A league of our own: why Irish football can't afford to neglect the domestic game

Fans of the League of Ireland recognise its flaws, but the blemishes will never obscure its greatness.

2020-sse-airtricity-league-launch Representatives of the 10 Premier Division clubs for the 2020 League of Ireland season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE FINAL SCENE in the first season of Derry Girls is one that League of Ireland fans should be able to relate to.

With an aerobics-inspired dance to ‘Like A Prayer’, Orla makes a futile attempt to entertain the masses at a school concert.

Her choreography merely draws derision and ridicule from the students in the audience, one of whom sneers: “She’s such a dick.”

Orla’s pals also recognise that she’s unlikely to threaten Madonna’s status as the Queen of Pop, but they’re quick to fight her corner: “Yeah, she might be a dick… but she’s our dick.”

The League of Ireland is well accustomed to being sneered at by now, and usually with good reason – the latest example being the failure to confirm the participants and a fixture list for a First Division campaign which begins in nine days.

Self-deprecation is one of the key ingredients when it comes to enjoying a harmonious relationship with a basket case of a league, which returns this Friday with the start of the 2020 Premier Division season.

As paying customers, supporters of the domestic game are more familiar with its flaws than anyone else. Yet in their eyes, the blemishes will never fully obscure all that’s great about it.

Was there a more entertaining game of football played at the Aviva Stadium in 2019 than November’s FAI Cup final between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk?

jC03B69M Notable League of Ireland stars of the past (and present). Source: INPHO

If you’re going to a match this weekend, there’s a chance you’ll be watching the next Enda Stevens or the next Seamus Coleman, the next James McClean or the next Sean Maguire, the next Jack Byrne or the current one too.

The League of Ireland has been the architect of its own image problem, which is further accentuated by its location on the doorstep of the richest league in the world.

I’m more than content with the house in which I live – particularly in the current climate – but plant it beside a mansion on Malibu Beach and it’ll suddenly look like an absolute kip.

It’ll then only be a matter of time until the kids come home and tell me they’re moving in with their friends next-door because they own a cinema room and a snooker table.

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The optics of the League of Ireland aren’t often great, but occasions like last August’s Dublin derby, when over 7,000 spectators were in Tallaght Stadium to see Shamrock Rovers win 1-0 against Bohemians, offer a snapshot of its wider potential.

Given the dearth of any discernible backing from Irish football’s governing body, that two of our clubs have reached the group stages of a European competition within the past decade suggests that the League of Ireland can punch above its weight. That argument is reinforced by the considerable presence of graduates of the league in Mick McCarthy’s Irish squad.

The prospect of the dawn of a new era for the FAI brings with it a measure of optimism that the league will finally be afforded the support it deserves and requires to prosper.

aaron-mceneff-with-conor-levingston Aaron McEneff of Shamrock Rovers under pressure from Conor Levingston of Bohemians. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With Brexit set to prevent players from leaving before they turn 18, Irish football’s reliance on clubs in the UK to develop its talent will be curtailed. Therein lies an opportunity for the League of Ireland, but there’s work to be done to strengthen the platform.

Much of that work might be beyond the brief of supporters, but there are other areas where they can exert a significant influence. Incremental increases in attendances would make for an encouraging start. A stronger domestic league can only serve to benefit Irish football as a whole, from grassroots to the senior international side.

Clubs need to do better with their admittedly limited resources to make their fixtures a more appealing prospect. Equally, however, Irish football supporters must ensure that they don’t neglect the League of Ireland to the same extent that the previous FAI regime did.

The League of Ireland might be a dick, but it’s our dick.

We’d all like it to be bigger, but the only option is to do our best with the one we have.

Premier Division fixtures

Friday (7.45pm unless stated)

  • Cork City v Shelbourne, Turner’s Cross
  • Dundalk v Derry City, Oriel Park
  • St Patrick’s Athletic v Waterford, Richmond Park
  • Finn Harps v Sligo Rovers, Ballybofey (8.00pm)

Saturday (2.00pm)

  • Bohemians v Shamrock Rovers, Dalymount Park

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Paul Dollery

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