In september 2013 former Rep of Ireland international manager Giovanni Trapattoni disrespected the League of Ireland on multiple occasions by insisting there is no league in Ireland. The Italian when questioned about his comments reaffirmed his sentiments "In Ireland there is no league. Our players play in England. In Sweden there is a league. In Austria there is a league. That is different. Maybe you do not know, but I know this. I was in other countries as a manager and it is different. When every weekend there is games in the league (to watch) that is different, in Ireland there is no league". Trapattoni's comments were very controversial and caused outrage among League of Ireland fans at the time. Most articles written about League of Ireland football are carefully written, reading them it almost seems as if there is a fear to speak out or voice opinion against the people responsible for the progression of Irish football. This article for those reasons may prove an entirely different read. The thoughts below are merely observations and opinions perhaps other articles have been afraid to speak out about.
As can be seen from the graph below the opening to the 2018 League of Ireland season in terms of attendance was yet again a success this season. Let's be honest though, it takes one quick Google search to realise that enthusiastic attendance articles relating to League of Ireland football appear year after year at the start of each season. The truth is that League of Ireland football gets promising attendances at the start of every season over the past ten years or more before the numbers in fact dwindle down as early season enthusiasm wavers. So the question is, why is early season enthusiasm to attend League of Ireland football not sustained throughout the season? why do the vast majority of Irish football fans either travel weekly to watch English football or watch English football from home whilst snubbing a league on their very doorstep? why is the interest in League of Ireland football so poor? Why?. There is no one reason we can point to and say 'there you go, that's the problem' so let's take a look at some of the issues that need addressing.
It was a freezing cold night in March last year and I remember being stood watching a League of Ireland Premier Division side training before I wondered off into the sports hall next to the pitch. The passing during the session was top class, technically the players looked excellent, I could even hear one of the coaches shouting across to one of the centre backs at one stage during the session as the ball was lashed clear "Ah come on, it's got to be better, can we find a pass, find a way out". The ball was zipped around at a seriously high tempo with real quality, but more impressive was the coaching staffs faith and belief to take that approach and also encourage it, all this was following on from some intricate possession based practices at the start of the session. I remember thinking to myself at the time "jesus that's some standard to be fair". I don't get to watch League of Ireland live as much as I'd like to but I'll never forget attending a game just three weeks following that session I watched. The same club I watched training had a Premier Division game, the attendance was poor, 1000 people, maybe 1200 at a stretch. I can remember the game being awful, the ball spent most the game kicked into the sky. Anytime the players did look to play with a build up approach the fans around me in the stands could be heard using explicit language "ah for fucks sake will you's get it forward", "stop fucking around with the bloody thing", "move the thing forward you won't score there, ah come on". I was sitting in the stand left wondering where the impressive football and technical ability that was on show at training some weeks previous had gone?. From where I was sat that night I could no longer spot members of the coaching staff having a go at players for lashing balls clear and aimlessly as they had done at training some weeks previous, instead I could actually hear comments and see gestures towards players 'not fucking there, away'. From the outside looking in it almost seemed as if the freedom to express themselves was taken away from the players that night. The result was that I was watching what I would call a safety first approach to a game of football with no faith or trust in the ability of the players. What has all of this to do with this article and League of Ireland football you ask? Well let's call it problem one in this piece 'THE STYLE OF FOOTBALL within the League of Ireland'. It's easy to be brave on a ball and technically brilliant in training, the hardest thing in football is to transfer that to the pitch and stick by it, sticking by your beliefs. How quickly tense atmospheres destroy trust and faith. We need coaches with 'balls', coaches with clearly defined beliefs in this league. With the exception of a handful of clubs the brand of football on show in the League of Ireland is not nice to watch. Players are often blamed for this, something very frustrating to witness as the players have the ability, no question there are talented footballers in the league. However, no matter how talented you are as a footballer, if the approach of the gaffer or team in general doesn't allow freedom of expression?, well it's the physical attributes that dominate on the pitch in a safety first approach.
As mentioned above, there are many League of Ireland sides now days who try to play a good brand of football, but it's fair to say that a reputation has spread among Irish football fans suggesting that Irish football is full of teams who kick balls long, hoofers as one person put it. You would have to agree that on majority there is a clear emphasis on a direct physical approach in the league of Ireland, down the years outstanding technical footballers have lost their way in the league and indeed lost their love for the game as a result of it. I spoke to one such footballer recently, the player didn't wish for his name to be disclosed as he is still active within football in Ireland. "I fell out of love with the game here, it just wasn't worth it, traveling all the way up to Derry, down to Cork, places like that to be sat on a bench and then arriving home at 2am, up for work the next day, fuck that, I wasn't even enjoying my football. Anytime I played I felt under pressure to do a job, all defensive minded focus, track back here and there, work rate this and that, not once was I ever told, go express yourself and not once was I ever set up in a system designed to allow technical footballers to go and express themselves. I never felt free to go show what I could do, the things that got me across the water. It's mad like, in England you have much of the same, academy sides over there are like Barcelona the way they approach the games, the ball gets zipped about, then when competition arrives that goes out the window in most clubs from what I could see"......the player continued "The league of Ireland is full of recycled dinosaurs (reference to the managers), I don't think I can point to more than five managers and say 'that's how he likes to play', what footballer wouldn't get pissed off with it? you're running up and down a line doing doggies as the ball travels back and fourth in the air for the most part. For technical players, how is a technical footballer supposed to show what he can do if the ball spends half the game in the air? it's crazy then because managers here drop you from the team stating things like 'you had no impact on the game', no impact? mate the ball is in the sky I used to think"..........."Eventually I just got pissed off with the whole thing, you're sat on a bench watching lads with half a touch win their headers and clear their lines all game, if that's what the manager wants then what can you do".
The last line of the rant really grabbed the attention. The statement that "you're sat on a bench watching lads with half a touch win their headers and clear their lines all game, if that's what the manager wants then what can you do". That line begs the question......is that the style of play fans want to watch?. Style of football within the league is affecting interest in games and quality on the pitch?. It's worth stating that without question there is players with unbelievable ability in the League of Ireland. What you would question or have doubts about is the approach of some teams in allowing that ability to express itself.
In the words of Connor McGregor "Who the fuck is that guy" or in the words of a now famous League of Ireland fan "The fella in the green and white shirt". A topic rarely discussed as a problem within League of Ireland football is the absolutely abysmal promotion of players within the league. Beyond early season enthusiasm or a bond with a club it's the connection between fans and players that attracts football supporters to attend games live or tune in to watch games on telivision. The effort of the League, it's clubs and those in charge of it's promotion to boost the PR of League of Ireland players from the outside looking in appears non existent.
How are you supposed to attract new fans to grounds if there is nothing attracting them. The worn out idea that improving facilities will automatically improve attendances is complete rubbish talk in this opinion. Ask English clubs like Coventry City or Darlington FC how brand new world class facilities worked out for their clubs on the attendances front. If you knock on a random football fans door with a ticket to a League of Ireland game in say Dalymount Park, hand them the ticket for free, there is still a good chance they won't attend the game. The reason being the fan you give the ticket to either won't have an attachment to the clubs playing or the fan will have no clue about the players involved, there is no connection. Knock on the same fans door and hand them a ticket for Leicester City versus Everton in Dalymount Park. Chances are the random fan will attend that game, does he support either club? NO!....chances are that the fan will be very aware of players like Rooney, Vardy and many others within both sides. That familiarisation with the players will attract the fan to attend. The familiarisation of league of Ireland footballers among Irish football fans is simply shocking, outside of the die hard league of Ireland fans random football fans will have little or know clue about league of Ireland footballers for the most part, the promotion of the players within the league is a farce.
Now days Social Media can play a massive role in building the familiarisation between fans and players and even a bond between a fan and club. Although a handful of clubs within the League of Ireland do an OK job on the social media front, the effort and standard on vast majority is simply diabolical. Take for example one League of Ireland first division club I personally wrote to recently offering a FREE trial service to help improve their social media following. Although on paper I cannot provide college degrees and certs to state I'm a qualified marketer what I could offer was ten years of experience using social media daily specifically relating to football and the growth of football related sites, that and a huge passion for the game. Within two days of emailing the club I was informed there was no current positions available and my CV didn't meet the criteria needed. The interesting part for me was that this particular first division club pay a marketing company a monthly fee to operate their social media. The social media page in question stands at around 6000 fans, which effectively is nothing in todays social media world. It's clear that League of Ireland clubs need to generate income, social media and sponsors is a massive opportunity to bring in sponsorship revenue yet League of Ireland clubs on majority have effectively zero presence online that would be attractive to sponsors. Here we had a first division club handing money monthly to a marketing company who may or may not have a passion for the game. I find it astonishing the lack of vision and know how League of Ireland clubs appear to have in terms of making their business attractive to sponsors online. So there lies another problem, not appointing football people to key roles within clubs, passionate football people with skill sets capable of making a huge difference to a club do exist, yet the lack of interest, effort or willingness to find them is dire, instead League of Ireland clubs will continue to hold their hands out like beggars ranting about a lack of support from the FAI, do we see English clubs relient on the FA for income?. How about the people within League of Ireland clubs get off the pity pot and put a plan in place to take advantage of the massive potential to make your club an attractive viable sponsorship opportunity, stop giving roles to people in the circle of the know and give them roles to people capable of growing the circle, think big for gods sake. If League of Ireland clubs really think paying a marketing firm monthly fees in return for a following of 6000 people online is great work then here is news........it's shocking, a following of 6000 people on the Worlds biggest social media platform is absolutely nothing for a professional or semi professional football club. What a disgusting waste of money!. League of Ireland clubs need to seriously up their game on social media because the vast majority are missing a trick!.
Another way the League of Ireland can make itself more attractive for fans is the club apparel. There is something about owning club apparel that brings fans closer to a club. On Majority the access to buy club apparel is poor outside of match days, or even in some cases on match days. Surely an approach similar to that of the MLS is the way forward for League of Ireland clubs. A reliable brand who take away all the hassle of selling club apparel online would mean fans get access to top quality clothing or club apparel with reliable delivery methods. In the MLS Adidas clothing and club apparel is available for all fans of MLS Soccer 24/7 online. Just take a look at the MLS store via this link and picture how positive a similar move would be for League of Ireland clubs. LINK: www.mlsstore.com
This article could rant on for pages about ways the League could improve but really if there was one word everything boils down to it would be 'enthusiasm'. For years League of Ireland has talked about this and that, had ideas about this and that but talk is nothing without action. There is a league in Ireland. There is a huge potential fan base for Irish clubs. There is quality footballers in Ireland. Is there a hunger and enthusiasm to make this a League that can compete with the best Leagues in Europe? Not as long as the vision, will and belief is lacking. The GAA and the crowds they get has proven that there is potential for something very big to happen for League of Ireland football. The reason it is yet to happen is finding those little connections and reason's that pull everyone to the same place most Friday nights. There is a league in Ireland.