Finn Harps: Premier Division new boys begin their season with a trip to Dalymount Park. Tommy Dickson/INPHO
League of Ireland

'People who don’t understand the LOI can turn their noses up... but they’re the ones losing out'

Love is in the air as John O’Sullivan welcomes a brand-new SSE Airtricity League season.

AS I WRITE this piece, I haven’t seen my wife and kids in six days. I’ve been based in the US with work and only got back into the country thanks to an overnight flight from JFK in New York. As much as I enjoyed the time in the US and the company of colleagues over there, I couldn’t wait to get home; cannot wait to hear the hundred little stories of the week my kids will entertain me with later today.

While I was away, I read another hundred little stories as media outlets readied for the League of Ireland launch on Tuesday and today’s games. Fran Gavin announced a cross-border competition that our Northern counterparts claimed to know little about. This was subsequently and understandably ignored when Declan Rice declared for England. League of Ireland clubs signed players, League of Ireland players swapped clubs.

A lot happened this week, and even more happened in what is the longest off-season in European – maybe even world – football. Stephen Kenny moved to the Irish U21 job and Niall Quinn became an unlikely spokesperson for the betterment of the league. Derry City have been trying to figure out how Brexit will affect them on top of the usual activity we see each year. Managers moved, hinting at the rejuvenation of sleeping giants. The LOI build-up added to my longing for home. The love of Cork City FC and the league is something I share with my kids.

Being away, I missed Valentine’s Day. It’s a celebratory day that I – and, thankfully, my wife – are cynical towards. It’s a nice idea but ultimately a fragile, temporary pause to capture what people most hope will be long-lasting relationships. After the chocolates are eaten, the petals fall from the cut flowers and the cards are read and made ready for the recycling bin; what exists beyond the showy noise of Valentine’s Day is ultimately what gives life to a relationship.

As I got off the plane from JFK this morning, a few feet away from me at the baggage carousel was an American family chattering eagerly, the kids excited. As I waited for a bag laden down with dirty clothes and labelled ‘heavy’ by Aer Lingus due to the gifts and sweets contained within, I saw that the dad of the family was wearing a Dundalk FC jersey.

Long-lasting relationships have their own visual cues. Some are physical, an engagement ring or wedding ring. Some, such as the obvious ease in each other’s company, are subtler. We carry these cues to mark ourselves as committed. We carry them to show our love. A jersey worn boarding a plane in America to be seen on arrival is the same.
I walked into the arrival area ahead of the Dundalk fan and his family and walked past the woman there to meet them: a sister, an Irish sister-in-law, and an Irish auntie to Irish-American kids.

I left them to their greetings and moved on, smiling to myself at the timing of the family’s return home. It’s a holiday weekend in the US and a good opportunity to travel without eating into a limited holiday allowance. But the proudly worn jersey was a choice, a visual cue that told a different story about the choice of date. A love of Dundalk and the league that could be shared with family and friends from home, a way to add to the sense of the bond and the togetherness that cements many relationships. Something to share, a part of yourself to show your kids and to open yourself up in the hope they too might grow to love it. To be there at the start of what might be something special.

A general view of Richmond Park ahead of the game Richmond Park: St Pat's welcome last season's runners-up Cork City to Inchicore. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The noise of the off-season is quieted and – like Valentine’s Day chocolates, flowers and cards – it might have a temporary effect, a boost or a disappointment, but in the end it’s noise and it doesn’t change the core of the relationship. That comes from the presence, the support and the shared emotions of previous years and which will continue into the future. People who don’t understand can turn their noses up at someone’s ‘love of their club’ or ‘love of the league’, but it’s important to remember that they don’t understand. They’re the ones losing out; you’re the one who will experience the joy and the sadness, the ups and the downs and share it with thousands of others who feel the same way.

For tens of thousands of us, our local club and our league is part of our being. It’s the foundation on which many of our friendships are built. It is a constant that can be passed from grandparent to parent to child. It takes work. You don’t swipe right to choose a club.

The man in the Dundalk jersey was coming home. I was coming home. Come 7.45pm tonight, we all are. Don’t be afraid to love it.

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