Like sugar and social media, we consume Premier League while kinda sure it’s bad for us

Football’s back! Which, incidentally, is something you only say if you enjoy deliberately trolling League of Ireland fans.

Like sugar and social media, we consume Premier League while kinda sure it’s bad for us

Football’s never been away, of course. Even if you don’t follow the trials and tribulations of the hashtag-greatest-league-in-the-world, you’ll be aware that football, in the broader sense, no longer actually stops.

There is no off-season, no downing of tools, no fallow period where the game is allowed to lie unploughed in our imaginations. Football never goes interrailing, or backpacking to Chiang Mai, or volunteering with Medicins Sans Frontiers; football never walks the Camino.

Football, in fact, is now so afraid of our wandering attention spans that its new seasons actually start before the old ones have even ended.

The opening round of Europa League qualifying kicked off on July 10, five days before the World Cup final. The GAA season had only wiped its mouth after the provincial appetisers. The Open Championship was a week away. Wimbledon was still on!

But, for most people, it is only this weekend that football, actual football, is back.

The Premier League is here, already, with all its works and pomps, like a party guest who has arrived an hour early and is helping itself to the bar. It is as if it has decided, in its narcissism, that you have had enough of the summer’s piffling sideshows — hockey! — and couldn’t survive another weekend without a Super Sunday.

In Ireland, especially, we like to think we have a special relationship with the Premier League, that our attraction to England’s gilded sporting pleasuredome is deeper and more profound than that of the folks in Sydney, Singapore, and Seattle.

We believe this because we remember the Past Days, the time it is forbidden to speak of, when the Premier League was something called the First Division and consisted mainly of elbows, Bovril, and people called Steve.

Irishmen had their place in that world too, and we followed English clubs partly in tribute to them, the Gileses, Stapletons, and Bradys, and partly through cultural osmosis brought about by proximity to the great British cities in which so many Irish made their homes. Oh, and also because Match of the Day came on the telly.

But the Premier League is a different place now.

Irishmen are few and most of those that are there shuffle among its basement dwelling supporting cast — and yet our attachment is ever greater, ever more devout.

Last week 46,000-odd pitched up at the Aviva Stadium to take in the meeting of Arsenal and Chelsea in the International Champions Cup (which is a real competition and not, in any way, a lame marketing ploy to make you think you’re not watching a boring pre-season friendly).

On Saturday, there was a full house down Lansdowne Road way to watch Liverpool thump a disinterested Napoli side. Tickets for this match were snapped up in jig time as Liverpool made space in their globetrotting warm-up schedule for a trip to Dublin for the second season in a row.

These are massive houses for, with apologies to International Champions Cup fans, meaningless football matches.

To put it into context, the actual Irish national football team only fill the same stadium for its most important competitive games, while only the biggest GAA and rugby occasions can match the box-office appeal of these snail’s pace summer workouts.

While Liverpool have long enjoyed a massive Irish fanbase — their rivalry with Manchester United exists in this country as a quiet quasi-civil war, a virulent conflict played out almost entirely in the background of our cultural life — these matches have a ‘Hello Cleveland!’ feel to them, the sense of Ireland being just another stop-off on the Premier League’s global missionary checklist.

With all this in mind, how should we feel about our attachment to the Premier League?

Domestic football fans are quick to decry it as empty consumerism, others fear it is in some way corrosive to our national identity: A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And yet, like sugar and social media, we consume the Premier League in vast quantities even though we are pretty sure that it’s really bad for us. You will never hear anyone in Ireland talk about the Premier League the way the current RTÉ documentary series The Game talks about hurling. The Game is a beautifully produced work, which captures the majesty of hurling as it is played, the purity and nobility its best purveyors embody and the historical fabric of the nation into which it is weaved.

And yet, for large swathes of the country the Premier League, greedy, gaudy, and glamorous, is of much more relevance than our most sacred national sport.

There are big chunks of Ireland in which the hurley is as exotic a cultural artefact as a Bolivian nose flute and where the puzzle of squeezing Kane, Salah, and Aguero into a Fantasy League team occupies minds far more than the upcoming All-Ireland final.

This might seem troubling if you worry about that kind of thing. It is what it is. In 2014, the tourism body Visit Britain reported that 120,000 Irish people had travelled to the UK to watch football, the biggest cohort of any foreign nation.

But these people don’t represent a fringe faction or a closeted underground. They are everyday Irish folk: Dads bringing kids for a birthday present, couples, stag weekend warriors, season-ticket diehards.

Some of the most dedicated followers of Liverpool’s European adventure that I came across last season were dyed-in-the-wool GAA people — former inter-county players, newspaper hacks, the lot. Did you know retired GAA director general Paraic Duffy was a massive Spurs fan?

It might be globalisation in action or the influence of British media overspill on our culture, but the return of the Premier League marks the coming of the winter rhythms to Irish life as much as the final whistle in the All-Ireland football final and the kids going back to school.

Like the cuckoo in spring, the first moan of a pre-season Mourinho press conference heralds the changing of the seasons. Summer is over and our attentions turn from high days and holidays to the serious business of Harry Kane’s hamstrings, handshake controversies, and the Match of the Day running order.

Even if feels a little too soon, even if feels strange to say it, the Premier League is back and it is part of what we are.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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