It’s still possible to fashion a future for League of Ireland

”Come on to f*%k Rovers!” came the roar 15 minutes after half-time, from a man buried somewhere in the middle of the Sligo fans.
It’s still possible to fashion a future for League of Ireland

And it was easy to see what inspired that roar.

Sligo Rovers were in Dalymount Park to play Bohemians in the SSE Airtricity League and they started both halves as if they were comfortably the better team.

But — in the second half, as in the first — they just faded away; it was as if the early superiority was something that they didn’t really believe in.

The Sligo fan could sense the game slipping away through the lack of a cutting-edge and he was right: his team lost — and they deserved to lose. Kurtis Byrne drove a magnificent shot to the roof of the Sligo net and the Great Book of Sporting Clichés demands that it be described as a moment worthy of winning any match. And so it was just that.

After the game, as both sets of supporters applauded their teams from the field, there was no rancour in defeat, no raucousness in victory. The honesty of effort from the players was appreciated by all.

So, was the match any good?

The fairest way to put it is that there was enough in it to make you happy to come back. There were moments of genuine skill, some fine passing, some pretty fierce tackling. There were a lot of very good players on the field and the great regret is that they were too often unwilling to play a little, to try something other than the percentage ball down a channel or the straightforward hoof. Although the way the supporters groaned when someone misplaced a short pass suggests that they worry whenever their players try to play a bit and would almost prefer them to stick to the percentages.

The thing is, of course, that it was not just the match that brought people to Dalymount Park that night.

This was also about tradition and loyalty and belonging and community.

And it was about the thrill of promise.

That is the undying thrill that comes when you are walking to a football ground as the night closes in and there’s a little sharpness in the air.

From far away, you see the glow of the floodlights and hear the hum of noise that flows from gathering crowds and ageing tannoy systems.

The walk into Dalymount Park is like something from a comic book of Victorian England: a narrow lane runs between rows of red-brick houses and even a smallish crowd feels like a big one under the darkness at the rear of the main stand.

All around are relics of the past. The old turnstiles were made in Manchester, at a time when the north of England was the workshop of the world. It is easy to imagine that these turnstiles clicked away on Saturday afternoons as thousands of flat-capped men pushed through to see Oldham, Preston, or Bolton play.

In the tunnels under the main stand, the pictures of club greats hang proudly and the bars at either end were full — and full of fun.

This was Bohemians’ first home match of the season and the atmosphere was a warm one. All around the main stand, people were greeting each other and catching up after the close-season.

That stand underlined the extent to which Dalymount Park was filled with people who love their club and are proud of it and of its place in the life of north inner-city Dublin.

But Dalymount is, of course, much more than that: it was — for more than half-a- century — the place where Ireland played its home international soccer matches.

Nostalgia for that era drips off Colin White’s fine book: Dalymount Park — The Home of Irish Football.

When you look at the photographs of 12 decades of soccer played on that field, wedged between Phibsboro and Cabra, it is easy to understand how it became the epicentre of the lives of intertwining generations.

The presence of Pelé and Bobby Moore and John Giles and a whole host of local League of Ireland stars obviously offered an attraction that reinvented itself year after year as new heroes were made.

But the backdrop to almost every black-and-white photograph in the book is a crowd of a scale that can only be dreamed of today. Those rows and rows of spectators must have been an attraction in themselves — there is no way that people stood there just to watch the play; the magic of crowds is potent and magnetic.

And the surge and sway of a terrace as the net ripples is one of the unique sights of sport that is no longer seen in soccer on these islands.

The remnants of that era are all too apparent today. The crumbling terrace behind the goal to the right of the main stand was empty — apart from one ball-boy who pushed over the weeds to retrieve the wildest shots.

The opposite side of the ground was also empty — apart from the cars that sat where people once stood.

And down to the left, the old Shed leaned over newish seating (also empty) as if to cast a shadow on the present, a reminder of the way things once were.

It is easy to come to Dalymount Park and be swallowed up by its history, by the faded grandeur of its glory days.

It is also easy to lament the enduring failures of the soccer authorities in Ireland to invest in its facilities, and to create and sustain a league that matches the passion of its people.

It is easy, most of all, to dismiss the prospect of this ever really changing for the better.

But there was enough in Dalymount Park last Friday night — and enough in soccer grounds all around Ireland —to fashion a future. It will not be easy, but it comes down to organisation and sustainable development. The follies of the past — ridiculous wages, madcap speculation, and the capacity to blame everyone else for Irish soccer’s woes — have no place in such a future.

The plans for the future development of Dalymount Park are serious and their realisation is relatively imminent. The fact that the state and Dublin City Council are involved offers a ballast without which the proposed 10,000-seater stadium would most likely remain a fiction.

The development of this stadium also creates a challenge for Bohemians. For all that Dalymount Park has grievously decayed, it retains a genuine charm as a sort of glorious wreck. Alongside this charm is a homeliness that is fundamental and compelling.

Too many modern stadiums are off-the-shelf, synthetic, and soulless — Bohemians can’t allow that to happen to their home.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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