It's time to stop moaning about 120,000 Irish football fans who travel to the UK

John O’Sullivan says the League of Ireland isn’t competing against the Premier League, so there is no point in worrying about it.

Thousands of Irish fans travel to stadiums such as Old Trafford and Anfield every week.
Thousands of Irish fans travel to stadiums such as Old Trafford and Anfield every week.
Image: EMPICS Sport

Updated at 12.00 

IN 2014, OVER 120,000 Irish visitors contributed over €140 million to the UK economy travelling across the Irish Sea to attend football matches.

It’s a staggering number which caused a strong response from some LOI supporters. It equates roughly to the attendance over an entire series of matches, just under one third of an entire season’s attendance.

I saw criticism of those travelling, much based on assumption that these people were actively choosing a tenuous connection with an English teams over Irish teams.

Of course, this isn’t true.

Many of the 120,000 will support a LOI club and more travel from the parts of the country without LOI representation — something I grew up with.

I jumped on the Manchester United bandwagon aged 7. My hero worship of Bryan Robson following the 1982 World Cup grew as United lifted the FA Cup the following year. I was hooked.

Growing up in Kerry my weekends revolved around playing with my local team on Saturday morning, and then getting home to watch ‘deferred live games’ at 3.30pm on Network 2.

I had no awareness of the LOI outside seeing short columns in sport pages and fleeting memories occasional highlights on Sunday Sportsnight. I was only vaguely aware of the LOI until I began to study in UCC and started attending Cork City matches.

I’ve travelled to the UK for matches; I even travelled for Ryan Giggs’ testimonial. As time moved on, I became a Cork City supporter who had a passing interest in United. While it’s been a long time since I answered anything other than ‘Cork City’ when asked who I support, I still keep one eye on United’s results.

Even among those travelling who are disinterested in, or dismissive of, our league, we miss the point. These are people interested in football, willing to spend on the experience of a live game.

We need to stop worrying about their choice to travel and focus on the fact that 120,000 Irish people choose to spend their disposable income on football.

There’s nothing wrong with the standard of football in our league. We’re a small league in a small country but the vast majority of the time we have entertaining, enthralling and exciting matches.

We should show some pride in that but we are consistently afraid to ask, and understand, why many of those travelling don’t attend LOI games.

So here are a few harsh, if obvious, truths.

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We’re too shabby. Our facilities aren’t world-class, but that’s not vitally important. Intercounty GAA grounds are bigger but in worse states of repair. Where we fail is in making our stadia the best they can be, within our limitations.

You can point at the FAI and the economy if you are trying to erect a new stand, but accept some responsibility if toilet blocks are dirty and without running water, if there’s grass growing through the steps of your terraces or if you haven’t picked up a paintbrush in ten years.

We don’t train volunteers to greet people and handle issues [they don’t do it in the GAA either by the way]. You can win every home game, but a grumpy ticket seller, programme seller or angry stewards and security staff can turn people off.

One of the consistent highlights of the London Olympics for visitors was the pink-clad ‘greeters’ supporting tourists and fans. Replicate this, don’t ask volunteers to be stewards to control and corral; ask them to be liaisons to support and chat with fans.

London Olympic Games - Day 15 Volunteers at the 2012 London Olympics. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Our marketing is brutal and needs to be improved by FAI and clubs. The general public is probably aware and disinterested, but we need to understand what it is we’re selling.

Club’s own marketing should be smart and focused locally, but only with a clear understanding of who you’re marketing to and what the alternatives those people have on a Friday or Saturday night.

Finally, and maybe controversially, fans have a responsibility and some of us simply don’t help matters. During the early 2000s, Cork City had a few strong seasons which drew occasional bumper crowds.

When those bumper crowds were witnessing a loss, as they occasionally did, and casual fans decided to leave early, it was often to a chorus of “sunshine supporters” or “we can see you sneaking home”.

You can point the finger at others, but that’s easier than doing something positive and convincing a mate to come and seeing that he/she enjoys the night.

Supporters need to understand the role they have to play in attracting casual fans. Earlier this year, Limerick banned a number of supporters, reportedly for abusive language at games.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed and those same supporters, with a little thought around their impact are central to the rejuvenated and vibrant support the club has in the Market’s Field, bringing families with them rather than turning them away.

People will always travel to the UK for matches, sports tourism is a growing sector. We are not competing with the Premier League any more than the numerous small music venues around the country are competing with Ed Sheeran at Croke Park.

Criticising people for their choice isn’t going to change their decision. You can’t tell people what they should like; you can only tell them what you like and why you like it and ensure that if they give it a shot, you’ve given yourself the best chance of getting them back a second time.

Originally published at 10.55 on 11 September 

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