Dale McCarthy is an Arsenal fan, podcaster with Friday LOIve and a hopeless romantic looking for a League of Ireland club to claim as his own.

It’s the car journeys home from work where the thought pops into my head and I feel excited and panicked in equal measure: I’m going to have to pick one of these clubs and I’ll have to drop another one this week.

The journey of finding a League of Ireland club to support started with a voice note to my co-host, colleague and now friend, Liam Regan Guimaraes in between lockdown zoom calls: “Mate – we should do a podcast where you teach me about the league of Ireland.” Thirty odd episodes, 20 clubs and over 10,000 downloads later, my car journeys are wracked with excited thoughts about being part of an LOI fanbase and imagining drafting texts to supporters’ groups telling them: “Thanks for your help but I had to drop you guys this week.” There are three or four clubs and a few fans who I’m going to struggle to send that message to. LOI fans love their team in a unique way and who am I to tell them that theirs isn’t the one for me?

Let’s start there: who am I? I’m an Arsenal fan or at least that’s the aspect of my identity that I start with when meeting new people. This is sad –  I know but if we are going to have any sort of relationship, it is something you need to know about me.  A huge part of my identity was stripped away from me when my wife and I moved our family from our London flat, a 20-minute walk from Emirates Stadium, to Naas in Co. Kildare. Arsenal are still in me, they are the reason I speak with my brothers every day instead of once a week but not going to games has been harder than I could have ever imagined and I need to fill that void.

Step forward the LOI: A magical circus of pyro, unique stadia and fan loyalty like no other. The LOI is often pitched to people based on the exploits of fans in the terraces and the culture we associate with this and this is a very valid unique selling point but I didn’t have any of this when I first started out because the grounds were closed. I had to go based on the football alone and I loved it.

The characters like Ollie Horgan were captivating without an audience, the loanees from England looking to add to their show reels were brave and theatrical and the league veterans were fiercely proud and combative. When a sprinkling of fans was added to the mix for me last summer, I started to truly fall for the league which makes picking ‘The One’ even more difficult.

Like any hobbyist, I needed a way in and co-hosting the podcast Friday LOIve has given me the sort of access to fans, chairmen and broadcasters like I couldn’t have dreamt of as a Premier League fan. Pitched as “a podcast about an Englishman’s journey trying to find love with a League of Ireland Club”, the feedback, support and acceptance has been overwhelmingly positive.

Liam, my co-host, a Shamrock Rovers die-hard and member, has been kind enough to let me explore every avenue, biting his tongue when the Bohs guests are on and not pushing Rovers too much…on air anyway.  We have spoken to such a diverse range of characters in the past year from club owners to the people who make sell the raffle tickets (in some cases they are the same person).

When I speak to fans about their team, you get the sense that they are entwined with the club and in so many practical ways they are. Whether they are the Swedes who somehow fell for Bray, the club historian born within a mile of the ground or the Aussie who quite literally followed floodlights to Tallaght and fell in love, they belong to the club and the club belongs to them. This is why the break-up texts are so difficult and cowardly. I can’t look people in the whites of their eyes and tell them: “It’s not me, it’s you.

So, here we are on the eve of a new season and I am down to five teams for different reasons: Drogheda United, St Patrick’s Athletic, Finn Harps, Shamrock Rovers and Bray Wanderers. A mystic tweet by Kildare County FC has recently thrown all of these choices into jeopardy because what sort of a fan doesn’t follow his local club? The five remaining teams all have their own allure and draw.

The Drogs were the first team I saw live, not only in the LOI but after a year without any live football. It was a fan free affair but the chairman, Conor Hoey, invited us along on press passes and presented me with a Drogs shirt pitchside. I loved the whole experience, the stadium is a perfectly imperfect throwback and the fans, sitting on walls with flares in hand, told me everything I had to know about the support.

Then there is St Pats. Pats make so much sense, and after seeing them win the Cup at a packed Aviva Stadium, I was able to draw comparisons with my own cup winning specialists with red shirts and white sleeves.  If I choose Bray, it will be because of the romance of supporting a seaside club. The fans I have met online have encouraged me that I will have fleeting moments of joy down on the coast and I’d get to be friends with the Bray Wanderers Swedish Supporters Club which is enough to draw anyone in.

Again, Rovers make sense. They’re local (ish), I have friends who support them and they’ll give me big European nights. They are the bad boys according to the rest of the league and the more I’m told to stay away from them, the more I’m drawn towards Tallaght. Finally, we have Finn Harps. The club that makes no sense at all but if you’re a Harps fan, you’ll know that’s why they make sense. There is a romance and passion around this club which pulls at my heartstrings and they just won’t go away.

Whichever team I finally settle down with, I want my wife and sons to know that I am truly sorry. Your husband’s/father’s weekends are going to be ruined before they even begin from the February to October and there is never going to be a break in the football calendar again.

If you want to find out who I choose, tune into Friday LOIve wherever you get your podcasts – Dale