Like most Irish football fans, Donal O’Brien fell under the spell of the Premier League as a young boy. But while the state of the modern game is driving people away from the commercial elite, an upturn in attendances for the much-maligned League of Ireland could be a sign that real football lovers are searching for and finding something pure.
Way Back Then
I remember when I received my first football jersey. I was with my parents in a local sports shop in Cavan town. Rummaging through a bargain bin of the then out-dated jerseys from previous seasons I found the one I was looking for; a beautiful Newcastle United button-up proudly stamped with Newcastle Brown Ale approval. Following in the footsteps of my four older brothers I had chosen another Premier League team to rival our father’s beloved Manchester United.
This was a defining moment in my journey to becoming a ‘proper’ football supporter as I began my week-in, week-out support of my adopted team. I channelled all my love for the game into reciting the team off-by-heart, on-going rivalry between family members and friends and imagining scoring Shearer-esque thumping match winners in my back garden as well as on the school playground.
Alas, my romance with Newcastle United didn’t last long. I committed the cardinal sin amongst all true football fans. I switched teams. A few seasons after embracing them I disowned the brave Magpies for the more alluring va va voom of Arsene Wenger’s Imperial Gunners. This may cast into doubt my credentials as a true football fan where sticking by your team ‘through thick and thin’ is a mandatory call all sign up to.
However reprehensible the decision was to have switched loyalties over a decade and a half ago I now have a new and graver predicament on my mind: How can I, or even the most loyal and die-hard fans, support modern football at all?
It has become a common feature in football news headlines to hear of record breaking transfers being touted between the largest clubs. This summer alone Manchester City have already spent over €250m to land 5 players with their neighbours Manchester United handing over €150m for 3 players thus far. Premier League rivals Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have all broken their transfer records this summer as well leading to what may be the biggest outlay in spending yet during a transfer window (and there’s still some time to go).
Despite these mammoth deals taking place the most bizarre to date is Neymar €222m move to PSG which more than doubles the previous transfer record set by Manchester United and Pogba last summer. Equally outlandish, if it goes through, is Monaco’s 18 year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappé being linked to Real Madrid for 180m which is a step up from the already dizzyingly bonkers €40m that they splashed out on another teenage prodigy, Vinicius Junior.
— PSG Officiel (@PSG_inside) August 3, 2017
One cannot but scratch their head and wonder why would a club pay that much for a 16 year-old like Vinicius Junior who was signed just 11 days after making his professional debut? The answer, of course, is that in the modern game it makes perfect business sense. In order to earn cash outside of prize money clubs need fans to produce their revenue and the best way to do it is to secure the biggest names.
Clubs need fans to buy their shirts. They need them to sell-out their stadiums. They need them to watch their team on TV. They need the next kid in a sports shop to tell their parents which football club’s jersey they want them to buy. They need them to be consumers of their ever growing commercial product. The types of figures mentioned above have become justified and seen as smart investments as the business off the pitch seems to ever more encroach on the importance of the performances on it.
In the case of PSG’s pursuit of Neymar a main motivating factor, apart from his world-class talent, was his marketing potential. A potential which could break the South American market and which may finally catapult them to the top of the table in terms of fanbase as well as being able to challenge the footballing elite on the pitch in this digital era in which the club, in partnership with tech giants Ericsson, brazenly claim themselves to be leading the “rebirth of football”.
The question that emerges from this rebirth which promises to bring the fan closer to the players through social media is whether it is actually driving fans away from the clubs?
Is there a point where fans will start to feel so disconnected with their clubs that they cannot find sense in supporting them? Disillusion is already rife among some sections as ticket prices and tv subscriptions have risen significantly in recent years. The ever increasing transfer fees that we have witnessed recently may be the breaking point.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
30 years ago the daily stories we hear of clubs bartering over the next 100m plus prodigal teen would have been thought of as science-fiction. In most corners of the world clubs are still looking onward, misty-eyed at such spectacles beyond their powers and wonder what it will ever take for them to get anywhere near those heights, to compete with the best? How do the shovels of cash being passed around the footballing elite have an effect on the other leagues, especially those who are struggling to survive?
Rocking uneasily at the other end of the ocean, the sloops and schooners struggle to keep afloat in rough waters and watch on at the roaring battlefield between the mammoth Man-O-Wars and Pre-Dreadnoughts. This is a common theme in no place more than in the weathered vessel anchored off the European mainland being the League of Ireland.
In a country internationally lauded for its national team, support many teams in the league’s top flight endeavor to bring fans into their stadiums every week.They compete to attract fans away from the never-ending television coverage and bring them the real football experience right outside their doors. It seems though that they are facing a forever uphill battle as the firm grip of the Premier League and more recently that of La Liga has unequivocally grabbed the attention of the Irish football supporting public throughout the years.
A recent example of the never ending struggle is that of Bray Wanderers FC’s current situation. A club that despite having one of their best seasons in recent years in 2016 have now found themselves in almost financial disrepair as attendances are dwindling down and investment has not paid off despite eye-catching performances on the pitch. This had led to some well documented remarks by then director Denis O’Connor voicing his doubts about the future existence of the club. These were later followed by chairman Gerry Mulvey issuing two statements about the proceedings, one in which he bizarrely likened the local council authorities to North Korea and the next day released another citing the 1916 rising to address the ridicule brought about by the previous statement and to reiterate their disdain towards the way they’ve been treated.
Despite how unorthodox and quite bizarre events unfolding at Bray were, it is not an uncommon theme in the league where a number of clubs have slipped out of existence throughout the years due to lack of funds and help from the FAI, the national football organization. And if there is a re-birth in football in Ireland it certainly won’t be thanks to the FAI as they seem to continue their frugal stance in not providing adequate funds to improve football in the country. However, could there be a sign of hope on the horizon? Due to the Europa League stage group appearances of Shamrock Rovers in 2011/12 and more recently by the highly impressive Dundalk in 2015/16 there has been a growing interest in the national league which can nourish growing appetite for real, unpretentious football and give rise to football fans to follow local teams. Statistics have shown in favour of this as there has already been a 48% increase of fans attending games this season compared to last year.
This may be a sign of a turn towards support growing for more local teams. By just taking the example of the League of Ireland if the trend continues there may be hope for smaller football clubs and the sport as a whole despite the dominance of the elite teams in Europe. It could be possible that the unexpected knock-on effect of the current atmosphere will draw fans in and encourage them to take that step into their local club to give them their support. It could even be possible that the next time a kid walks into a sports shop with his or her parents, instead of asking for a Manchester United or PSG jersey they will ask them to buy the jersey of their local team.
Images: Tom Beary