The problem with Irish soccer

During the Republic of Ireland’s disastrous European Championship campaign this summer, there was no shortage of opinion on the causes of the problems in Irish international soccer. Whilst the manager Giovanni Trapatoni rightly takes a large chunk of the blame for his tactics and squad management, there is undoubtedly deeper issues involving the general quality of Irish players. Part of the problem, it is argued, is that we no longer have a robust and healthy domestic league in which to discover and blood new talent. Sure, the cream of the crop of the league and the school boy leagues get hoovered up by English clubs, but statistically only a subset of these will ‘make it’, giving us a relatively low pool of talent from which to assemble a national squad. (Again the manager has been rightly criticised for which players he is using from that pool – undoubtedly there are players worth throwing into the mix – certainly after a failed Euro2012 campaign using the ‘old’ system). The argument goes that a strong league would allow local talent to be developed and noticed on a larger scale. The problem is that we do not have a strong league – we have a terminally ill league, slowly but inevitably, lurching towards financial collapse due to lack of interest.

The league of Ireland is something of a punchline for many people now, usually by folk who don’t regularly attend games. But those of us who do go to games, however, don’t view it with rose tinted glasses either. At its height it was massive, regularly commanding tens of thousands in attending fans each week. Now, in the wake of SkySports aggressive marketing of the “Premier League” since the 1990s, it has dwindled to an average attendance of last than two thousand per game. The quality of the football has declined in response. Clubs do not make enough money to support or attract the highest calibre of players (or to discover them). And here in lies the problem at the heart of the matter.

During Katie Taylor’s successful London 2012 Olympic campaign, there was a few mutterings of “who of ye cheering her now paid in to see her last bout at the National Stadium?”, (echoing similar sentiments about Britain’s Jessica Ennis). It recalled a similar refrain heard during Euro2012, but in a kind of inverse – who of ye sneering the Irish national teams efforts pay in to see your local league of Ireland team? Many people who lambasted the FAI and the infrastructure of Irish football were greeted with “when did you last go see a league game?” In someways this became a pissing contest for sports anoraks – but there is a truth at the heart of it. A strong national team needs a strong local league, so as you deride the efforts of the national squad, you should think about how they got into such a state.

This is the paradox though: people don’t want to go to Irish league games because the quality is very low. But the quality is low because the clubs have no money – because no body goes to games. Because the quality is low…

I’ll admit now this is probably a hugely over simplified and uninformed take on all this – it is certainly more complex and nuanced – but I think there is a thread of truth running through it.

This morning as I was checking last night’s scores, I thought about the Belgian national squad. It features (and I’m taking an unashamedly English Premier League-centric view) players liked Manchester City’s Vincent Company, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembélé, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, and Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (amongst others); all of which have received praise recently for their skill and ability. Belgium is a country of 11 million people, and the domestic Jupiler Pro League last year had an average of 11,731, and clubs like Standard Liége and RSC Anderlecht regularly compete at the highest level of European football. This season, the Airtricity League in Ireland has had an average attendance of 1,683. And any one who might counter with the fact that our population is roughly a third of Belgium’s, consider that in recent years the average attendance at the GAA All-Ireland Championships has been 16,032, and that figures of this kind were not unheard of in Irish soccer in the past.

Last night as the national team miraculously managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat following a woeful performance against Kazakhstan, the debate struck up again, people want a strong national Irish team to compete at the highest level. But to do that you need players, and to get the best players you need to support their development. A strong, healthy, competitive domestic league can help with this. But this can only happen with bums on seats. But people don’t want to go. The cycle will continue until the league has eroded itself down to a completely amateur oddity. Then we’ll really see the health of the national team and we’ll hear from the arm chair critics.

I don’t want to come across as some kind of holier-than-thou zealot who thinks you can’t have an opinion unless you’ve been in the trenches of domestic soccer support, but last night after the Ireland game I went into Oriel Park and saw a half empty stadium cheer on their team and the connection became vivid in my mind. And the thing is, it wasn’t that bad. The result was awful for the town, but the game had its share of spills and thrills and some wonderful moments of skill. It wasn’t great, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will never be great (again) unless people support it.