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Ciarán Murphy: League of Ireland clubs denied fair share of television coverage

Exploits of Bohs, Dundalk and Rovers in Europe ignored while GAA fans bask in coverage

The two weeks when the world turns its attention to the Olympic Games is usually fertile ground for sports columnists to stake their piece of ground in the never ending battle of Why-My-Sport-Is-Better-Than-Yours. So I’m going to preface all this by saying this is not one of those pieces . . . even if Bohemians Football Club are going to get a mention.

There are two League of Ireland clubs in action tonight in the third round of the Europa Conference League, Dundalk away to Vitesse Arnhem, and Shamrock Rovers at home to Teuta of Albania.

Bohs drew 8,000 people to the Aviva for their thrilling, magnificent 2-1 win against PAOK of Greece in the same competition, a game where PAOK’s wage bill was 30 times that of their opponents.

None of those three soccer games will have live television coverage. On the other hand, if you decided that the only group of people you were interested in following this summer were Cork's under-20 hurlers and footballers (not the seniors, not the minors), you'd have seen them in action no fewer than six times in the last five weeks. Dual star Brian Hayes is in danger of becoming that guy who's just on television too much, like Dermot Bannon.

The GAA has often grappled uncomfortably with the idea of live broadcasts, but it would be a churlish GAA person indeed who’d suggest that their sports are poorly served by television now. There has been more GAA on television for the last month than any reasonably well-balanced member of society could wish to watch.

Then came the news yesterday that the All-Ireland football semi-finals and finals are going to be shown live on Galician television in Spain, and if you were a League of Ireland fan you’d be forgiven for thinking that you just can’t catch a break at the moment.

The last live domestic soccer match shown on RTÉ was in early May, and the next one won’t be until September. For Bohemians, Rovers and Dundalk, their exploits in Europe have been hidden away behind live streams.

There isn’t even a highlights show on at the moment for the domestic league – for all the bellyaching we do about the Sunday Game, that is unthinkable.

There are of course arguments to be made about fan interest and public interest in the domestic league (and lord knows we’ve read them all over the last 20 or 30 years), but pre-Covid League of Ireland attendances are at least as robust as those at under-20 and minor intercounty games.

And there are extenuating circumstances for domestic soccer’s prolonged absence, of course. RTÉ have been stretched almost to breaking point with the Olympics, the GAA championships, and the Euros, and the travails of Eir Sport have taken another possible contender out of the running, but it’s shocking to think that almost four months of a season will go by without live coverage.

Enviable position

GAA fans meanwhile are in the enviable position of being able to take the coverage that TG4 gives the games during the summer months utterly for granted. Such complacency has occurred countless times over the last number of years, and it usually goes something like this.

A pleasant evening being spent in the back garden, while one idles on one’s phone. Some hardy perennials of the GAA press pack start tweeting obscure, context-free updates from what appears to be a hurling game. It could be that all these hard-working men of the press are all in attendance, but what’s much more likely is that on TG4, another classic is being played out.

There’s no need to rush. I know how these things operate. Like the first three quarters of a basketball game, no matter how definitive things look as we round the final bend in TG4-land, there will be drama.

Michael Duignan revisited his own joke a couple of weeks ago during the Munster hurling final about nine points being a dangerous lead in hurling, but there is no more dangerous lead than being five points up going into injury time on TG4 in midweek.

It’s just consistently exceptional entertainment, for whatever reason, and the faith that TG4 have displayed in showing these games has been repaid a thousand times over. It’s sport we didn’t realise we needed in our lives, and TG4 have proven themselves adept time and time again at picking out sporting events that fulfil that exact criterion.

The action in the senior hurling and football championships is appointment-to-watch television. You shape your weekend around it. The stuff midweek on TG4 is just the cherry on the icing on the cake. Joining it halfway through is nearly part of the thrill.

League of Ireland fans would love the chance to take such things for granted. They deserve better than what they’ve gotten over the last few months.