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From unprecedented loss to collective pride: The League of Ireland really is a true 'football family'

‘Like any family, there are lows and highs and if we share in the loss, we also share in the good moments,’ writes John O’Sullivan.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE FAI LIKE to call us all ‘the football family’, a cliché ridiculed by many in the context of the league’s status as the ‘difficult child’ in the eyes of our parents in Abbotstown.

The truth is when the chips are down there is a sense of togetherness, especially within the League of Ireland, that can elevate cliché into fact and rivals into family.

This season we’ve suffered unprecedented loss and collective pride. Through both there’s been a sense of community that shows our ‘greatest league in the world’ really is special. It’s always important to recognise what we have, especially during difficult times.

The loss of Ryan McBride is still hard to fathom and tonight’s match in Maginn Park is going to be a hugely emotional event. The poem read by Kenny Shiels at Ryan’s funeral brought me to the verge of tears though I didn’t know the Derry captain.

Ryan’s story was inspiring; growing up in the shadow of the Brandywell, dreaming of playing for his local club and rising to become their captain lent a fairytale aspect to the eulogies. He was one of those players every club loves to have, every fan loves. Those of us on the terrace who dream of playing for our club have to battle with the reality that we don’t have the necessary skill, but we know if we ever got the chance, we’d give it everything.

Ryan McBride celebrates scoring a a goal The late Ryan McBride. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Watching a player like Ryan McBride was to watch what you’d hope you would give of yourself; a player, but still a fan, for whom the result is carried into the personal life, beyond the professional.

The League of Ireland family have circled around Derry and have been massively supportive as they were earlier this year when Cork City fans lost our Mother Goose. Noelle Feeney was the face of the club for many people, myself included, during the early days of the club. Her home — a short walk from Turner’s Cross — was the club shop, she’d subtly let you know that the new gear was a bit tighter than the old and you might want an extra-large. Her front room was the club office and you’d run into players who’d stay with her while they were getting settled.

On away European trips, Noelle was the approachable face who would know where tickets could be bought, scarves could be swapped and she’d let you know what bar the players would be heading to after the match. She was the smiling, holy water sprinkling, City colour-wearing dynamo once ranked the seventh most important woman in World Football by The Sunday Times.

A couple of weeks ago, Shamrock Rovers wrote fondly of her in the match programme, commiserations came from all clubs through the league.

We collectively suffer the losses because we all have, at our own clubs, a Noelle Feeney or a Ryan McBride. Someone that maybe should be appreciated more while we have them, people who give a service that we would love to have the time, or the passion, or the skill to give. People that we might nod to as we hurry to our seats, already under pressure to make kick-off.

The tongue in cheek tag line of the ‘greatest league in the world’ that LOI fans use on social media to cast a spotlight on those funny or risible moments that set our league apart is obviously no claim that we fit that description, but we do have something special here, something unique.

It’s no harm to remind each other of that every now and again, and not just when tragedy strikes.

Daryl Horgan comes on to make his debut LOI export Daryl Horgan made his debut in the Aviva on Tuesday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Like any family, there are lows and highs and if we share in the loss, we also share in the good moments.

Watching Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle take to the field in the Aviva Stadium last Tuesday was special, maybe even more so for having James McClean, Kevin Doyle and Shane Long already on the pitch. The ovation they got when coming on was more than just the LOI heads in the crowd. The general public knew who Horgan and Boyle were, they had gotten swept up in the European adventure from the previous season.

It was hard to feel anything other than pride. It didn’t really matter if the player had played for your club. Seeing them run out on the pitch at the Aviva was another validation that alongside the myriad positives that make the league unique, there’s genuine talent here too.

Last weekend, Long comforted Seamus Coleman as the latter held his broken leg and it became another defining image; Irish team-mates but also two graduates of the League of Ireland, one looking after the other. Like we do so often with each other, families are like that.

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