Quoting Van Morrison, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: "wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time..."
That concluding line from ‘Coney Island’, the Belfast Cowboy’s rapturous meditation on a perfect day, pretty much summed up the collective mood at Oriel Park last Friday night, as the turnstiles whirred, the stands filled up, the flares blazed and the noise levels skyrocketed in the breathless minutes leading up to kick-off in the title decider between Dundalk and Cork City.
For hardcore League of Ireland devotees — not least in Dundalk itself — who’ve had to endure more days of famine than feast, here was the longed-for, authentic big match atmosphere, the kind of spine-tingling occasion which, especially for any young first-timers present, you’d like to think would have them hooked for life.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time...”
Indeed. By the close of play, as the locals gave vent to uproarious celebration, the big travelling contingent of Cork City fans would hardly have been in the mood to quote that lyric, but over the course of the memorable season just ending, they too had been fortunate to experience plenty more nights of comparable excitement at Turner’s Cross.
That John Caulfield’s men fell so agonisingly short at the death will take some time to work out of their systems but, when the crushing disappointment subsides, they will be entitled to reflect on a season of huge progress while conceding that, if they were going to lose the title to any other club, it deserved to be Stephen Kenny’s outstanding side.
When the man on the public address in Oriel Park on Friday repeatedly hailed the new champions for their “sexy” football, lots of people smiled but nobody laughed.
Even more than their two-point winning margin on the table, the most telling Dundalk stat of the year was their goal difference of plus 23 – just short of twice Cork’s total – reflecting a wonderfully attacking dimension to their play which was once again there for all to see when, liberated by Stephen O’Donnell’s fairytale breakthrough goal, they almost effortlessly upped their game in the second half.
So, a great League of Ireland occasion in every way then but, even amidst the celebrations, the wistful undercurrent to that Van Morrison line was a nagging reminder that, of course, it isn’t anything at all like this most of the time.
The Dundalk programme on the night recalled other domestic glory days in the form a wonderful interview with the legendary Tommy McConville, its publication coinciding almost to the day with the first anniversary of his death. But the same programme only had to go back two years to remind its readers of the night when a Dundalk side scrapping against relegation – successfully as it turned out – were playing their final home game of the season in front of just 260 people, as against the 5,500 who crammed into Oriel last week.
Then, ahead of tomorrow’s FAI Cup final between St Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City, there were those quotes from a League of Ireland legend of the present day, Keith Fahey, which painted a grim picture of the state of a league which he left in 2008 and to which he returned last year. “It has not made any steps forward in terms of facilities,” he charged, “some of (them) are an absolute disgrace to be honest.”
No-one would argue that improving grounds around the league wouldn’t be a very good thing but to what extent the ‘build it and they will come’ credo would impact significantly on attendances has got to be a moot point. Recently, I found myself in conversation with someone close to the set-up at Shamrock Rovers who argued for FAI and club investment, in co-operation with local authorities, to establish ten grounds around the country of similar quality to the Hoops’ base in Tallaght. Yet, in the very next breath, he was bemoaning the shortage of bums on seats in their fine home ground this season.
The FAI tend to get lots of flak for the problems of the League of Ireland but it seems to me that John Delaney is on the right track when he advocates that clubs develop deeper roots in their own communities, in part by forging close ties with their nearest schoolboy and junior clubs. But then, as we know, turf wars on that front are another recurring issue in the domestic game.
Ultimately, whatever range of solutions is proposed, the League will always be faced with having to carve out a niche of its own between the powerful twin magnets of the GAA and the Premier League, a reality which makes the battle for hearts and minds a fiendishly difficult challenge.
But it’s a battle which continues to be waged by good and enlightened people, such as the Irish Supporters Network who today host a workshop at the Aviva Stadium entitled ‘LOI Supporters: Making A Vital Difference’..
The fact that both Shamrock Rovers and Cork City are even in existence is confirmation enough of the inestimable value of this kind of supporter-driven initiative. Then tomorrow at the Aviva, it’s the turn of the players of Pat’s and Derry to put out the proverbial good advertisement for the game. And if we can be quoting Van The Man at the end again, they too will have done their bit.
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