LIAM MACKEY: The League of Ireland: Natty and dread

So, this lovely image of Bob Marley adorning Bohemians’ new away strip: Does it mean that, next season, when it’s nil-nil late on and the opposition score, we will be entitled to refer to the goal as “breaking the dreadlock”?

The shirt commemorates Marley’s concert at Dalymount Park in 1980, a famous gig your present correspondent actually attended, but about which, frankly, my recollection is somewhat hazy, no doubt mainly due to my rapidly advancing years, but partly also, I suspect, because any kind of proximity to the Rastaman vibration in those days tended to leave one exposed to what used to be called in the trade “a contact high”.

At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

Anyway, apart from being a musical revolutionary with genius to burn, Marley was a complete football nut, as numerous archive pictures of him playing pick-up games while on tour testify. So, for all sorts of reasons, the Bob-Bohs mash-up is an inspired one, even if it has left the club open to the inevitable backlash.

And, on that score, I particularly liked the contribution from Eoghan Rice — a Rovers man, needless to say — who tweeted in midweek: “Looking forward to United v Juve tonight. Juve have embroidered an image of Adam Clayton on their jersey to commemorate the time U2 played the Stadio Delle Alpi. United going for Mick Hucknall.”

Actually, mention of Man U brings us back to one of the main reasons why Bohemians marketing director Daniel Lambert came up with his novel idea to twin Trenchtown and Phibsborough.

“We are up against the English Premier League,” he explained. “It annoys me when I walk into a pub and see the list of live sport being shown in the next month, and the FAI Cup final isn’t on it. That’s the size of the marketing machine you’re up against, so you have to think outside the box to get attention”.

Which is definitely true in the League of Ireland, but, of course, it still don’t mean a thing unless you’re also trying to do it right where it really matters: On the pitch and, most especially, inside the box. So, credit manager Keith Long and his players for delivering there too. At the end of another season in which, to the casual observer, it might look like it’s been all about the New Firm of Dundalk and Cork City yet again, Bohs’ scintillating second half of the campaign was a welcome reminder that there can still be uplifting alternatives to ye olde mid-table mediocrity.

That they fell short at the penultimate hurdle of reaching the Aviva next month was no disgrace; overcoming the experience of the holders was always going to be a tall order, even for a youthful side as full of zip and fearlessness as Long’s.

However, the way they went about playing their football during that incredible winning run in league and cup not only impressed neutrals, but entranced the faithful to the extent that, by the time they played that first drawn semi-final against Cork, dear old Dalyer felt like as passionate a cauldron for big time football as, well, a two-sided football stadium can be.

Yes, for all the improvements in a number of grounds around the country, as well as plans for greater things in Phibsborough, Ballybofey and elsewhere, facilities continue to be an issue in the League of Ireland. Even at the home of the champions, as Stephen Kenny is never slow to point out.

Also, as Bray Wanderers prepare for life in the First Division after a season of turmoil and Limerick face successive battles for survival on two fronts — as a Premier Division side and as a club — there were more grim reminders this year that, without prudent housekeeping, or European money, or a generous benefactor, there are few if any clubs in the league invulnerable to the collapse in attendances and ensuing financial squeeze which can come in the wake of a season of underachievement.

As Daniel Lambert correctly alluded to, overshadowing and undermining all attempts to sell and progress the league is the stranglehold the Premier League exerts on the devotion of Irish football fans, for many of whom there are no gods worth worshipping other than United or Liverpool or Celtic and who, consequently, seem to regard the domestic game — if they bother to think about it at all — as some weird, minority cult on a par with Rastafarianism.

How that battle for hearts and minds can ever be won — hell, we’d even settle for a draw — has addled greater minds than mine but, for those who do regularly attend League of Ireland games, this season has again provided plenty of evidence that there is not much wrong with — to use that awful phrase — “the product”.

Under the brilliant stewardship of Kenny, Dundalk were the outstanding watch, regaining the title in record-breaking fashion, while invariably playing football of a very high calibre, with Pat Hoban and Michael Duffy the stars of the show. Cork City couldn’t match their great rivals in the league this time, but showed enough resilience to finish as runners up and, of course, they still have a chance to prevail over the Lilywhites for the third time in a row in the FAI Cup final at the Aviva next week.

That those two clubs have raised the bar for everyone else in recent years is self-evident and, though consistency eluded Shamrock Rovers and Waterford this time, both also showed on their best nights that they were too not far off closing the gap.

Also, if it was goals of this season — or any other season — you wanted, well, you wouldn’t see many more spectacular in world football than Kieran Sadlier redefining the meaning of ‘box to box’ for Cork City against St Pat’s in Inchicore, or that Ian Morris rocket for Bohs that left Turner’s Cross thunderstruck in the cup semi-final replay.

So, as ever in the League of Ireland, there are reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be fearful. In the wake of changes of management at St Pat’s and Sligo and with plenty of business to be done in the transfer market, consideration of what next year might have in store is best left to another day.

At least we know this much: The next time the Gypsies take to the road, they will do so as the Reggae Bohs.

One Love (as the Hoops won’t say).


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