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President Higgins on why the League of Ireland is important and how it can thrive

We were invited to the Áras ahead of tomorrow’s President’s Cup game.

President Higgins regularly attends games.
President Higgins regularly attends games.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

LEAGUE OF IRELAND fans often feel like they’re part of sub-culture — a relatively small, but massively devoted and knowledgeable group which generally prefers terraces to barstools.

But since Michael D Higgins was elected president, the league has had official Ireland’s stamp of approval.

Uachtarán na hEireann is welcomed to grounds up and down the country as one of their own, being a former president of Galway United and a genuine Irish football fan.

Last year, Higgins initiated the President’s Cup, a curtain-raiser to the domestic season, like England’s Community Shield. A Keith Fahey volley won it for Pat’s against Sligo and tomorrow the president will be present to see league champions Dundalk host the Saints in a tie that sounds the starter’s gun for the 2015 season.

“Here in the Arás,” the president told The42 this week, “I’m equidistant between Richmond Park and Dalymount Park. If I go out to some of those games, which I do, I see people that are maybe in their third or fourth generation of supporting the league. That’s very, very important.

“I remember in Galway for example, at the time when I was president of the club, the struggle — no club was at the stage of surviving from what they take at the gate. And you were very much at the mercy of who your sponsors were. We in Galway United for example, were very unfortunate that the people who were our major sponsors were involved in the construction industry.

“That was a big big hit. But when you go and look at the families and the loyalties that they have to the game, there’s a great atmosphere.

[If] you took what soccer does out of the weekend and out of the preparation during the week from towns and cities all over Ireland… it just makes an enormously strong contribution to community life.”

Like most of those who click through the turnstiles of senior football grounds in Ireland, the president well knows the challenges faced by domestic football, but admits he can’t articulate his thoughts like those on the terraces.

“I have to be very careful now that I’m president. I wrote about this when I was writing for Hot Press — I wrote for Hot Press between ’82 and ’92 — and I’m not free now to write the same opinions I wrote about the effect of Rupert Murdoch on the beautiful game. But I think that television has changed the game,” he says.

“During the period I lived in Manchester, around 1961, Old Trafford still hadn’t been remodelled. Saturday football was an institution in Manchester. But it has changed and some of those changes are fairly unstoppable now.”

In recent years clubs like Shamrock Rovers and Cork City have faced existential crises before regrouping with supporters who built new foundations. President Higgins thinks this model may be the future for the game here.

“I would worry about the survival of some of the clubs,” he says, from behind his office desk. “Maybe we need to look to the continent to clubs like Vigo or something like that. They have a high base of family memberships that are a solid core. So there’s never any doubt about the base of core funding.

“Maybe some clubs are better organised than others,” he continues. “I have kind of half admired Sligo Rovers for that because when you go to he Showgrounds and at half time you see all these confections arriving and you know that they have about 20 different sources of funding… including a bakery.

“That’s the future. You make yourself very vulnerable if you just have a single sponsor or two. The wider the spread in the sponsorship, the stronger you are.”

  • Dundalk welcome St Patrick’s Athletic to Oriel Park tomorrow for the President’s Cup decider. Kick-off is 3pm. 

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