It will escape the attention of all but a few thousand ardent football fans that the League of Ireland begins a new season today (Friday 6 March). Even in a country of more than four million people which is renowned for having some of the most fanatical and passionate sports followers in the world, Ireland’s primary football competition continues to fight an uphill battle for attention in its own land, never mind trying to obtain any international appeal. The fortunes of the nation’s international football and rugby union teams, the English Premier League, the provincial rugby clubs such as Munster and, of course, the indigenous sports of hurling and Gaelic football all grab the public’s attention in a manner that Ireland’s football clubs simply cannot reach.
However, one commodity in plentiful supply in the League of Ireland is a core fan base for each club who will work tirelessly to help ensure that, no matter how parlous their team’s finances may be, they will still have a team to support in the long-term. With the majority of clubs operating on a part-time basis, especially since Ireland’s economy collapsed in 2008, almost every club has had to endure some very uncomfortable periods in recent years. It is not wholly uncommon for a team to go from winning the league to plummeting out of the top flight within a couple of years, nor for a club to be transformed from virtually out of business to champions of Ireland in a similarly brief time frame.
The rollercoaster nature of Irish club football is reflected in that the last decade has seen no fewer than eight clubs end as champions. Since 2005, Cork City, Shelbourne, Drogheda, Bohemians (twice), Shamrock Rovers (twice), Sligo Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk have all won the Premier Division. In that time, all but St Patrick’s and Sligo have, at one point or another, endured periods of doubt as to whether the club would even continue to exist. The first two have suffered relegation following their title wins, with Shelbourne making only a brief return to the Premier Division three years ago. The most remarkable transformation is probably that of Shamrock Rovers, historically the most successful club in the country. For more than 20 years they did not have a venue to call their own, renting several grounds across Dublin as a stop-gap, and in 2005 were relegated from the top flight. However, since moving to the government-funded Tallaght Stadium six years ago, the Hoops have hosted a friendly against Real Madrid, won two consecutive league titles and, most famously, qualified for the Europa League group stage in 2011.
While they represent the rags to riches side of the League of Ireland, others have not been so lucky. Sporting Fingal, a club founded in 2007 and funded by a property developer, won the FAI Cup two years later and also gained promotion to the Premier Division. By 2011, with the Irish construction market in freefall and their chief backer a victim of that trend, the club ceased to exist. Three years ago, Monaghan United went bankrupt midway through the season and dropped out of the league. The run-in to this season has been dogged by the worrying case of Limerick FC. Promoted in 2012, the club from the Mid-West of Ireland had no venue of their own and played home fixtures at Munster Rugby’s Thomond Park. However, the operating costs of playing at a 26,000-capacity stadium for a club with an average home attendance of a mere few hundred took its toll and, having planned to return to former home ground Markets Field for the beginning of this season, construction delays have put the brakes on that plan. Limerick even contemplated the degrading scenario of playing ‘home’ fixtures in another city – most likely Galway, which is 61 miles to the north – before being given permission to temporarily set up camp at Jackman Park, a smaller venue but at least one which means the club can play in its own city.
It is no secret that, once a player makes a name for himself in the League of Ireland, the inevitable next step is a move across the Irish Sea. For some, this has been the pathway to a fulfilling career, the most notable examples being Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Seamus Coleman. However, others have made the move to England or Scotland and found the going much more difficult. Jay O’Shea showed much promise when he transferred to Birmingham in 2009, but while he has made a career further down the ladder, his was a case of delivering less than what many had expected. More recently, two of last season’s top strikers, Dundalk’s Pat Hoban and Rory Gaffney of Limerick, moved to England over the winter. Instead of being a case of trying their luck at a lower Premier League club or promotion-chasing Championship side, though, they transferred to League 2 Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Gaffney has yet to even make a first team appearance for the latter, although he can say he was in the Old Trafford dugout as an unused substitute for the FA Cup replay against Manchester United.
So, with the new season about to get underway, what will be the likely fortunes of the 12 Premier Division clubs in 2015? Trying to accurately forecast the identity of the eventual champions is akin to picking the winning lottery numbers – this is certainly not a Bundesliga-style ‘Bayern + the rest’ affair. Defending champions Dundalk ought to be challenging again this term, but they face stiff competition for the two in a row. Shamrock Rovers have made some astute signings in the off-season, including ex-Birmingham man Keith Fahey and prolific striker Danny North. Cork City, runners-up in 2014, have kept the bulk of last year’s squad and amongst their additions is Liam Miller, once of Celtic and Man United. St Patrick’s Athletic, who won the FAI Cup last year, remain a steady presence near the top of the league and count among their ranks Christy Fagan and Conor McCormack, both of whom were in the same Man United youth team as Danny Welbeck going back to 2007. Sligo Rovers have picked up several quality players over the winter, the most intriguing of which is Estonia international Sander Puri.
Derry City will have aspirations of a top three finish, and a gateway to the Europa League qualifying rounds, but may have to be content with a mid-table placing. The two promoted clubs, Galway United and Longford Town, have some experienced players who could help them to a solid season well away from relegation trouble. Bohemians and Drogheda would be very content with mid-table, although both could be sucked into the battle at the bottom. The most likely contenders in the battle for top flight survival are Bray Wanderers, who only received a Premier Division licence last month, and the aforementioned Limerick. Similar to the Scottish Premiership, Ireland runs a 12-team top division with the bottom club suffering automatic relegation and the 11th-placed side entering a play-off in the hope of retaining its Premier status.
The League of Ireland will continue to have its all too familiar struggles. Televised matches will struggle for audiences while attendances will only break into four-figure numbers for the more elite clubs. Players will give their all over the course of the season, even though very few, at any club, know where they will be once the campaign finishes, with more than 90 per cent of League of Ireland footballers out of contract every November. The sorry tales of financial farce, while less common than four or five years ago, have not entirely gone away.
However, every Friday for the next eight months, hundreds of dedicated supporters will walk to their local stadium, or hop on a bus to the other side of the country, all in the name of their chosen club. The League of Ireland may, in one sense, be a world away from Richard Scudamore, Sky Sports, £6billion TV deals, sponsorships from global corporations and world tours with the sole intention of milking an impressionable Asian/American/etc fan base, but just like the English Premier League, every match has 22 starting players, two teams, a ball and a football pitch. And that’s enough to grab my attention.