Guest Post: World’s Best Supporters – For Two Weeks

We call ourselves the Best Fans in the World. UEFA even gave us a prize. We went to Poland in huge numbers but we can’t fill Lansdowne now for Ireland games. Our football love is reserved for Premier League clubs, mainly two of them, and mainly from the couch or the barstool. In a special guest post, Minty from looks at how many Irish people take the easy way out when supporting foreign teams.

The Barstool fan. We all know him (or her). Chances are you might be one yourself, albeit one who strenuously objects to the title, as a lot of them are wont to do when defined as such. The chap in the pub on ‘Sky Sports Super Sunday’ in full Manchester United replica jersey fervently wishing his team on, while professing he “hates Scousers”. Or vice versa for the fella in the Liverpool jersey. Ireland’s international supporters recently received an award from UEFA for their general conduct while attending the European Championships in Poland. We are, according to UEFA, the best supporters in Europe.

I suppose it wouldn’t sound as impressive if the award was titled ‘ The best supporters for two weeks out of 52’. For a myriad of reasons, our support is merely lent to the Irish senior team at major championships or single qualifying games, after which it reverts back to support of EPL clubs, mainly two of them, and mainly from the comfort of the couch at home, or the barstool in the local pub.

I realise that there are exceptions to this, there are fans out there that go to the trouble of actually attending games. Indeed, according to a recent Irish Times survey, some €100 million was spent in England by Irish supporters. There are the few thousand supporters of LOI clubs all around the country who prioritise their local club and attend those games instead. 100 million euro is a lot of money, even a fraction of which would benefit our own league instead of American/Russian/Arab owned global corporations, which is what most of the EPL clubs these days are. Anybody wishing to check Alex Ferguson’s transfer budget for January would be as well off reading the Financial Times as the back page of the Daily Mirror.

There are a substantial amount of arguments as to why people do not attend the LOI in large numbers, some of which are valid, some of which are less valid, and almost none that explain why choosing to support a successful club in another country is the ideal solution to the inadequacies, perceived or otherwise, of the LOI. Even though this is well trodden ground, I may as well go over some of them at this point.

1. The most common one: I have supported (insert EPL club) since I was a child, all my mates supported them, or my father/uncle supported them, and that is how I got into them

Counter argument; Children are impressionable. At that age, nearly every child will bow to peer pressure and join in with the herd, so it is a perfectly valid reason to support a foreign club. When you are a child. Of the e100 million spent in England last year, you can be fairly certain children didn’t account for much of it, given their lack of disposable income.

As an adult, you have more of a free choice, but most football supporting adults in this country stick with the choice they made as a child, and because the majority have chosen to support the two most successful clubs in English football, the reflected glory is never too far away. On a societal note, doing whatever your mates/father/uncle did in other aspects of life would be a strange way to live, but yet football is exempt from this.

2. The standard of football in the LOI is crap

Counter argument; Yes, the standard of football in the LOI is not as good as the richest league in the world, nor its little brother, the Championship. That is inarguable. But yet, nearly 40,000 Irish fans went to Poland in June to watch what was statistically the worst team to ever appear at the championships.

The performances were certainly worse than a lot expected, but even the most die hard of Trappatoni supporters were not expecting any kind of decent football from us, simply put, bar one game in Paris in 2009, we have not really ever played an attractive game under him in four years, nor are likely to do so any time soon. It didn’t put too many people off going to Poland. Even if we explain that one as a one off, our average home attendances at the last qualifying games over the past two years were among the highest in Europe, even though there were few sellouts. That puts the notion that we are a nation of football connoisseurs who simply can’t abide the low standard of the LOI so have to get a fix watching EPL clubs instead, to bed. So, I’m not convinced by that argument.

3. No LOI club near me growing up/no affinity with LOI club in another county

Counter argument; There is nothing wrong with this argument whatsoever, it is well understandable. So, young man/woman in town or county has no local club to support. So, said individual ignores nearest local club on the basis of having no affinity with them. All reasonable so far. That individual could pick any club in the world they take a fancy to to support, but yet the country is not awash with fans of Schalke 04 or Boca Juniors. They inevitably pick Liverpool or Manchester Utd, or if wanting to be a bit different, Arsenal. We are back to point one again. The easy choice.

4. It is my hard earned money, nobody will tell me how to spend it

Counter argument; This point is usually brought up by someone who actually sees the argument for what it is, a football one, and defensively tries to introduce other elements in to it. Freedom of choice, to an extent anyway, is upheld by (and subject to) law, nobody can force anyone to spend money on anything, but for an Irish football fan, there is a question to be answered by even the matter of reflecting what your money is doing for Irish football.

5. The ‘ Holier Than Thou’ LOI fan

This argument is thrown out by numerous fans, strangely, some of whom have never been near an LOI ground. Firstly, let me acknowledge this species exists, there are some LOI fans who are happy with the status quo, the small attendances, the league going nowhere. They are misguided, to say the least. Some fans have had unpleasant experiences at LOI games, with ‘ bandwagoner’ comments etc thrown at them, but it should be stressed that these type of LOI fans are very much in the minority. It is not much of an excuse in any case, it is possible to sit elsewhere from an element of fans you don’t take a shine to for whatever reason, a few comments from idiots is hardly a reason to damn a whole club or league for eternity.

The ‘attitude’ does not quite ring true. LOI fans, like everyone else, live and work in the real world where the majority of their work colleagues and possibly members of their family support EPL clubs. It is stretching the bounds of credibility to suggest that lads like these look down on those that do not share their own views when they are living and working with individuals who have made a different choice every day. It should also be mentioned that the hardcore away fans element of some of these EPL clubs would not be quite welcoming to those they see as day trippers either, but yet that seems to bother nobody. It is OK for Manchester Utd’s away fans to think they are better than the daytripper, but not for the LOI fan to think they are a better fan than the Man Utd daytripper. Logic only applied one way to suit a lazy argument.

6. (Insert English Club) have always had a great tradition of Irish players, which is why I support them

Counter argument; While this was undoubtedly true in the past, as we move forward, there are less and less of them appearing at the top clubs. The truth is only the truly exceptional player is going to make a breakthrough at the likes of the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal from now on. It is at best a tenuous reason to support a club, and other than a temporary increase in Irish Sunderland fans in the Roy Keane/Celtic Tiger days (where did all those fans go incidentally, and who do they support now?), this has not been reflected in an increase of Irish support for Stoke City, or the aforementioned Sunderland since Roy departed the scene. Back to the easy choices again.

“If you had told somebody 20 years ago that hundreds of thousands of fans would tune in to a TV station to watch six lads looking at TV monitors and report on games, you would have been laughed out of it.”

Just a few of the usual points and some counter arguments there, I will add a few more observations; It should be stressed that as far as the LOI is concerned, getting bums on seats is a priority, it doesn’t matter who your ‘main’ team are, it is possible to support Liverpool and attend an odd LOI game — it doesn’t make you less of a Liverpool supporter. Supporting both leagues is not mutually exclusive.

The influence of the media has undoubtedly been a major factor in the worldwide growth of the EPL, particularly Sky Sports. Nobody likes to think that marketers can influence them to that degree, but if you had told somebody 20 years ago that hundreds of thousands of fans would tune in to a TV station to watch six lads looking at TV monitors and report on games, you would have been laughed out of it.

Yet this happens every Saturday. The Irish media have facilitated this growth, but they would (probably correctly) claim they are catering for the demand of their customers. It is one thing to tell us that a top of the table clash on Sunday is worth watching, but fans who dismiss the LOI will happily sit through Stoke Vs West Ham play out a nil all drab draw on a Monday evening because they are informed by the TV companies they are watching “the best league in the world”, even when their own eyes tell them otherwise.

Even if the LOI ceased tomorrow, thus taking that part of the argument away (while temporarily ignoring that it would not then be possible to have an International team by FIFA laws) the football culture of the majority of Irish football supporters boils down to a few big international games, a major tournament when we are lucky enough to qualify for one, and otherwise, taking great pride in the reflected glory of a successful football team in another country entirely.

A certain Eamon Dunphy once wrote an excellent biography of the late, legendary Manchester Utd manager Sir Matt Busby, the title “A Strange kind of Glory’ could equally be applied to the EPL supporting masses in the local pub every week.

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