The League of Ireland is back and here is why it is so special

With the Airtricity League returning after a long winter break, Jake O’Donnell outlines exactly why it should not be overlooked

On Monday, November 16th of last year, 51,700 people packed into a full Aviva stadium in Dublin 4 to see Ireland’s footballers take on Bosnia in a European Championship play-off. Thousands more tried in vain to get tickets. The unlucky souls who couldn’t get tickets had no option but to watch the match from within their living rooms or the nation’s pubs.

A bit like watching a live-stream of a party on YouTube, you’d obviously rather have been there instead of watching behind a screen. The demand for tickets was huge to see these 11 or so Irishmen play football. The star players and entertainers who attracted such demand inarguably included Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan and Séamus Coleman. These three men were among the very best and most important to Ireland as their individual performances – and of course that Shane Long goal – were vital in booking Ireland’s place in the European Championships this summer.

In 2015 these players were in high demand among Irish football fans. However in the mid 2000’s when these guys actually played in Ireland week in week out, they were not in such a high demand. Martin O’Neill used 25 players in his qualifying campaign, only 16 of whom were actually born in the Republic of Ireland. Of this 16 a whopping 9 developed and played in the league of Ireland. And without getting too political we can add Northern Irish-born James McClean to make that 9 a nice and even 10 who have been developed in the league.

Of these ten some only ever played a handful of games before they were snatched up by English clubs but for others they were doing what they are doing now in England at home for years. To put this in context, between them McClean, Hoolahan, Forde, Ward, Murphy and Coleman made over 525 league appearances in Ireland. Usually to crowds of no more than a couple of thousand at the max. But those crowds, no matter their size knew these players had talent and many were tipped by fans at the time for bigger and better things. If any of these players were now playing at their local clubs, it would be insulting to think that they couldn’t attract a lot more than a couple of thousand.

These players are now just the mere history of the League of Ireland. But without doubt the league is still producing and still contains future internationals who will sell out the Aviva Stadium. But these players despite their quality still won’t get the recognition they deserve from the majority of Irish football fans until they grace English football.

We have seen it with Chris Forrester who has brought some of the most magical moments of Irish football to the league over the last few years. After his move to Peterborough in the summer he has been featured on the BBC website numerous times and he was singled out for high praise from Gary Lineker, Kevin Kilbane and Alan Shearer on MOTD’s coverage of Peterborough’s FA Cup match. Richie Towell has also just left the league this winter and if he carries any of his form from last season over, he is also set for big things for his club and country in the future.

Although some may think otherwise, it is not the case that any player with quality makes the move over to England or elsewhere. There are many players that for whatever reasons have just never made it over despite having the quality to play at a higher and more glamorous level. Players like Shamrock Rovers Killian Brennan, Cork’s Greg Bolger and Ronan Finn of Dundalk are playing the best football of their careers in Ireland and have been on a par with any player who has gone abroad.

Likewise we have the next generation of talented youngsters who any regular League of Ireland fan knows are set for bigger and better things whether home or abroad. To name a few, Daryl Horgan, Patrick McEleney, Brandon Miele, Lee Desmond, Ismahil Akinade, Mark Timlin all have the quality and potential to be the league’s next stars.

Looking beyond the quality of football and the players, this league has a lot to offer. One Bohs fan tells me what he loves about supporting his local team: “It’s being able to just walk down the road and being at a live game lit by the floodlights of Dalyer. Where the team goes out and gives it their all, not for the money, but for the badge. It’s also being able to go and really feeling a part of the club, where your attendance is actually valued.”

Last year the average yearly wage for an Airtricity League footballer was 16,000 Euro, there are certainly easier ways to make a living and players are usually working outside of football as well as playing and training several times a week. These players are not living cushy lives disconnected from the average man on the terrace, their decision to play means sacrifices. They are there usually for their love of the game, it’s the same with the match officials and the fans. The Airtricity League survives off its three-way passion between fans, officials and players, not off any TV money or extortionate ticket prices.

Other fans also put their love of the league down to feeling “a part of something” and the sense of “community” within their own personal clubs. This sense of community is not exclusive to just within the clubs though, this whole league is a community. This was never more beautifully and sadly portrayed than when LOI legend Mark Farren was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour for the third time in his short life last year. Although Mark eventually lost his battle with cancer, a lot of help from the Irish footballing community and League of Ireland clubs, fans and former players saw over £40,000 raised for his treatments in an attempt to give him every chance of survival.

This league is a one off. There is no league in the world quite like the Airtricity League. In what other top European league can a young player like Keith Buckley make his home debut, score in the country’s biggest derby and then hop on his bike and cycle to work as a lounge boy. A league where Ronan Finn, a player who has lined up in the Europa League group stages against a strong Spurs squad, that contained Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, have his imminent transfer to Dundalk delayed as he was too busy working as a postman in the off season to sign a contract. And sadly a league where players can go from playing in the biggest game of the season, the FAI Cup final in the Aviva Stadium in front of 25,000 people, and then find themselves not plastered on the papers or our social media but on social welfare payments just two weeks later.

This league isn’t perfect. It isn’t glamorous. It isn’t played in state of the art stadia. It is played in grounds some of which are good and some not. But it’s not about the flaking paint, the wobbly seats or the damp toilets. It’s about experiencing the highs and lows of supporting a football club in person. A football club you can call yours. Experiencing feelings that just simply cannot be aroused by a multi-millionaire on a TV set.

Only your club, and your participation, in supporting and following them through the shit and the magnificent, can make you feel that way. And when you know your presence is valued and you know that these guys represent you not for the money, the fame or the glory but for the passion and the love then that is the best feeling a fan can feel. And if you are lucky enough to watch the next generation of the Irish national team that’s just an added bonus.

The League of Ireland kicks off on Friday 4th of March and runs right through to November, usually on sunny Friday and Saturday evenings.

“Before I came out here, if you told me I would experience my most exhilarating moment for a derby where half of one team are just part-time workers… in a league that most people in Ireland don’t even watch, I would have told you to get out of here…” – Copa 90 on their visit to Rovers v Bohemians last season.

Photo by Paul Reynolds