The time has come for Irish football without borders

A lone Derry supporter occupies the away terrace before a game against Dundalk last season. Picture: Inpho/Morgan Treacy

League of Ireland fans may not be treated to the razzmatazz that is often offered at games across the Irish Sea, but that doesn’t make their experience any less enjoyable, writes Paul Rouse.

THE experience of going to Premier League soccer matches in England in off-the-shelf modern stadiums is often a synthetic one.

For all that there are outstanding players on the field, the Premier League experience is homogenised. For example, is there really much to distinguish the Stadium of Light in Sunderland from St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton?

You did not have to ask that question when Sunderland played at Roker Park and Southampton played at The Dell.

Basically, the Premier League — and those who aspire to it in England — offer a sort of bubble-wrapped, standardised entertainment product for an audience of customers. It is a TV spectacle before it is anything else.

This is not to deny that the love of clubs runs deep, or that every place is exactly the same. Rather, it is a note that the era of global ownership, vast amounts of TV money, and a player recruitment policy that now almost make it exotic to be English in the Premier League has transformed the identity of English soccer.

It is often written that league soccer in Ireland suffers hugely from comparisons with the Premier League and, of course, with the Champions League’s transnational superclubs.

And this is true in some respects. For example, the players are not of the same quality, and many grounds are decayed or what might charitably be described as ‘homely’. The inevitable result is that the experience of going to a soccer match in Ireland is a different one to that of England.

But why is that a bad thing? Why are the comparisons made within such a narrow frame of reference?

For example, for all that there are many criticisms that can be levelled at the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland, it cannot be said that it lacks soul.

In grounds in various part of Ireland over the last few weeks, the thrill of a new season has drawn in thousands of people. More than golden daffodils or swallows or buds on branches, this is the moment that heralds the arrival of spring for domestic soccer’s supporters.

Like in every sport, the dream will be of glory. But it is also about much more than glory. No sport in Ireland has a monopoly on tradition, or loyalty, or belonging, or community.

And walking to a soccer stadium as winter turns to spring confirms the truth of this. There is a sound that fills the air around floodlit matches that is unique unto itself. It is the sound of hundreds of conversations, of the blare of a tannoy system, and the sporadic chanting of small groups. It rises over the noise of traffic, and mixes with it, and lives as a soundtrack of hope.

That hope may not last long — but it is real and essential. And it is related to the magic magnetism of crowds.

Ireland’s soccer grounds are filled with people who love their club. More than that, they are often immensely proud of that club (even if also driven to the point of despair) and of its place in the life of their communities and their families.

What they create is fundamental and compelling — but, of course, it can be more.

It is both a legacy of history and deeply problematic for the game, that there are two leagues in Ireland. Before the partition of the country and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, there had been just one league. It was essentially restricted to teams from Dublin and Belfast, so it can hardly be deemed to have been all-island. But it did, at least, give a framework that promised longer-term development.

That was lost by partition. And it was lost simply because, uniquely among Irish sporting organisations, soccer (through the Irish Football Association) was run from Belfast.

This was a legacy of the dominance of that city (with its feel of a northern industrial town, like Leeds or Liverpool or Manchester, as the great Billy Bragg has sung) in introducing the game into Ireland in the 1880s and of the power of its professional clubs from the 1890s onwards.

Being controlled from Belfast was not something that could be countenanced by those who loved soccer in Dublin and, in the spirit of the age, they declared independence and established their own governing body. This body — the Football Association of the Irish Free State — began fielding an international team and also assumed control of domestic soccer.

The fun of the situation can be found in the fact that both organisations — the Football Association of the Irish Free State and the Irish Football League — both claimed jurisdiction over the whole of the island and both fielded teams called ‘Ireland’.

There were periodic attempts to heal the divide between north and south. All failed and what remained was a sort of spectral relationship: Linfield played Bohemians in an annual match between 1923 and the mid-1940s, for example, there was later an inter-league series of representative matches, and the annual universities’ soccer competition was all-island.

But, in reality, the two domestic leagues diverged over time and were unable to overcome the animosities (rooted in politics, spleen and the unwillingness of administrators on either side of the border to concede personal power and position) that divided them.

It is long past time for that to end. A glimmer of hope lies in the compromise that has allowed Derry City to compete in the southern league.

A further glimmer lives in the proposal (although apparently prematurely announced) that the champions of north and south will play each other in an All-Ireland final.

The logical thing to do is for the two leagues to merge as one. There can be no denying that this is something that would be exceptionally challenging to achieve.

The bottom line is that the centenary of the partition of league soccer in Ireland is fast approaching. That centenary should be marked by putting an end to that partition of soccer — or at least seriously working to explore every avenue to make it happen.

The interest that this would create in the domestic game — north and south — must be obvious. Does anyone have the skills to make it happen?

- Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin.

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