Tallaght Stadium, 6th March 2015
Ah, the opening day of the league of Ireland season. The most wonderful time of the year that makes dreamers of all of us. What will happen next? Who knows? Mysteries abound.
It is actually shaping up to be quite an exciting season. A couple of big names have arrived in the shape of Liam Miller and to a (much) lesser extent, the Quiet Man himself, Sean Thornton. The former internationals already playing in the league – Keith Fahey, Stephen McPhail and Colin Healy – plan on sticking around. The two most dazzling talents of the last couple of years, Richie Towell and Chris Forrester, will also be remaining in the league for another season at least. And Damien Duff himself might also be joining them.
The promotion of the league this pre-season has been curious though, with many previews of the season ahead focused on the shortcomings of the league and its inability to promote itself to a wider Irish audience. On a recent Second Captains podcast they, uncharacteristically, devoted a portion of the football show to the League of Ireland. However, rather than actually preview the season ahead, the segment essentially treated the league as a curio, emphasising the financial challenges of the clubs and the league as a whole. It may as well have been titled “What is to be done about the League of Ireland question?” Similarly, Ireland’s two best football journalists, Emmet Malone and Dan McDonnell, both wrote previews probing the current state of the league (here and here). While their journalistic integrity is to be applauded, does the focus on the state of the league really help to promote it? Obviously this is not the responsibility of these journalists but, as the two most prominent figures covering the league, one would think that they would have a vested interest in increasing its popularity. Creating a concept of the league as a dysfunctional entity does nothing to encourage potential supporters to attend. All it does is feed the prevailing attitude that the league is something that exists only to be derided, critiqued or ignored.
Far better is the approach of the Soccer Republic show on RTE. A weekly roundup of the league’s action, the show is a simulacrum of a Goals on Sunday and Monday Night Football combination with Stuart Byrne playing the role of an ersatz Gary Neville. Rather than focus on the “League of Ireland” as an entity that is to be examined and discussed the show engages with the league as one would expect a sports competition to be engaged with and the format is straightforward – matches are analysed and previewed. The state of the league is rarely explored. What this does is make the league an event that can be discussed in a “normal” fashion. Treating the league in this way is the only means by which it can grow. It is like the recent spike in popularity of the NFL. As more people become interested in it, conversation around it becomes a regular thing. And soon, not knowing about it makes one feel like an outsider. A similar approach is needed with the LOI. By normalising the conversation around it people can be bullied into watching it. If you don’t like it you’re a square.
This is not to say that the management of the league should not be questioned. It undoubtedly should. However, in the short term, it is imperative that these discussions do not overshadow the competition itself in the wider public discourse. Which is what is happening right now. For example, on The Guardian website today they published an article devoted to pointing out all of the faults in the league and explaining how shit it is. This is not to say that it did not raise valid points. It did, particularly its questioning of the addition of Cabinteely, ANOTHER Dublin club, to the First Division. However this is likely to be the only piece of coverage that the league will get in this paper all year. Wouldn’t it have been better to just do one of those things pointing out the Key Men and the Ones to Watch? At least that might have engaged a few more people. Looking at the comments below the piece, its criticisms of the league were just used by those without an interest in the competition as a stick with which to beat it.
Which brings me to my next point. The insincere rationalisation of non-LOI fans for their lack of interest in the competition. On the aforementioned Second Captains podcast they questioned the marketing of the league and many posters under the Guardian article seemed to take this dire appraisal of the league as an affirmation of their own disinterest. However I find these rationalisations disingenuous. Irish football fans have absolutely no obligation to take an interest in the domestic league. If you’re not into the league you’re not into it and there are a myriad of reasons why this might be the case. But to try and claim that you would be if the quality of football was better or the marketing was less aggressive are phoney arguments. It reminds me of that stupid movie Rendition that tried to make the (admirable) point that torture is bad but did so in the most hamfisted way possible by making the very unconvincing argument that conflated both the moral concerns surrounding torture with the questions surrounding its efficiency as a means of information gathering. Why try and make an ill-informed argument surrounding the efficiency of torture when one’s objections are moral ones? All that does is patronise the audience.
A lot of people would say that making comparisons between a subject as frivolous as the LOI and a subject as serious as torture in the Middle East is distasteful. But they are wrong. Look, even the best of us make these types of comparisons from time to time (skip to 2:02):
And to the match. Et tu Liam. Buckley complained about the high winds and their effect on the game but Pat’s spent too long hoofing the ball long. This wasn’t Buckleyball, which is based on moderately fit but extremely skilful guys knocking it around at a nice leisurely pace. And the decision to withdraw Forrester while in search of an equaliser was an odd one. That said, the winning goal from the plump Danny North was very nicely finished. And Sean O’Connor played the role of the match villain nicely in the absence of the suspended Killian Brennan.