Irish football on the rise

In Europe, Ireland is an exception. Competing from local Gaelic football and hidden in the shadow of the English Premier League, Irish soccer is still struggling to find a place for itself on the Isle of Éireann. However, it is the proximity card that could work in its favor.

New logo, new leaders and new ambitions. Last February, the Football Association of Ireland announced that it wanted to turn the page for good on a nightmarish decade that culminated in the “Champagne Football” scandal. (1) and the resignation of his former boss. The reign of John Delaney will have lasted 14 years, and this one leaves a federation fallow, boxes sealed with a debt of 70 million eurosconstruction sites of new stadiums at a standstill and a catastrophic image with Irish supporters. “In a parallel universe, we could have had an all-professional leaguetackled Stephen McGuinness severely, secretary of the Players’ Union. It’s no exaggeration to think that we could now have better stadiums, clubs with better training facilities. Our young players would not have been so numerous to go abroad, they would have seen their future here. It pisses me off what happened during the Delaney years. The administrators who were at the top of the FAI, mainly Delaney, did not do a good enough job. »

The march is high for John Hill, the new director general of the FAI. Especially since Ireland is still disinterested in its clubs and its local championship. Far from being the most popular sport on the island, soccer, as they say here, is being left behind by rugby and by its local namesake: Gaelic football. The second religion of the island. “In Dublin, it’s quite multicultural, so soccer is quite strong, but if you go to other counties, like Kilkenny, Meath or Donegal, there we are very much rooted in Gaelic football” details the Lyonnais Sébastien Berlier, Dubliner by adoption, and host of the Irish Football account.

Inside Gaelic football

The town of Chill Chartha, in the northernmost county of Donegal, is a good example of the rut in which soccer is. “Our GAA team (Gaelic Athletic Association) is in the top 3 in the county” , proudly announces James Hegarty, a volunteer at the club, met on the edge of the field during his son’s training. In this small rural parish, the club is the community melting pot and on match days, the grassy stands facing the sea are packed. “The main sport is our national sport, Gaelic football. Soccer is not really played here. There was an attempt to create a soccer club about ten years ago in Carrick, the village next door. Matches were staged in the winter after the end of the Gaelic football season. But, as soon as Gaelic training resumed, all the young people stopped playing soccer, and the club disappeared. »

To experience the fervor of soccer, you have to drive 70 miles and drive to Ballybofey, in the middle of County Donegal. The biggest club in the area, Finn Harps FC is the little thumb of the Irish first division. That evening, the local team receives Shelbourne FC from Dublin for an important match in the race to maintain. The supporters crowd quietly on the platform built under a shed of rusty agricultural sheets. “Of course we are proud of our clubcomments in unison Richard and Stephen, who have come from neighboring County Tyrone and are dressed in the club’s official tracksuit. We are fans of GAA, but we also support the Harps, it’s a great, friendly club that belongs to its supporters. You feel part of the team! » Founded in 1954, the club joined the Premier Division in 1969 and survives as best they can. A dozen supporters beat the drum and encourage the players in front of a huge faded jersey hanging on the partition of the stands. And if, on the ground, the two teams stand in respect, used coffee cups and polystyrene trays accumulate in old cans.

In the stands of Finn Park, some supporters appear with shirts or caps from their GAA club. Not a problem for Ollie Horgan, the legendary coach of Ballybofey: “Donegal fans support both sports, they were at the GAA stadium last Sunday for the Gaelic match and came across the street tonight to see us. I really think 99% of people are behind us. » On the other side of the road dominates the gleaming Gaelic football stadium which gives Finn Park a serious look of age. “You can see the difference in lighting between the two stadiums. We are not in the same category” smiles Stephen. “It’s true that we don’t have a lot of resources, and besides, no club likes to come and play in Ballybofey. The Dublin teams hate coming here because of the state of the roads, the infrastructure… We should be in the second division, but we manage to maintain ourselves. That’s why we love Finn Harps! » complements his pal Tyrone.

In this land of Gaelic football, soccer is digging its furrow despite everything. “The county has 64 clubs and has produced some international players including Séamus Coleman” , proudly specifies Aidan Campbell, the commercial director of the Harps. A local hero, Coleman played for GAA club Killybegs before he accidentally got into soccer and ended up defending Everton, being voted Fans’ Player of the Year and captaining the Irish national team. . One of the problems for the Irish Federation is precisely to succeed in keeping this kind of nugget. There, Brexit could have a positive indirect effect. “Irish players can’t go to the UK until they’re 18, so they stay at their clubs a little longer, and that’s a positive for us” , details, enthusiastic, Aidan Campbell. The result is already being felt: “The average age of a Premier Division player has dropped by three years in the space of three seasons. Last year (2021) it was 25.4, compared to 28.4 in 2018” reports The 42 news site.

In the shadow of the Premier League

With a gradual upscaling of the quality of play, the Football Association of Ireland also hopes to attract the attention of Irish supporters completely caught up in the English championship. “The Premier League takes such a place that it overshadowsanalyzes Sébastien Berlier, who has become an expert in the Irish championship. Out of 10 football fans here, all will know the Premier League and maybe 2 or 3 will know and support a League of Ireland club. They tell you that in the League of Ireland, the stadiums are rotten, the players less good and the matches less good… Obviously, when you compare to the Premier League! » According to a poll published by the Cork University Press, a third of football fans in Ireland support Manchester United, 29% Liverpool FC, 14% Glasgow Celtic… Cork City FC, the leading Irish club, only comes in sixth place with 7% of support, then comes the Dundalk team at 4%. According to this survey, the Irish are even as numerous to go to see a match of the local championship as to take the plane to go to England.

Without being able to compete with the quality of play in the Premier League, Irish teams rely on the friendliness and warmth of the stadiums. In 2018, the Dublin club Bohemians launched an advertising campaign on the theme of “Terraces not TV” (tiers rather than the tv). “The fans who couldn’t go to the game for one or two years because of the Covid, now they’re all going back to the stadiumenthuses Sébastien Berlier. After 12 championship days, the average attendance at the stadium in the Premier Division is 2,878 spectators. An increase of 12% compared to 2019, 20% compared to 2018 and 38% compared to 2017 over the same period. Not to mention that there are also many online communities that have been created to save the clubs, and the fan base is growing. » To seduce supporters who prefer to stay on their couch, despite everything, the federation has also found the parade. Launched during the confinement period, an online platform makes it possible to watch on demand, and for 5 euros, all the matches of the first and second divisions.

In Ballybofey, the match is coming to an end, a new action breaks out in front of the opposing cages. The ball goes into the back of the net at the 89and minute. 1-0 for Harps against Shelbourne FC. Supporters leave the old Ballybofey enclosure relieved, dreaming of tomorrow. Halted for years, the construction site of the new 5400 seat stadium is back on track. The first matches are scheduled there for the 2024 season. “Moving to the new stadium will really encourage the growth of the club” concludes, all smiles, Aidan Campbell. A new impetus, like the Irish championship?

By Tudi Crequer, in Ballybofey
All comments collected by TC except Stephen McGuinness.
Photos: IconSport and TC.

(1) In 2020, the book Champagne Soccer written by two journalists from Sunday Times, had revealed how Delaney confused his bank card with that of the federation when he was its leader. He would have passed almost a million euros spending on jewelry, limos, hotels and online shopping sites on FAI accounts. She had also advanced the 80,000 euros in fees for her sublime and extravagant birthday party for his 50th birthday, which would have made Gatbsy blush with jealousy, and mopped up 30,000 euros in expenses not reimbursed by Delaney.

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