Irish football’s division more than ever looks an anachronism
Tipping point: Brexit crisis could represent a chance for some positive Irish sporting unity
The Shamrock Rovers Ireland XI that faced then world champions Brazil in a friendly international at Lansdowne Road in 1973. Brazil won 4-3. Photograph: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
There’s enough division about this Christmas to make season’s greetings of goodwill sound hollow. So with accord at a premium, and a New Year around the corner, how good a time is it for Irish soccer to grow up and unite.
Arguing for an All-Ireland football team is a crusty old trope. And wedging it into a Christmas context of peace and harmony risks mawkishness.
But there’s a rare and hard-headed opportunity now to put a football amalgamation between Northern Ireland and the Republic properly front and centre on the sporting agenda.
England’s misfortune is traditionally Ireland’s opportunity and this modern Brexit crisis of English nationalism represents a chance for some positive Irish sporting unity.
Old battle lines have got blurrier. So have ideas of culture and presumptions of economic self-interest. It is in a fraught atmosphere in so many other aspects that a chance to forge a new football identity on this island seems an admirably positive and outward-looking move.
To die-hards on either side of the political divide – and maybe on the respective boards of the Football Association of Ireland and the Irish Football Association – such ambition will no doubt sound both unrealistic and unwanted.
But, on the old bulldog basis that no good crisis should ever be allowed go to waste, there’s scope here to remind those in charge of of soccer’s strange position in the context of Irish sport.
There are long-held and bitterly entrenched reasons for division of course, ever since the FAI was set up after a split from the Belfast-based IFA almost a century ago.
Football’s politics subsequently, and inevitably, got ensnared in wider questions of entrenched identity, most notably during the Troubles when any amount of ugly baggage got heaped onto the beautiful game.
Even at the height of the problems though the aspiration towards football unity always existed. So did a suspicion that there was a lot more willingness among the larger football community than among officials to try and edge towards it.
The most graphic example of that remains the Shamrock Rovers XI that took on the world champions Brazil in 1973. John Giles and Derek Dougan’s initiative provided a glimpse of what might be, not just football-wise, but, crucially, in symbolic terms too.
At the time apparently both associations were more open to the amalgamation than generally believed. Ultimately though hope was extinguished by a conflict that continued for decades and which, for football, reached a nadir with the 1994 World Cup qualifier in Windsor Park.
Of course it’s not hard to see why those at the top of the FAI and IFA might be reluctant to change things
Even then the contrast between football and how a wide range of other sports operated on an All-Ireland basis was striking. Now, in a context of political flux where old certainties look to be more malleable than ever before, continuing division looks obstinate, unimaginative and self-defeating.
The plusses to Irish rugby’s all-island basis are currently highlighted by an outstanding team. But even when Ireland’s fortunes on the field were mired in mediocrity there was always the deeper context of how standing together stood for something a lot more hopeful than standing apart.
The symbolism of that was also apparent during the Irish women’s hockey team’s progress to this year’s World Cup final. Given a story to engage with the outpouring of popular support came from every aspect of the sporting spectrum, North and South.
A huge range of sports in Ireland operate on an all-island basis. Cricket, boxing, racing and golf manage to accommodate different cultural identities; yet Irish soccer remains divided, even at a time when dividing scarce resources looks a wilful self-indulgence.
Of course it’s not hard to see why those at the top of the FAI and IFA might be reluctant to change things. Chopping down a greasy pole you’ve spent a career climbing is not an urge one associates with any kind of officialdom.
There’s irony too in Uefa’s decision to expand the number of teams to qualify for the 2020 European championships to 24. Fifa’s plans to up numbers at the 2026 World Cup to 48 is also encouraging the status quo with smaller nations more hopeful of qualification.
But there’s more to this than the headline-grabbing international dimension. Domestic football continues to be an unloved child on both sides of the border with core support notable for its passion but also its scarcity.
Rory McIlroy’s memorable assertion that he feels more Northern Irish than Irish or British got a lot of people in a stew
No one can reasonably argue an All-Ireland league is some silver bullet for the domestic game’s woes. But it’s a tough to argue against two separate leagues battling for the attention of a mostly disinterested public on one small island being anything but a self-inflicted injury.
Achieving change isn’t straightforward. Historical baggage can’t be just flung out and forgotten. There’s certainly an element of turkeys voting for Christmas about administrative bodies giving up power. And those who might consider change may look at some of those pushing the idea and baulk.
But this isn’t some huge revolutionary concept either. The biggest hurdle is the very Brexit matter of identity. But identity is fluid.
Rory McIlroy’s memorable assertion that he feels more Northern Irish than Irish or British got a lot of people in a stew. In reality it was a simple acknowledgement of reality, a defiant gesture to those determined to pigeon-hole him. And it doesn’t stop McIlroy cheering on Ireland’s rugby team.
That’s what’s ultimately so dispiriting about reluctance to address Irish football’s division: it feels a relic of a past long since overtaken by a majority of Irish sports fans who don’t require flag waving to feel that they belong.
There are sound football reasons for addressing this. The idea of an island with such a relatively small pick continuing to sub-divide that pick is illogical.
But football in Ireland is always more than just about football. And at a time of such inward-looking anxiety how hopeful and timely a signal would it be to focus on progress towards unity rather than separation.