordinary fan to relate to players at their club.
Worse again is the sense of alienation Irish fans get when they look at the owners of Premier League clubs – American billionaires who view a club solely as a financial asset, or worse still State ownership which only serves to increase the gap between the haves and the have nots. Were it not for fans standing up to these owners we would all be enduring a European Super League by now.
— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) April 20, 2021
This past summer showed us the ridiculous sight of Manchester United fans debating whether or not it would be a good thing for Saudi Arabia to purchase their club. ‘Okay, Amnesty International have condemned them for civil rights atrocities, but on the other hand, we might be able to sign Mbappe’.
Brexit allowing Irish game to bloom.
Another reason Irish football fans have been turning their gaze more inwardly is Brexit. Because talented Irish players can’t take the traditional route to England until they are 18, they are now lining out for League of Ireland clubs and gaining valuable first team experience. The prospect of watching a Mason Melia or a Sam Curtis playing at your local ground is a big draw for football fans.
If things fall in their favour these players might turn out to be the stars of the future. It also means academies at League of Ireland clubs have to up their game and that can only be good for football in Ireland. The facilities at most clubs are in need of improvement, as Éanna Mackey’s in-depth piece highlighted.
This week also marked the one-year anniversary of Kerry FC officially becoming a League of Ireland club. While they may have struggled on the pitch, picking up just 10 points from 36 games, the feel-good factor around the club remains.
For those of us from the Kingdom who loved football but had no local team to support the choices were stark. Either ignore the League of Ireland and throw everything behind a team abroad, or support a Treaty United or Cork City.
I took the latter option when, as I lived at the time around the corner from Turner’s Cross, I decided I was going to support the Rebel Army. It was all of five minutes into a drab 1-0 win over UCD when I realised I’d made a terrible mistake.
As the Banks started ringing out from all four corners of the ground, the very Corkness of the thing hit me clean in the face. The Shed was no place for a Kerryman. I went back to my foreign team and forgot about the League of Ireland. Luckily for me, I moved back to Kerry just in time for Kerry FC’s maiden voyage. Not everyone is so fortunate, however.
Our County – Our People 🟢⚪️
Happy Birthday Kerry Football Club
At 10am on November 16th 2022, our @LeagueofIreland dreams became a reality
What a year it has been & we can't wait to do it all again
— Kerry Football Club (@KerryFC) November 16, 2023
In a ten-team Premier Division in 2023, 50 per cent of the teams were from Dublin. While this is understandable given Dublin’s population and it being the power base for football in the country, it does not help football fans in counties with no team. UCD’s relegation means that number drops to four for 2024, and the promotion of Galway United means there will now be two teams from Connacht while Waterford will bring something new.
Cork City’s relegation is a blow, however. The second biggest city in the State should have at least one team in the top division. Other counties are following Kerry’s example, Mayo FC are entering teams in the U14 and U15 boys leagues next year, while they will enter an U17 team in the girls league.
League of Ireland clubs have utilised social media very effectively over the last few years. They have gained more and more followers by posting engaging content and building a sense of community around their clubs. The self-effacing #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld gained traction over time. Several podcasts have also helped foster this sense of being part of something larger.
League of Ireland matches are also a throwback to more innocent times. Without VAR puncturing the euphoria with endless stoppages and players not knowing whether they can celebrate or not, Irish fans can still lose themselves in the moment.
Having the likes of Damien Duff involved in Irish domestic football can only be a good thing also. Perhaps more former Irish internationals will become involved over time as they see the success he has had. Richard Dunne was linked with the Bohemians job last year. This can only raise the profile of the league.
A Friday night to remember!
Shelbourne manager Damien Duff celebrates after his side's victory over St Patrick's Athletic in the SSE Airtricity Men's Premier Division tonight!
— sportsfile (@sportsfile) September 1, 2023
We are still years away from an Irish club being involved in the Champions League. The standard of football will never get near that in the Premier League – and that’s okay. The League of Ireland isn’t competing with the Premier League. Its main competitors are the URC and club GAA. It is more than capable of holding its own in that company.
The appetite for live sport has only grown post-covid and taking in a League of Ireland game of a sunny Friday summer’s evening has become a great way to start off a weekend. Seeing large crowds at a sporting event tends to make people wonder what they are missing out on and makes it more likely they turn up the following week. Thus, the whole things feeds itself.
As for me, you’ll find me down in Mounthawk Park next season. No reason to feel abashed about singing the songs in there.