As another League of Ireland season looms, excitement will be rushing through the veins of die hard fans following a long winter without domestic action.
Many League of Ireland fans are critical of followers of the English game, feeling that they should stay at home to watch their local talent rather than spend hundreds of euros travelling across the water. The reality is that it is not for another person to decide what football team a fan supports. After all many fans of English teams are supporters because of Irish links. Liverpool in the 1980s and Manchester United in the 1990s were two hugely successful teams with a large Irish contingent. Some English clubs also have a strong Irish influence in their community hence the their clubs’ substantial followings.
Other factors play a role in the low attendances at League of Ireland clubs that would not be the case in England. With only two leagues equating to just 20 teams, it is unlikely that they come under the moniker of ‘local’ for all punters. It is easy for the fan from Phibsborough or the surrounding area to feel baffled that not all north Dubliners don’t follow Bohemians. However, that connection might not be felt by a supporter from Skerries or Balbriggan.
County Kerry have no teams in the Premier or First Division. Although Gaelic football is no doubt the dominant sport in the Kingdom, Tralee Dynamos and Kingdom Boys have been highly successful at junior level yet no League of Ireland team exists.
Therefore, Cork City and Limerick would be the local teams for Kerry natives despite bitter rivalries in other sports. The alternative in counties like these would be to follow their local amateur team, but fans want to see a certain amount of quality on show.
Ultimately, for many football fans, the deciding factor will be quality. With no comparison between the League of Ireland and Premier League it is unfair to criticise this choice. The guilt tripping of Premier League followers by League of Ireland fans is very wrong, but the frustration that they vent is very understandable. Irish clubs always seem to be up against it, both professionally and financially, with one of the main reasons being the lack of bums on seats at matches.
Cork City have turned this on its head in recent times with sell-out crowds and phenomenal atmospheres in the small but proud Turner’s Cross. However, poorly attended grounds were still evident last season, even in a year where Dundalk captured the imagination of football fans from all over the country, both Premier League and League of Ireland aficionados.
Many of the league’s grounds too are unappealing. Turner’s Cross and Tallaght Stadium are a step above many but the unattractive condition of some stands could be off-putting to potential punters. The redevelopments of Dalymount Park and the Brandywell are steps in the right direction and Markets Field, the Showgrounds and Eamonn Deacy Park are small but fine grounds. Unfortunately the only way for the redevelopment of stadia without funding is to get fans into the grounds in the first place. The way to do this is through the quality of the football on display as well as new signings.
The talent in the league has been apparent in recent years but is inevitably eventually drained to England. Eight of Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad were ex-League of Ireland players, with Daryl Horgan also very likely to make the breakthrough at senior level soon. A number of other talented individuals are emerging in the league but in the last couple of months things have worked in reverse with much talent coming to Ireland from overseas.
This winter’s League of Ireland transfer window was probably the most high profile in years with many quality players joining clubs from across the water.
Conor Clifford (Dundlak), Graham Burke (Shamrock Rovers), Alex O’Hanlon (St.Pat’s) and Kenny McEvoy (Waterford) were all exciting Irish prospects at Premier League clubs and with all still reasonably young this will add some real quality to the league. Their additions certainly raised eyebrows in what could be a fantastic stepping stone back to England.
Other players in the league such as Aaron McEneff (Derry City), Christy Fagan (St.Pat’s), Aaron Greene and Dylan Connolly (Bray), Brandon Miele (Shamrock Rovers), Eoin Wearan (Bohemians) and Kieran Sadlier (Sligo) are other quality ex-Premier League academy stars who have come to the League of Ireland over the years.
In the past, young Irish players who did not make the grade in the Premier League would drop out of the game or drop down the leagues in England. However, it has been refreshing to see these players with a lot to prove adding to the league and bringing their wealth of experience with a Premier League set-up .
A number of ex-Ireland internationals will also take to the action when the league kicks off. Colin Healy, who for a time was tipped to replace Roy Keane, has been a long-term member of this Cork City side while Stephen Elliot, who played and scored under Brian Kerr, is with newly-promoted Drogheda United having joined from Shelbourne. Alan Bennett (Cork City) and Keith Treacy (St.Pat’s) also lined out for Ireland during their careers while Paddy McCourt, who joined Finn Harps, was in the Northern Ireland set-up this time last year.
A huge number of foreign players have also arrived to the League of Ireland, with Dundalk’s success in the Europa League seemingly putting Ireland on the map. To name a few, Cork have signed Frenchman Archille Campion, Italian Christian Nenetti and Lituanian Rimvydas Sadauskas while Limerick have signed French duo Bastein Hery, Thibaut Mollinatti and Brazilian Rodrigo Tosi as well has having Freddy Hall from Bermuda on their books. Shamrock Rovers have signed Canadian goalkeeper Tomer Chencinski while Sligo boss Dave Robertson continues to bring in many English imports.
The variety of experiences seen in this transfer window will only add positively to the ever improving league of Ireland. With players coming from some of the Premier League’s best sides, not to mention those with international experience and of other football cultures, this could be one of the most competitive seasons yet.
Dundalk’s success has given the league exposure as not only a stepping stone but also a place of real quality. Damien Duff’s stint with Shamrock Rovers also opened Ireland’s domestic scene to the world.
The transfers completed recently have shown a signal of intent from clubs to push on and attract players of real quality. It might seem like a small detail but some of these signings could be the perfect tools to attract more fans to grounds.
Where in the past the league was unfairly viewed as a graveyard for those who did not make it; it could soon be considered an attractive option to play in for not only young Irish players but for talented footballers abroad.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena