BY GERARD FARRELL

Seamus Coleman is the best right back in the Premier League, well at least according to the PFA based on his form for Everton last season. Seamus comes from Killybegs, a remote fishing village in County Donegal, located on the rugged Atlantic coast in the north-west corner of Ireland, it contains the island’s most northern point, Malin Head, a lot of bleakly beautiful vistas and is the only County in Ireland that has not a single metre of railway track in use which only adds to its remoteness. The County was ravaged by the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s and 50’s, which lead to huge swathes of emigrants fleeing in search of survival at the time and in the following decades. Many of them ended up in the slums of 19th Century Glasgow’s East End and it was in part to alleviate the suffering of these unfortunate people that Celtic Football Club was founded as a means of fundraising for the poor. Support for Celtic in Donegal remains fervent. Packie Bonner, the goalkeeper with the most first team appearances in Celtic’s history comes from Donegal, as does one of his successors to the Irish number 1 shirt, Shay Given. Despite such goalkeeping process the county is not famed for producing large volumes of outfield players, which makes Coleman something of an exception, such an exception that his progress almost went unnoticed.

Coleman was only noticed when he lined up for his local junior side St. Catherine’s in a pre-season warm-up match against Sligo Rovers. The young full-back was spotted by then Sligo manager Sean Connor (a man uniquely unpopular with all his former clubs and last heard of coaching a side in Zimbabwe) and signed up. After Connor’s departure it became clear that his replacement, the former Hull City and PSV Eindhoven striker Rob McDonald did not rate Coleman, advising him to join Finn Harps, a Donegal club based a tier below Sligo in the League of Ireland First Division. Luckily for Coleman the tenure of McDonald was to be brief and he was replaced by Paul Cook, a manager who showed faith in the young defender and helped to develop him into a player who would catch the eye of David Moyes. He would cost Everton and initial fee of £60,000.

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The story of Coleman is in many ways emblematic of the League of Ireland as a whole. It’s full of drama, footballing talent, mismanagement, blind luck and paltry financial sums (by Premier League standards) mattering a great deal. Coleman’s discovery was not the result of a wide ranging, detailed and funded scouting operation or any emerging talent programme, it was pure coincidence based on geographical proximity and Sligo Rovers needing a warm-up match. His success was down to his own hard work and the commitment of the good people at Sligo Rovers, the wildly enthusiastic and perpetually hoarse Paul Cook (whose latest achievement was to get Chesterfield promoted to League One), the devoted fans of the club and the massive fundraising efforts that are carried out throughout Sligo and beyond to keep the club going. Of course the evident talent of Coleman, and indeed of Paul Cook, would reach its apotheosis elsewhere, and as in most cases this meant a move to England. Despite producing a player of Coleman’s quality Sligo would have be happy with their £60,000, with performance related add-ons this is reported to have risen to approximately £250,000 but considering that rumours abound that Coleman (who just signed a bumper new five-year deal at Goodison Park) is on the shopping lists of Arsenal and others with fees in excess of £20m being touted it seems a miserly amount for a player of such obvious potential.

The reality however is that most League or Ireland clubs are left with little option but to accept any and all offers. While League or Ireland clubs may have developed a player from childhood the nature of League clubs’ finances mean that they are unable to offer long-term contracts to players. The majority of players in the League are semi-professional, with many pursuing University courses or relying on their full-time jobs to provide them with sufficient time to train or play. It is not unusual for a player to sign for a club on the basis that they train at a time that better suits their day-job. Those players who are lucky enough to be full time professionals are rarely offered contracts beyond the end of the season, this obviously severely reduces the ability of clubs to demand transfer fees for players or plan for the future but this attitude is based on practicalities. If attendances fall or a sponsor goes bust (as happened to Galway United) tightly balanced budgets go out the window. Bohemian FC, Dublin’s oldest club, founded in 1890 were almost wound-up by two players in 2011 because of the club’s inability to pay their professional contracts in full, it was only an eleventh hour agreement that would save the club from going under.

Other sides have not been as lucky as Bohemians. Since 2006 Cork City, Derry City (both since re-founded as Phoenix clubs) Galway United, Kilkenny City, Monaghan United, Kildare County and Sporting Fingal have all either gone bust or withdrawn from the League. Still others like Drogheda United, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne have come perilously close. There were numerous reasons for these collapses and near collapses; many clubs were funded by local business people, flush from the benefits of supposed never ending growth, property speculation and the easy credit of the Celtic Tiger years. The global economic crisis of 2008 wiped out the wealth of these individuals, their largesse had propped up the clubs who in the mid to late 2000’s were in some cases paying Championship level wages (well, lower end Championship) while playing in front of Conference level crowds, and with the Sugar-Daddies close to bust there was not sufficient income to maintain these wage levels. Recession economics had similar impacts on levels of sponsorship available to clubs as well as meaning significant reductions in prize money, for example the SSE Airtricity Premier Division (to give the League its full corporate title) has total prize money for the division of just over €240,000 (€100,000 for the Champions) a far cry from the €700,000 prize fund available as recently as 2010. In fact, due to the licencing requirements for competing in the Irish top flight it will actually cost any participating team who finishes below 3rd money just to take part in the League. Similarly the All-island Setanta Cup competition meant to be a flagship trophy for the best sides North and South of the border and funded by sports channel Setanta Sports has reduced their prize fund to €73,000, down significantly from a peak figure of €350,000. In this financial landscape the relatively modest sums offered for players to League of Ireland teams seem like manna from heaven.

The thing is there are some very good players still being produced in the League of Ireland, obviously not all are of the quality of Seamus Coleman but there are many who can do a job at League One level and above. A look through recent Irish national teams reveals a lot of League alumni. First choice keeper David Forde of Millwall had spells at his local club Galway United and also Derry City. Left back Stephen Ward who played in the Premier League with Wolves and was on-loan at Brighton last year began his career at Bohemians. Damien Delaney, so crucial to ensuring Crystal Palace’s survival began his playing days at Cork City. Indeed it was at Cork City that Reading found Kevin Doyle – he cost them less than £80,000. They decided to take a punt on his young team-mate Shane Long as well for a fraction of that price. Long now plays for Hull alongside ex-St. Patrick’s Athletic midfielder Stephen Quinn. A few years after that Sunderland would come calling in Cork to sign up David Meyler from the Leesiders, a couple of years later the Black Cats would travel further north to sign James McClean from Derry City, his fee, reported to be £350,000 would be one of the highest ever paid for a League or Ireland player. These are just a few of the players currently in the Senior international squad, but there are dozens more scattered about the leagues of England and Scotland.

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Historically, the League has always provided quality players to British Leagues whether it was the likes of Paul McGrath (St. Patrick’s Athletic to Manchester United) or Roy Keane (Cobh Ramblers to Nottingham Forest) this migratory tradition stretches back to the turn of 20th Century. There are potential future prospects for English clubs currently plying their trade in the League, perhaps the likes of Christopher Forrester (St. Patrick’s Athletic) or Richie Towell (Dundalk) will be the next to move across the Irish Sea.

A problem for the League is that player quality tends to veer wildly, even within the Premier Division players of real quality can be paired against cloggers who would be an insult to Hackney Marshes. This disparity is one of the reasons that the League can struggle to attract fans, and this forms the core an interminable sporting debate carried out in Ireland:

Why don’t more people go to games? What can be done to get people to go to games?

To many the League of Ireland appears to be an afterthought for the FAI. Despite, as demonstrated above, the League’s habit for producing decent players (often despite and not because of existing structures) it receives little support either financially or organisationally from the FAI. The FAI were themselves not immune from the financial implosion of the last years of the most recent decade. Having invested massively in the redevelopment of the Lansdowne Road stadium with the IRFU (the FAI shared the construction costs while the IRFU, though the national Rugby body retains ownership of the land) the economic crash left them trying to flog 10-year ticket packages and newly built premium level boxes to a country coming to grips with austerity and one hell of a Celtic Tiger hangover. With these circumstances in mind the domestic league and the serial collapses of its participant clubs was of secondary importance to the Association.

The waning of the League’s significance over the decades has been blamed on numerous contributory factors. During the 50s and 60s many clubs could count on large attendances of five figures and higher for big games. Big derby games and Cup finals could see attendances of over well over 30,000, while these figures may not seem huge to readers from outside Ireland it is worth noting that the population of the Republic of Ireland in 1961 was a measly 2.8 million. The cause of the decline of the League from these peaks has been blamed variously on;

• The failure of clubs to invest in stadiums, infrastructure, amenities and marketing initiatives.
• The abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, when up to this point remaining in Ireland to play was a much more economically appealing and viable prospect for Irish footballers due to the greater parity of wage levels.
• The growing popularity of TV programmes like Match of the Day and later the greater availability of live televised football which made the English top flight more accessible to Irish viewers.
• A parochial or exclusionary attitude taken by some League of Ireland fans.

The truth is a mixture of all of these – and a few others as well. I personally take issues with the last point, the exclusionary nature of League of Ireland fans who by and large (though there are always some exceptions) are extremely welcoming people, proud of our league and who often act as unpaid public relations and sales staff for their teams. It is true that in terms of facilities the League of Ireland is lacking, nowadays most grounds would be absolutely delighted to get a crowd of say 4,000 and many would be unable under health and safety guidelines to host any more. Many of these grounds have crumbling terraces, lack hospitality areas or up to date media zones, while some of us (myself included) see a piece of the games lost past living on in these relics, reminding us of that famous J.B. Priestly quote about pushing through a turnstile to a “more splendid kind of life”, to most though they are decaying shells. It is worth noting however, that despite the fact that Limerick F.C. play in the 27,000 capacity, modern Thomand Park stadium (home to Munster Rugby) they continue to get paltry attendances in the Republic’s third largest city which shows that improved stadia facilities are not a panacea to the League of Ireland’s woes. Similar, though much more modest stadium improvements have recently benefitted the likes of Cork City, Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers so that now an increasing number of League of Ireland clubs at least have more modern, comfortable grounds.

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This lack of attendance numbers in the League of Ireland gets its regular media airing whenever a glamorous (usually British club) comes to play in Dublin. Most recently a Liverpool XI took on Shamrock Rovers in Lansdowne Road in front of a capacity 52,000 crowd. The same tired discussion ensued as to why Irish people will pay good money to support Liverpool reserves over an Irish side. Dermot Keely the combative former Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers player and manager would brand those attending the game as “morons” on the RTE football programme Soccer Republic, dismissively stating “I do not understand how Irish people cannot support an Irish league. It’s beyond me. If you parachuted half that crowd into Liverpool, they wouldn’t be able to find their way to Anfield”. Such comments provoke the usual jaded debate and handwringing but the idea that football fans will be jolted from the habits of a lifetime by such debate and will en masse switch their allegiances from British football teams to Irish ones is naïve in the extreme.

Historically, Liverpool have been one of the most popular teams in Ireland, many explanations have been put forward for this; their history of success, the numerous Irish players from their past; with fans in their 30s and 40s remembering the likes of Steve Staunton, Ronnie Whelan et al lining up for the Reds, the various Irish connections with the city etc. It is not uncommon for Irish Liverpool fans to refer to themselves as “Scousers” and to talk up their die-hard loyalty to their team’s cause. The same could be said for Manchester United fans, and to a lesser extent Arsenal, Man City, Everton, Leeds (a lot of Johnny Giles fans in their 50s and 60s) and so on. It’s also noticeable that a large swathe of the Irish footballing population have Celtic as a preferred team. Some of these fans will be very familiar to the British footballing public, many travel to Premier League games in large numbers, some are even season ticket holders, there are of course others who although a titular Manchester United fan has never set foot in Old Trafford and wouldn’t know their Salford from their Didsbury. Simply put Irish football supporters are obsessed with the Premier League, walk around Dublin any Saturday and you will see Premier League jerseys concealing many a beer gut, every pub shows Premier League games as well as focusing on English clubs (and Celtic) when showing midweek Champions League games. In 2012 174,000 Irish fans travelled to Britain for football matches, spending an estimated €78 million in the British economy. In this context the League or Ireland lacks the glamour, the household names, the media clout and the budgets to compete.

Furthermore, Irish sports fans are event junkies. This may seem a broad statement but I believe that (with some exceptions) it is true. I stood in a stadium in Gdansk after Ireland had been trounced 4-0 by a magnificent Spain at Euro 2012, 80% of the stadium was decked out in green and the fans remained behind to serenade the defeated players with the maudlin strains of the Fields of Athenry. Such was the impact of this impromptu performance, which showed the innate Irish understanding of drama and the power of melancholy that UEFA decided to present the FAI with an award to acknowledge the passion of the Irish support. This award was presented in Lansdowne Road at half time in a friendly match with Greece in front of the disinterested 16,000 fans who less than half filled the 52,000 seat stadium. In Rugby AIL games have a few hundred on the side-lines yet over 50,000 will scrap to get tickets for Leinster v Munster. In Gaelic Games the few thousand who go to most Irish county’s League and early championship games, will find themselves unable to get tickets for a final when bandwagon jumpers will help pack out the 83,000 capacity Croke Park.

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But yet the League of Ireland endures, during the Celtic Tiger, in the days of the building boom and easy credit teams tried to compete on something approaching equal terms with other European Leagues and chased the riches of Champions League qualification. Dublin club Shelbourne came the closest, inspired by a young Wes Hoolahan and with crucial goals from former Middlesbrough man Alan Moore they knocked out KR Reykjavík and Hajduk Split before meeting Deportivo La Coruna, despite a 0-0 draw in Dublin a defeat in Spain would end their Champions League dreams. Two years later they would collapse financially and be demoted by the FAI to the First Division, the Republic of Ireland still has never had a club reach the groups stage of the Champions League. Today a good week will see 20,000 or so hardy souls go to a round of League of Ireland matches, Cork City’s recent average attendances of over 3,000 have been encouraging while Dublin derbies between old rivals Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers can see crowds in excess of that figure. The games are mostly welcoming and informal spaces, the supporters are generally knowledgeable about the game and always delighted to see curious football fans from abroad, and though small in total, they can create an atmosphere disproportionate to their number. The League of Ireland cannot compete with the offering of the Premier League and it never will. It is unloved and even unknown by many football fans on this island. There are passionate football supporters who get what they need from football from the Premier League, or indeed from La Liga, the Bundesliga and elsewhere, with the sports’ globalisation though the proliferation of satellite television and online streaming we’ve never had more choice and being honest the quality is better in other European leagues, it simply is. Still I believe that the League of Ireland, for all its faults; for what it lacks in facilities, for its dysfunctional youth system that filters players away from the domestic league and which prioritises the export of teenagers to Britain as early as possible, for the occasionally wild variations in the quality of players, and the unfathomable refereeing decisions (everyone thinks that their refs are the worst)…still I believe that it is worthwhile. I believe that the league can grow, to use the modern vernacular of post the post B-SKY-B football world, there is a product here. If we got it right the League of Ireland could be the ultimate cult football hipster experience. For God’s sake I’m a member of a fan-owned, 124-year-old institution full of bizarre and often wonderful character, we have our own craft beer, and a history full of revolutionaries, doctors, soldiers, film-makers, writers, and some pretty good footballers. Zidane, Pelé, Beckenbauer and Charlton have all played at our stadium, home to the still-working floodlights that originally adorned Highbury. We’re the greatest indie band you’ve never heard because everyone’s too damn busy listening to the new Kasabian album. But our day in the sun will come, until that time the fans, volunteers, managers and coaches of League will continue, every now and then we’ll produce another Seamus Coleman or Roy Keane, the only thing is we’ll have had the pleasure of being there, seeing them play in front of 400 people as a raw 18-year-old in a Leinster Senior Cup game and we’ll know it will all have been worthwhile. The League will endure.

YOU CAN FOLLOW GERARD ON TWITTER @gerrytastic

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One comment

  1. Sean Connor reckons that he is Reading’s chief scout for Ireland since August, according to his Linkedin.

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