The League of Ireland is back – but not as we once knew it

‘I can certainly attest to absence rendering the heart all the fonder in Galway,’ writes Johnny Ward.

LAST FRIDAY I visited Galway city for the first time since August, having accepted a role with the club’s media team.

Bohemians were in town, though it seemed as if nobody else was. Galway is arguably the coolest city in the world (no bias there); to see it become a tumbleweed of ghosts and people locked up in their homes, even around a year into the restrictions, was shocking.

My spirits were not long in lifting after I arrived in Eamonn Deacy Park, despite a downpour and gale consistent with the city’s position by the wild Atlantic Ocean. I couldn’t help but reflect on the weather being strikingly similar to my first Galway United game – a 1-0 win over Cobh Ramblers in 1997.

a-view-of-eamonn-deacy-park-home-of-galway-united Eamonn Deacy Park, home of Galway United. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

My buddy, Julian Canny, who I met the day of the Good Friday Agreement – otherwise remembered because we were at an away game in the RSC – has been doing some research of late. He found an extant match report of that game against Cobh, which meant more than it should have to a man turning 40 next year.

Anyway, it quickly became apparent that if John Caulfield has done something a bit special in the west, volunteers are flooding to the club at the same rate he used to bring right-backs to Turner’s Cross.

Around 20 people have offered their services for free to the club this year in the media team alone. It is said that folk at Connacht Rugby are amazed by this: that such a spirit can exist without anything tangible in return.

As I was introduced to various people, I saw a young woman doing an interview with Lisa Fallon, a high-profile addition to the United coaching team. It has been a systematic failure of the League of Ireland that crowds have been so male-dominated since time immemorial; at rugby and Gaelic games, you see a lot more of a gender balance in the stands.

The young woman turned out to be Miss Ireland finalist, Laura Martin, who is actually originally from Cork but living in the west for the past three years.

“I’m giving some of my time to Galway United because I want to give something back to the community,” she explains, “and with a background in sport I knew it would be an opportunity to grow my skills and profile.”

Getting involved with a perennially underachieving First Division club as a means to better yourself isn’t the League of Ireland I used to know. Laura will do wonders for the club this season.

IMG_20210309_134011 Members of Fontaines DC sporting the new Bohemians away shirt. Bohemian FC Bohemian FC

I helped Bohs out with some live updates from the friendly game and, having been messaging Daniel Lambert, their chief operating officer, he wasn’t long revealing his excitement at another impending announcement the following morning.

Bohs were quite brilliantly described as “the league’s very own Greta Thunberg” by Neil O’Riordan in The Sun this week. Even those with a soft spot for the club are happy to have a laugh about where it is going, but what Bohemians have become is no laughing matter. Only Bohs could do it.

“An unusual combination,” wrote Eoghan Moloney in the Irish Independent, “but one of Ireland’s leading rock bands, grammy-nominated Fontaines DC, will feature on the front of Bohemians’ jersey this season in a joint-bid to tackle homelessness.”

The Irish Times’ magazine last Saturday had a striking feature on the latest big signing at Dalymount Park. As I made my way back to Dublin that day, ESPN, with its 2.3 million followers, tweeted “a goal Dennis Bergkamp would be proud of”.

Liam Scales’ strike against Dundalk in the President’s Cup has been watched several hundred thousand times across the globe. The nonchalant technical brilliance of the goal is quite something, notwithstanding that Scales is primarily a central-defender.

It is just over a year since another left-footed strike – by Jordan Flores – at Tallaght Stadium, with something like seven million views the last time I checked, put the League of Ireland on a platform that only social media could have rendered possible. Crowds have pretty much been locked out ever since but I can certainly attest to absence rendering the heart all the fonder in Galway.

I’ve often, as a Galway United fan, spoken enviously of Sligo Rovers, who boast a per-local-population support that any club in the world would be proud of. On Monday, RTÉ’s Eileen Magnier, its North-West Correspondent, was reporting that every baby born at Sligo University Hospital this year will be offered a Sligo Rovers jersey “on the day they enter the world” in an initiative by the club and supporters.

liam-scales-scores-a-goal Liam Scales scores for Shamrock Rovers against Dundalk. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Indoctrinate them early. A simple gesture from the Bit O’Red, who are back playing European football this season, ensured a lot of free publicity. Today FM, TalkSport and Match of the Day picked up the story.

Ireland without the Irish famously meant nothing to James Connolly, who presumably would now be a Bohs fan. The League of Ireland without crowds wouldn’t last long but the lockdown has compelled clubs to look at new, innovative ideas to sell themselves in a favourable light, despite so many inadequacies still being part of life in the Irish professional game.

I’ve said in recent years I feel there’s something of a revolution in the League of Ireland. Maybe that is embellishing the progress made, ignorant of the challenges that won’t go away. But when I sit down to watch Shamrock Rovers host St Patrick’s Athletic this evening, a greater part of me becomes the teenager again who fell in love with it a quarter of a century ago.

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