THE BEST SUPPORTERS IN THE WORLD? IRELAND’S ENDURING DELUSION – By Steve Bradley.
The announcement that Ireland is part of a multi-nation consortium bidding to host the 2030 World Cup opens the mouth-watering possibility that football’s biggest tournament could be coming to these shores. A chance to swing open the front door and invite the global footballing family into the home of supporters that are often considered world-class themselves.
There are supposed to be no rewards for exiting sports tournaments early, but in Euro 2016 Irish supporters changed that script. First the ‘Medal of the City of Paris’ was bestowed on both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland fans for “their exemplary attitude, fair play, and good mood”. Then UEFA’s Executive Committee voted to create a bespoke ‘Outstanding Contribution’ award to give to Republic and Northern fans (plus the Welsh and Icelanders). It was no longer surely a matter of opinion that the Irish are amongst the greatest football supporters in the world – sure didn’t we finally have the silverware to prove it?
Irish fans north and south were clearly well regarded at Euro 2016. Republic supporters have become old hands over the years at making friends and influencing people whilst on international duty and certainly lived up to that reputation in France – filmed in all sorts of jolly or charitable acts like singing a lullaby to a baby in Bordeaux, helping a couple change a tyre in Paris, and joining Swedish supporters in a mass rendition of Dancing Queen. These often self-conscious, try-hard attempts to always be seen as the cub scouts of international football may have become a bit hackneyed – but they are also utterly harmless, endearing and damn good fun. Plus it’s a lot better than the travelling reputation of our English neighbours, who are still to this day (unfairly or otherwise) considered by some as the angry pimple on the face of the beautiful game. Yet there is something crucial that even England’s beleaguered travelling fans could teach the Irish when it comes to being football supporters. And that is the way they combine a genuine love of for the game with a strong sense of local identity and civic pride. Because unlike the Irish, the English tend to support their own.
Many of England’s well-travelled international supporters follow their country’s least glamorous clubs, – with flags supporting the likes of Bishop Auckland, Port Vale or Burton Albion usually more visible at away matches than those for major clubs. When you look at it logically and objectively the number and regional distribution of high profile, glamorous and successful clubs in English football means that there is no sensible reason for anyone there to support their country’s lower league teams. Yet – as in most footballing countries around the world – that is precisely what a huge number of English people still consciously decide to do. League 2 club Port Vale, for example, is unique in English football for not being named after an actual place – yet still draws an average crowd of 4,600 to its matches. The unfashionable Lancashire team Fleetwood Town had the lowest attendances in League 1 last season (2017/18), but still drew 3,140 punters on average. And despite having a population of only 45,000, Somerset’s Yeovil Town pull-in almost 3,000 to their games in England’s fourth tier. The English not only attend football matches in greater numbers than anywhere else in Europe, but they also watch their own local teams whilst doing so – regardless of where they rank within the footballing pyramid. Because for many people in England the team they actively support is determined not by who was the most successful or had the nicest shirts when they were a kid, but instead by where they were born or live. It’s a combination of footballing passion and local pride, where “their” team is pre-ordained by birth-right, family loyalties or location. For many English football fans a strong, genuine and natural affinity exists with the teams that they support.
This is of course not true for everyone in England – as quips about Man United fans living in Surrey remind us. But even those English who subvert the rules by picking a distant team in search of glamour or success generally have one redeeming quality whilst doing so. And that is that they bear no animosity towards the local clubs they have over-looked in that process. They feel no need to disparage their local team – and instead usually wish them well, keep an eye out for their results, and occasionally go watch them if they get a big cup draw or have a successful spell.
All of which stands in stark contrast to the Irish. For in-between helping old ladies cross the road in foreign climes, the supposedly greatest supporters in the world are by and large NOT to be found populating the terraces of their local League of Ireland clubs. Instead they’re largely glued to a sofa or barstool cheering on “their” team in Britain. A team which is usually a financially bloated international sports corporation based in a city that many would struggle to locate on a map, and with which they have no connection whatsoever. A club that they chose primarily because they were good, glamorous or successful at the time that choice was first made (usually as a child). And a club which, if we’re honest, is substantially more interested in growing its support in Asia than in Ireland. Yet Irish people have convinced themselves that this rootless, borrowed and one-sided relationship is somehow genuine.
If truth be told, this actually makes the Irish one of the worst kind of football supporters. The kind who turn their back on their own in search of something better or more glamorous elsewhere. And who then double-down on this with indifference or sneering disregard for domestic football (perhaps fuelled by subconscious guilt ?). There are numerous GAA counties that have little chance of setting Gaelic football or hurling alight any time soon. But it would be unimaginable for the proud inhabitants of Sligo, Louth or Wexford to turn their back on their home counties and declare undying love for Dublin or Cork instead. Similarly – we don’t look down our noses at the Irish international team on the basis that the English are better, and transfer our international allegiances to them with abandon. Yet when it comes to club soccer the majority of Irish football ‘supporters’ readily and unwittingly indulge in this double-standard.
Statistics from Visit Britain show that over 200,000 people from the Republic of Ireland travel to watch club football in England every year. Over a typical 40 week season that amounts to more than 5,000 on average flying out each week to attend English club games. And if we assume an average expenditure of €200 on such trips (probably a conservative estimate, given the price of tickets), that amounts to over a million Euro flowing out of the Republic to support English football every year. And that’s before we factor in those who travel from Northern Ireland, those from both sides of the border who go to Scottish games, and the huge additional sum that Irish people spend in Ireland on British football merchandise. Irish people supporting Scottish football is a particularly baffling affliction. The Scottish League is ranked 23rd in Europe – behind even Belarus and Cyprus – so it is certainly not quality that draws in the Irish. Instead, folk from these shores who follow Glasgow Celtic tend to place great store on the club’s Irish heritage to justify their interest – whilst simultaneously overlooking the presence of 44 ACTUAL Irish senior clubs, full of Irish players who play on the island of Ireland every week in front of Irish crowds, and who represent Ireland in international club competitions. If celebrating a sense of Irishness is your thing in football, why look towards Scotland to fulfil it?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with people from Ireland choosing to support foreign football teams. Indeed – many of those who attend League of Ireland games also follow teams in Britain. But what is questionable is people wrapping themselves in the Tricolour and puffing their chest out with national pride as part of the whole ‘best supporters in the world’ myth, whilst simultaneously rejecting and sneering at domestic Irish football. There is even an assumption in Ireland that everyone does, and indeed should support an English football club – as League of Ireland fans can attest when they’re greeted with quizzical looks and the absurd response of “But who do you REALLY support?” when they express love for their local team. No amount of serenading female gendarmes overseas can erase the fact that this is not the behaviour of credible football supporters, let alone the best in the world.
It is unfortunate that most (though by no means all) of those who follow Ireland to major tournaments have rejected domestic football to instead syphon glory from the English game. That arguably makes us the worst supporters in the world. And it also makes our international team weaker – reducing its prospects of reaching future tournaments. Two or three decades ago the best players from Ireland regularly made the team sheets of Premier League clubs across England. But gone are the days when Ireland’s promising talent was hoovered up at a young age and moulded into stars by major Premier League clubs. Nowadays the Republic’s squad is largely confined to player’s from England’s lower divisions. Very few Irish players make it to the top of the English game nowadays by going over at a young age. Instead, those who do scale the heights tend to transfer as adults – having been honed first in Dundalk, Cork or Derry, rather than Liverpool or London. The League of Ireland has played a key role in the development of a number of stand-out players in the Republic’s national side in recent years – including Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, James McLean and Kevin Doyle. And it looks set to continue, with Ronan Curtis the latest LOI graduate added to Ireland’s senior panel (less than three months after he left Derry City for Portsmouth). We can no longer out-source the development of our future international squad to foreign clubs. Only through having stronger and wealthier teams in Ireland will we be able to vastly improve player development on this island, and in-turn make our international team better. And with Ireland usually missing out narrowly on tournament qualification at the play-offs stage, it is entirely feasible that a minor improvement in the prosperity of club football in Ireland (and therefore its capacity to develop players) could see us feature in more tournaments in future.
The League of Ireland is far from perfect and has many flaws both on and off the pitch. It is also poor at promoting itself, and cannot demand support merely because it exists. But it is also undoubtedly of a higher quality and more entertaining than those who reject it would know or care to acknowledge. And it could be made better still if even a fraction of the expenditure that flows into the bloated pockets of English and Scottish clubs from here was instead directed towards Irish teams. In 2016, Dundalk performed credibly in the group stage of the Europa League on a player budget of approximately £500,000. Four years before that, Shamrock Rovers did likewise. League of Ireland clubs could conceivably feature in the group stages of European competitions on a regular basis. That would result in some of the best teams and players from across the continent coming to Ireland regularly to play in competitive fixtures – in contrast to the meaningless high-cost friendly appearances from reserve British teams that we must settle for at the moment. It would also enable Irish clubs to genuinely do our nation proud on the continental stage, and create household names you could bump into in town. Plus it would strengthen our international squad – enabling even more tyres to be changed and old ladies to be serenaded at future tournaments.
With the quest to bring a World Cup to these shores underway, perhaps it’s time for Irish supporters to accept we’ve been kidding ourselves (and the world) with the delusion that we’re somehow tremendous supporters. It’s time instead to acknowledge that the silverware we were awarded in 2016 was the equivalent of scooping a ‘Dad of the year’ prize whilst your children sit at home neglected. If we get to welcome the World Cup to these shores in 2030, the greatest legacy it could leave would be if it was the point beyond which the Irish finally altered their Jekyl and Hyde approach to supporting football. The point at which we continued to turn out in large, good-natured numbers to support our international team (despite its mediocre performances), but no longer felt the need to reject or disparage our own domestic product whilst doing so. Because not only is that the key to ensuring we develop the strongest possible Ireland team in the future, it is surely what being great football supporters is really all about.
Steve Bradley is a Derry City supporter who writes for a variety of football magazines and other publications. He can be followed on Twitter at : @Bradley_Steve