COULD the FAI Cup prove to be the saviour of Irish soccer? With the largest crowd in four decades, over 36,000, flocking to the Aviva Stadium last weekend, there followed a spectacle to enthrall the masses. And now a seed has been sown that the domestic game could achieve what is has always threatened, to capture the hearts and minds of the public.
It may be fanciful, but such was the sense of occasion around Sunday’s showpiece, coupled with County Sligo’s genuine joy in victory, that minds are already turning to next season’s competition.
As Sligoman Tommie O’Gorman of RTE reported, there were more people in Lansdowne Road last Sunday than saw Spurs against Blackburn last weekend. In the same way that the GAA is more about the race for the All-Ireland title than the league, the glamour of Gaelic Games has always been about the Championship and Croke Park, the mecca on the long road of pilgrimage.
Now with a stadium worthy of the occasion, soccer can replicate that with the new Lansdowne Road and the FAI Cup.
The homecoming in Sligo town was every bit as special as an All-Ireland winners’ return. This after all, was still about Irish people celebrating their heroes, even if professional soccer, even in Ireland, dictates that those heroes are not necessarily home-grown.
There is no doubt that the novelty factor of playing in the new Aviva Stadium contributed greatly to the attendance last Sunday. But there is no reason why that novelty cannot be replicated every November for every final, in the same way that Croke Park is the holy grail for GAA players and fans alike.
League of Ireland games do not attract big crowds, but FAI Cup clashes do prick the interest of the public in those towns where locals do not always give their side much heed.
If a club like Sligo or Waterford or Monaghan progress to the latter stages, the crowds do swell. Partly due to the bandwagon-ism which is something that Irish clubs are actively trying to create, but even the most hardened critic of League of Ireland soccer would struggle not to wish his/her own club success when they inch towards the Cup final. There may not be the numbers in grounds, but in general, there is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards local clubs among Irish communities.
While the FA Cup in England has been devalued somewhat in recent years, the pure football element, the small quaint grounds and the great prize at the end, is very much a part of the FAI Cup.
One of the biggest failures of those running and marketing the League of Ireland is their inability to replicate the ethos and atmosphere of the GAA, when it is entirely possible. If you can’t beat them, join them.
The reason crowds swell GAA grounds in the summer is often a wish to witness history in the making. And it is this history that is largely ignored by League of Ireland clubs, despite the fact that some of them have been around since the late 1800s.
Shamrock Rovers are one of the few sides who tap into that sense of history. They are a brand name known throughout the country, renowned for their past successes and synonymous with the FAI Cup.
Marketing that history is something League of Ireland clubs need to exploit and the Cup, precisely because of its history, is the vehicle that allows domestic soccer to claim a higher profile.
In Irish sport, the black and amber jersey of Kilkenny hurling is iconic because it represents all the great sporting heroes of the past. The same can be said for the likes of the Green and Gold in Kerry, the Purple and Gold of Wexford. Even the titles of the jerseys provoke nostalgia. Inter-county players change every year, but the sense of stepping into the boots of past-masters is what makes the GAA special.
The FAI Cup is Irish soccer’s equivalent and in the years gone by, it was massive part of the Irish sporting landscape. Indeed the 1940s, 50s, and 60s drew huge crowds to League of Ireland matches but the cup was always the Blue Riband. I often wish if, along with footage of the All-Ireland finals, RTE’s ‘Reeling in the Years’ had included each year’s FAI Cup final.
League of Ireland clubs have worked hard to improve their facilities and the best grounds now, in some ways are better than many Gaelic grounds, with their emphasis on seated stands.
They still have a long way to go, and the well-publicised financial difficulties of clubs may mean they never succeed . But the idea of stadiums that look like stadiums must be an avenue that clubs strive to go down. The appeal of the Aviva proves this, as Jim Morrison once said to Wayne Campbell, “If you build it, they will come.”
Replicating last Sunday’s final, in all aspects, must be the way forward for Irish clubs. Sports fans want a sense of occasion, including on Friday nights when they visit grounds up and down the country. The Cup gives clubs that occasion. And at the end of it, they have the promise of a showpiece finish in a venue befitting its status.
The beaten side in a final will always lament not taking their chances. The guardians of the domestic game should not allow themselves to do the same now.
First posted, Nov 2010