As Cork City prepare to host Waterford in the first Munster derby of the new season, club legendsquares up to critics of the domestic game
I went to bed one night recently with a warm fuzzy feeling about the soul of the League of Ireland, after watching a video of the Bohemians poet Johnny Cummins waxing lyrical about the hallowed turf of Dalymount Park.
The fuzzy feeling was punctured when I woke the next morning to read a patronising article about the League.
Fans of the LOI like me appreciate what we have more than anyone. We have what might even be perceived as a smug appreciation for the League because we know how good it is. And we strive to improve it because we know how great it can be.
Going to a LOI game is like being at a Glen Hansard gig in Connolly’s of Leap while the masses are heading to the 3Arena to see Coldplay — it’s that kind of smugness.
We mightn’t have all the razzmatazz of our counterparts across the water but there’s something almost visceral about following the progress of a young player busting a gut to try and prove himself and carve out a living and, if things go to plan, realise his dream of climbing the ladder.
As we sat in the Derrynane Stand at Turner’s Cross for the President’s Cup, watching new signing Daire O’Connor exhibit his dazzling footwork for Cork City for the first time, my son asked me: “Might he be the new Seanie Maguire, Dad?”
These are the moments when you know you’ve nailed it, by giving your kids the gift of League of Ireland football.
But not just being content with what we’ve got, we believe in a bright future for the LOI.
And surely ambition should be the cornerstone of any organisation? It’s hard to imagine that Irish rugby fans, if given the chance, would go back in time and rewrite the path they took in favour of a mere survival model. Women’s sporting organisations, some of which are still relatively underdeveloped, wouldn’t take too kindly to receiving this type of advice either.
It’s horseshit that we’re trying to take on the Premier League as some critics suggest. Instead, we should try to emulate the likes of Norway’s infrastructure, so our talented children aren’t forced to emigrate to follow their career path, until they’re fully fledged adults.
Football in England has become an obscene corporate financial monolith which makes it even more important to have a structure in place in this country to pick up the pieces when Irish kids get chewed up and spat out.
The next time someone refers to the LOI as “a third-rate league containing players who mostly couldn’t cut it in Britain”, think of how hard it is for these gifted kids to leave the security and comfort of their home, leave family, friends and all things familiar, and be thrust into the cut-throat world of professional football. Straight away, our guys are up against it. Are they less of a player because this move to foreign shores at such a tender age can hamper their development?
Speaking from personal experience, I went to Brighton when I was 17 and came home at 19 having never represented my country.
I can honestly say that I thought more of home than I did of football in my two years in England. Homesickness was with me constantly.
But thanks to a couple of good years back in the League of Ireland, I was able to proudly represent my home country, watched by my family and friends in the stands, and I began to love football again.And, eventually, I did realise my dream of pulling on the green jersey, earning three U21 caps before the untimely rupturing of my cruciate ligament — we all have our stories.
Perhaps we are guilty of trying a bit too hard at times to encourage more people to come out and support the LOI but is it true that we are guilty of “hectoring”?
In my opinion, we shouldn’t really be concerned with Irish football fans who have fallen in love with Liverpool or Man United. They have made their choice and that’s fine. We need to focus on the younger generation that hasn’t grown up with the traditional media institutions peddling their view of what sport should garner attention or not, and lure them in our direction before they fall in love with our rich rivals’ glitzy charms.
A line from Pearl Jam’s ‘Thumbing My Way’ comes to mind: ‘All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives, choosing the shiny ones instead.’
Understandably some quarters are wary of the ‘Johnny come lately’ aspect of Niall Quinn’s plans for the League but sometimes you need a person of his profile and his connections to help with the fight. His ideas are solid and his voice is loud. Dismissing his plans as flimsy branding is lazy.
Quinn’s proposals have fed into a broader sense that the winds of change are finally blowing around the LOI. That positivity is a result of the dedication and creativity of fans and club volunteers, and the talent and passion of the players and coaches.
The League now has a strong voice on social media and, with the success of ex-players across the water and in the national team, we have the substance to back up why we’re pushing a dynamic vision for the domestic game in Ireland.
Whether people like it or not, the LOI is rapidly becoming the birthplace of our national team — and even of the manager who will follow Mick McCarthy. So it’s only logical that we seek to fix the broken parts of our domestic scene. Our ambition is to bring the world’s favourite game to the highest level we can in this country and make life easier for all young players in the game in Ireland.
A ‘problem child’ can respond very well to love and attention and grow up to be a model adult.
Maybe there are people out there who do not like our taste in “sexy” but we know that, under those tattered rags, this “battered old coaster” is oozing sex appeal and, given the chance, would scrub up very well indeed.