Keep it in the country

Online Sport Editor Eoin Roche does his best to persuade you that real footballing joy comes from following local football, and not the Premier League.

17/4/2017 Galway United v Derry City. Alex Byrne (Galway United), Mark Timlin (Derry City). Photo: Sean Ryan | sportsphoto.ie

Until last February I was ignorant to the existence of League of Ireland football; I mean I knew there was a League in Ireland but that was about it. With Premier League football on television being such a rip-off and even decent seats in the Aviva starting to look a little steep, I found my way to Tallaght, to watch the closest thing to my local team, Shamrock Rovers. This would lead to my own little footballing renaissance and a new obsession: the League of Ireland.

 

I never really understood football culture. As a long time plastic fan of a top 6 Premier League team, the “prawn sandwich” variety, I watched a lot of football and thought I knew a lot about it, but didn’t have any passion. It was Ireland’s win against Germany in 2015 that changed everything. Shane Long’s winner happened right in front of me, literally, and blew my mind, figuratively. Suddenly, all the passion and all the singing made sense, and a desire for live, in the flesh football followed. The logical next step was the League of Ireland.

 

So, which team? Well, living in Dublin I could choose from 3 Premier Division teams. I could venture to the northside on a 9 to the traditional home of Irish football, Dalymount park and support Bohemians, I could head westward on a 13 to Inchicore to support St. Patrick’s athletic in Richmond park, or I could hop on a 27 destined for Jobstown and join Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght stadium. In the end Tallaght was the closest and therefore the obvious choice.

 

The first thing that struck me about Shamrock Rovers was the atmosphere. Well no, the first thing that struck me about Rovers was the hatred of Bohemians. Rovers weren’t even playing them at the time and every second chant was about how terrible Bohs were. The second thing that struck me about Rovers was the atmosphere. I swear Tallaght Stadium is louder than the Aviva despite having 10% of the capacity. Tallaght stadium seats around 5000 spectators, which is rarely more than three-fifths full, but fans make up for it with passion, shouting and chanting, the content of which I don’t think I can print with a clear conscience.

 

There’s a great community feeling around Rovers, between the old lads who’ve been following the club for years, the guys my age who come every week, and the families that fill the West stand, every demographic is covered and makes for some entertaining banter amongst them.

 

The League of Ireland is not the most technically gifted league in the world; the games are often fast-paced but scrappy. Shamrock Rovers, for example, played a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1 for the majority of the season, utilising a big man, often Garry Shaw, up front with runners like Trevor Clarke, Graham Burke, Brandon Miele and Aaron Bolger playing off of him. Ronan Finn, who rejoined Rovers from Dundalk during the winter break, would play in a 2 man midfield pivot, with either Ryan Connolly or Dave McAllister.

 

Both fullbacks would push high, particularly Simon Madden on the right. The game plan was about getting the ball to Shaw to hold up, or down the wings with Madden or Clarke to cross for Shaw. Rovers would play fast and loose, often being caught out spectacularly for it. For better or worse, this made games into an absolute rollercoaster of thrills and spills. So maybe not the ‘Total Football’ of Johan Cruyff that I idolise so much, but certainly more entertaining than watching Manchester United travel to Merseyside.

 

Having a young squad and a young manager in Stephen Bradley at times led to some passionate displays of what can only loosely be described as tackling. In five games against Dundalk this year, Rovers had a man sent off in four. Whether it was a league game, the EA Sports cup final or the FAI cup semi final, players and staff alike were not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the opposition.

 

Specifically, in the FAI cup semi-final replay, an altercation over a throw-in between Bradley and a Dundalk player developed into an all out brawl between all players and staff on both teams. A brilliant and enthralling display of passion, even if it wasn’t exactly setting the best example for kids sitting in the family section behind the dugout.

 

I feel that the League of Ireland has led me to a sort of footballing renaissance. It feels rooted and community driven and very much tribal, probably how the top flight in England felt 70 years ago or more. The Premier League, with the possible exception of some of the newer promoted clubs like Brighton or Bournemouth, is so far away from that. I barely know a single chant or song that Manchester United fans sing regularly, despite being a “fan” for well over a decade, although I think I’m more a Manchester United “acquaintance” now, but I’ll still enjoy my prawn sandwiches on the good days.

 

I think this is the part of the article where I lampoon the FAI for not supporting League of Ireland enough. It’s strange: if you ask Ireland fans, specifically those who travel to away games frequently, they’ll tell you the FAI is doing a great job. But Michael D. Higgins walked out at Tallaght Stadium to chants of “Fuck the FAI!” at the EA Sports cup final. I think more money could be given to improve infrastructure and grass-roots opportunities for kids.

 

Shamrock Rovers new academy is a great first step but other clubs need support too and if we can still pay top brass in the FAI six figures, I’m sure the money is there. Dundalk’s stadium is made out of barns, Cork City’s Turner’s Cross ground literally collapsed during hurricane Ophelia, and they’re the top two teams in the league. Imagine what could be achieved with a little more investment.

 

Whether you live in Dublin all year or only come up during the academic year, if you have any interest in soccer I’d highly recommend the League of Ireland to you when it kicks off again in February; it’s an encapsulating, cheap way to spend a Friday. I’d love you to come to the East Stand of Tallaght Stadium and watch Rovers, but any Dublin team is well worth your time.

 

With tickets often costing as little as €10, you’ll easily get your money’s worth. I’ll even forgive you for supporting Bohemians.

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