Home thoughts from abroad

THERE WAS no doubt about the biggest sensation of the week – Colm Murray’s discovery that in China they use chopsticks. But Drogheda United ran the RTÉ man close.

They even made onto the main RTÉ news bulletin, possibly at the expense of Colm’s exclusive report on how the Chinese construction industry is booming thanks to this crazy idea they had a few years back to build a great big wall.

Domestic football generally gets little air time on the main bulletins, unless it’s to do with a club going out of business or a major sponsor pulling the plug. So Paul Doolin’s men muscling into Eileen Dunne’s script for something they actually did on the field of play was surely a little moment to savour for the faithful.

Sadly, however, Drogheda’s achievement – holding mighty Dynamo Kiev 2-2 away from home — was ultimately of the close-but-no-cigar variety, though their narrow failure to complete one of European football’s most stunning upsets still left them with plenty to be proud of, and plenty of others with copious quantities of egg on face.

When it was all over, Graham Gartland, whose goal had levelled the scores in Kiev, did well to put the whole experience in perspective.

“Our fitness levels, our commitment to the game, our passion to win drove us on,” he reflected. “We can be proud of it. It’s easy to sit here and say it’s a moral victory but they’re not worth anything, all we get is a pat on the back. But to be disappointed to only draw 2-2 in Kiev, that’s a measure of the ambition of the club and the team.”

And, he might have added, a measure of the professional standards which prevail at the best clubs in a league which has suffered its share of bad publicity in recent times. Not that one should get too carried away. After all, following the first leg – in which Drogheda had done exceedingly well just to keep in touch with Kiev – none other than Paul Doolin had observed that Irish football was probably still about 10 years away from having one of its clubs break into the lucrative group stages of the Champions’ League.

His own side’s heroics in Kiev notwithstanding, that still seems to have the ring of truth, if one can dare risk predicting anything about club football on this island. Drogheda’s close shave with glory might reflect well on their full-time professionalism but to suggest that it was still anything other than a gallant effort at giantkilling would surely be no more realistic than imagining some FA Cup minnow from the lower leagues thriving in the Premier League.

And it’s not as if Drogheda’s experience was unprecedented either. Fully 42 ago, Shamrock Rovers were on the brink of knocking Bayern Munich out of the European Cup Winners Cup in Munich, and four years ago, Shelbourne had their own giddy run in the Champions’ League before bowing out, with their credibility

apparently intact, to Deportivo La Coruna. But as we now know, it didn’t even signal a new dawn for the club, never mind for the rest of the league.

Probably the biggest disappointment of Shels’ crowd-pulling, headline-grabbing European summer was that, even at a time when they were all-conquering at home, it didn’t translate into regular big attendances at Tolka Park. But then we’ve been here before too. I well recall 25,000 turning up at the RDS for Rovers’ first game there after the soccer-mad summer of 1990 before crowds tumbled back again to just a couple of thousand once the novelty wore off.

The blame game demands that everyone and everything from the FAI to high-wage clubs are held accountable for the ills of the eircom League. But the elephant in the room is the simple fact that more people prefer to watch Ronaldo on the box than Dave Mooney in the flesh. As is their right, by the way. Brow-beating and guilt-trips are a waste of time. If League of Ireland football is to thrive, it must attract not compel.

And I wish I knew what the solution was. An All-Ireland League deserves serious consideration if for no other reason than that it’s a radically different alternative but, on the basis of the Setanta Cup experience to date and the apparently dwindling interest in the game up north, it hardly seems like a panacea.

All one can say for now is that, while standards vary considerably within even the Premier Division, the best of League of Ireland football is certainly deserving of much greater support. Not as a charity case or as an act of patriotism but simply because it can be a hugely rewarding experience.

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