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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 23 October, 2019

Scaled-back Soccer Republic can be the League of Ireland's Football Italia

John O’Sullivan discusses tailoring highlights to new fans – not the die-hards – and much more in his weekly column.

SINCE I WAS a kid, I’ve always loved a highlight show, no matter the sport.

Dundalk players celebrate Michael Duffy's goal with the fans Dundalk players celebrate a goal last week. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

During the 80s and 90s, RTÉ flirted with international sport on Monday nights; American Sports came first. I would sit engrossed by the dominant Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan – who we’d copy badly in school the following day. RTÉ showed American Football highlights, so my schoolmates and I were swept up in a world of first downs, offensive fouls and the seeming contradiction of using the word athlete to refer to someone the size of William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

Our Monday night fix of international sport was taken to new highs when James Richardson’s ‘Football Italia’ began broadcasting. Jordan and Perry were put to one side as Maldini, Mancini, Lombardo, Batistuta and others wowed us with Goals, tackles and incredible hairstyles that no Irish boy would dare emulate.

To correct someone that it was “Golazzo” – not “Goal Lazio” – at the end of the opening credits was as opportunity to show how cosmopolitan and worldly you were. If you had a crucifix around your neck to kiss before taking a penalty at lunch break you were overdoing it, but everyone else was secretly jealous they hadn’t thought of it first.

We were kids so Football Italia was really just a TV show. It had heroes, villains and drama. It encouraged schoolyard recreation and workplace conversation. We didn’t need to know about off-field machinations or club finances – such stories were reduced to summarising translations of ‘Gazzeta Del Sport’ snippets by Richardson as he sipped coffee. There was match action with no punditry. There were lovely jerseys that cost a fortune and seemed to be available only from ads in the back of ‘Shoot’ magazine. It captured the imagination.

Watching the shortened Soccer Republic show recently reflects my Football Italia experiences in many ways. The focus is match highlights, action, a quick chat with the manager and at just 30 minutes duration, it zips by. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a post-dinner cup of tea at a time when kids can watch too. It might not be ideal fodder for the die hard, but it is perfect for the casual observer and that’s what is ultimately important for the game.

fi A scene from Football Italia. Source: Youtube.

It requires little commitment and less knowledge. It’s a show that if happened upon by a football fan, it might encourage them to keep watching. It enables playground antics and workplace chat while building name recognition and interest.

Of course, there are things to miss and aspects that League of Ireland supporters would like to see e.g. Marie Crowe’s pieces that put personalities to many recognisable faces. Also, the passion shown by some pundits including Brian Kerr, Alan Cawley and Stuey Byrne struck a nerve and reached an online audience beyond those watching the show on TV. But while die-hards applaud, debate won’t engage the disinterested because potential fans just don’t care and don’t want to hear about your problems.

While those passionate about the league need off-field discussion, it is food that the average football fan doesn’t want to digest. It’s a fact reflected across most countries. Take the English Premier League, Chelsea fans want to talk about Sarri or Eden Hazard, not a transfer ban due to breaches in the club’s underage recruitment. Manchester City Fans might be aware that their club has some financial fair play issues, but they’re far more interested in the Premier League race. Green and Yellow scarves – and the anti-Glazer protests those scarves symbolised – have all but disappeared from Old Trafford. It is silenced as Ole Gunnar Solksjaer rejuvenates the club.

Most fans only want to talk about what happens on the pitch. It’s natural that this would be reflected in media coverage of the league. It’s a good thing that the die-hard fan is not the target audience for a league so often beset with off-field issues as it’s not how you introduce yourself to the general public.

The League of Ireland is wonderfully served by our media, anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t paying attention. With clubs now free to show online clips of goals, highlights and incidents immediately following matches, the single hurdle left is a weekly live game, which considering RTÉ’s new format around matches or Eir’s ongoing excellent coverage, would be a great addition.

Shane Supple, Vinny Perth, Conor Morris, Aaron McEneff and Con Murphy eir Sport's coverage has been excellent. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Print Media, online media, sport shows on radio and many excellent podcasts are the areas where we can get more in-depth analysis and discussion. It’s important – right now for die-hard fans, and soon for the fans yet to come – that supporters recognise and support these platforms. Using social media in a positive way to engage and people know that you read/listen when the league of Ireland is on the agenda is to act as a member of a lobby group that can actually grow coverage and interest.

Decades after James Richardson’s ‘Football Italia’, I listen to Richardson’s ‘Totally football’ podcast and still have a soft spot for the Sampdoria jersey. I can get as much pleasure from a scoreless draw where defenders excel as much as I can get from a high scoring game. With so much ready access to global football and global football news available these days, seeing goals as they happen go viral on social media, many of my tastes were based on an hour of Monday night highlights.

The new Soccer Republic might not be to your taste, but if you’ve read this far you’re likely already hooked on the league. Just enjoy it and hope that it attracts new fans that will help fill stadia, making them look better on TV which will attract new fans that will help fill stadia and so on, and so on.

Andy Dunne joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey to discuss Joe Schmidt’s undroppables and how France might attack Ireland’s predictability in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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