Spring is in the air and leagues across Europe are reaching the business end of the season. But in Ireland, football has only just sprung back into life after its winter hibernation. This Friday evening sees Dundalk, crowned champions last October, host the Dublin club they wrested the title from, St Patrick’s Athletic. Peter Doyle speaks to former Dundalk chairman and lifelong fan Padraig McGowan.
They’ve been playing summer football in Ireland for 12 years now, a switch designed to help the game blossom in a country where the top clubs average around 2,000 spectators per home game.
But every year the start of the season, which begins in March and ends in November, is marked by the perennial question: why do so many fans journey across the Irish Sea to attend matches in England or Scotland when they have a perfectly good league set-up on their doorstep?
‘It’s a difficult one to crack,’ acknowledges Padraig McGowan, former chairman of current champions Dundalk FC and a lifelong fan of the club.
‘I always get the impression that more people leave Ireland on a Saturday morning to go to Glasgow or Manchester or London to watch games than actually go to League of Ireland games on a Friday night.’
While Padraig has every right to still bask in the glory of his side’s league triumph, thanks to a 2-0 victory over Cork on the last day of the 2014 season, he’s more than mindful of the need for all League of Ireland clubs to attract more fans through the turnstiles if the domestic game is to prosper.
He adds: ‘It’s a sports-mad country, the number of people who follow cross-channel clubs is astronomical, but yet as a league we don’t seem to be able to attract these people to our games. Maybe it’s because people just don’t identify with domestic soccer in Ireland.’
Padraig’s concerns over the league were echoed at the recent launch of the new season where a new marketing strategy to win over so-called ‘barstoolers’, the term given to fans who prefer to follow clubs in England or Scotland rather than local sides, was unveiled.
Under the hashtag #FanPoweredFootball, the campaign will seek out the opinions of fans, clubs and the media on how the game in Ireland is run and how it could be improved.
At the campaign’s launch last week, Stephen Wheeler, managing director of league sponsor SSE Airtricity, said: ‘For us, it is the dedication of the fans, the players and all the clubs, which make the SSE Airtricity League (‘Real Football, Real Fans’) what it is.’
Padraig, who served as a Dundalk chairman between 2008 and 2012 and now heads a supporters club for Dublin-based fans, wholeheartedly agrees with both the sentiment expressed and the desire for improvement.
‘I think that having a vision for the league, a five-year or ten-year plan is absolutely crucial. At the moment the league is well administered, but we really need to have a vision or a plan for how we see the league in five or ten years’ time,’ he says.
‘It’s a good standard. If you think of the number of players who have left the league in recent times – the Seamus Colemans, the Kevin Doyles, Eoin Doyle who has gone to Cardiff – those guys all grew up in the league here.
‘The way the game has changed cross-channel, I don’t think the same opportunities exist for Irish kids these days. So, if we can get them into the Irish league, they can finish their education here and then if they blossom they can move over.’
So will better players attract more fans or do clubs, after switching to a summer schedule in 2003, still need to do more?
‘It’s chicken and egg really. You can improve the standards of the facilities but look at Tallaght,’ he said, referring to Shamrock Rovers’ new council-owned ground which cost around €11m to build. ‘That’s a fine stadium but have they really been getting the crowds?
‘Personally, I supported the change to summer football, particularly for going to away games when you have better weather. You also have a relatively small numbers of games cancelled due to the weather, the league functions better, and the pitches are better. It’s easier to play football on better pitches.
‘I think, generally, the switch to summer football has been very positive but it was never going to solve things on their own.’
Closer to home, Padraig hopes the prospect of European football will boost attendances at Oriel Park where the County Louth side remained undefeated for five years against top continental sides such as PSV Eindhoven, Hadjuk Split and Porto, as well as Tottenham Hotspur.
And it was during this remarkable run that the Dundalk came within one goal of knocking Celtic out of the European Cup in 1979.
Padraig adds: ‘We will be in the Champions League next season and this open doors for the club if we take advantage of this.
‘We go in at the second qualifying round. So if we got a good draw, we would go in to a third qualifying round and the chances are we would meet a Celtic or another real top team. But if even you lose in that round, you go into the play-off round for the Europa League.
‘We would gladly take Celtic again. After losing 3-2 at Parkhead, we held them 0-0 at home. If we had won 1-0 at Oriel Park we would have faced Real Madrid in the next round. Happy days!’
Dundalk v St Patrick’s Athletic, Oriel Park, Friday March 20, 7.45pm. Ticket details at www.dundalkfc.com/club/matchday-information/.