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Ken Early: Premier League’s success not really a problem for the League of Ireland

Domestic football offering something authentic and very different from the alienating developments in the top level of the sport

43,881: an all-time attendance record, not only for an FAI Cup final, but for any game between two Irish clubs. It’s not every day you get to be part of history.

And all of this happening in the same week that Sport Ireland froze funding to the FAI because of another financial ‘misunderstanding’ involving the CEO. As ever, Irish football success happens despite the FAI rather than because of them.

There was no hint of these troubles in Jonathan Hill’s perky programme notes for the final.

“That the League of Ireland is going from strength-to-strength is well-documented this season,” Hill wrote, curiously underselling the remarkable fact that League of Ireland Premier Division attendances have more than doubled since 2016, while First Division attendances have more than tripled.


Hill used the rest of his notes to renew his call for the State to increase funding for football. “…our Facility Vision shows the stark reality of what needs to be done to bring our club football into the 21st century and to give our clubs and their communities the opportunity to fully recognise the potential of the game – be that via a proper Academy infrastructure, modern facilities for our fans or fit-for-purpose broadcast services for future media partners”.

The appeal for more cash would probably sound better coming from a CEO who wasn’t having to repay the FAI for payments received in lieu of holidays not taken, and also for benefits in kind relating to travel expenses arising from his decision not to move to Ireland.

Hill was hired because of his reputation as a commercial big-hitter, but three years into his tenure the men’s national team is still without a main sponsor.

Could you compare his situation to that of an international team manager who has failed to secure qualification for international tournaments? The analogy falls down because Ireland have missed out on more tournaments than they’ve qualified for, but since the Opel days they have never been without a title sponsor until now.

The CEO signed off: “I wish all involved today the very best – as always, to the winner belong the spoils but to everyone I trust memories will be made to last a lifetime as we all take another step on our respective journeys.”

Looking up from these beautiful words to the pink smoke drifting around a packed stadium under a clear pale November sky you felt a slight sense of unreality . . . has my journey taken me to a movie set today? is this really happening?

The atmosphere was clearly that of a “big-occasion” game rather than the kind where most of the crowd is really invested in the result. The real fans behind each goal put on a spectacular show before kick-off and after each goal, their flares filling the stadium with smoke and the scent of burning matches. Watching them was perhaps the main attraction for the larger part of the crowd, which sounded curious rather than partisan.

Leaning into the stereotypes, the noisy Bohs fans in the row behind me in the South Stand were from Madrid, though they seemed wholehearted in their support of the “rojonero”, interspersing shouts of “Corrupcion!” or “Amarilla!” with “Let’s Go Boez!”. At one point Bohemians advanced to the edge of the St Pat’s area. “Shoot dat” one of them shouted and they all started laughing.

On the field, Bohemians started well but were quickly undone by defensive weakness at set pieces. The equaliser was given away cheaply and the second went in just after half-time, as thousands of fans were still streaming back to their seats from the bar. Bohs missed several good chances to equalise before another defensive error let Tommy Lonergan in for the third goal with just four minutes to go, setting off a general Bohs rush for the exits.

So ended the 14th and biggest Aviva cup final. The first, in 2010, drew a crowd of 36,101, attracted by novelty and €10 tickets, to see Sligo Rovers beating Shamrock Rovers on penalties.

The following year 21,662 came to watch Sligo repeat the trick against Shelbourne. By 2012, only 16,117 were there for Derry City’s victory against St Pats. And now, a decade on, the FAI Cup Final seems to be turning into an annual Irish sporting mega-event like the All-Ireland finals.

What has happened? The biggest part of the change is clearly social media: League of Ireland clubs and their fans are doing a much better job of marketing themselves than the traditional media ever did.

There’s also a palpable reaction against the global dominance of Premier League football, and the alienating developments in the top level of the sport across Europe. That there are fewer Irish players than there used to be in the English top flight is the least of it.

As Bohemians COO Daniel Lambert put it on Twitter during the summer: “The Premier League is the epitome of failure. Clubs owned by states/mega finance. Annual losses £1B. Dominated by betting predators. Pricing out working class. It fails everyone, at every level, bar a tiny number of players. Yet so many aspire to try replicate it . . .”

Lambert’s criticism is in many respects accurate, although it leaves out something obvious: the Premier League doesn’t fail on its own terms, as the world’s most successful TV show. Like Tony Soprano, it is morally grotesque yet compulsively watchable. Even as the smoke cleared from the Pat’s victory flares at the Aviva, #CHEMCI was taking over from #FAICupFinal on Dublin’s Twitter trends.

This was a match between the two clubs that represent the extremes of contemporary Premier League excess: a Gulf state’s soft-power project versus a US billionaire’s sports-entertainment gamble. But then . . . eight goals, Cole Palmer getting one over on Pep, Raheem Sterling scything down Phil Foden with a tackle of pure venom . . . to paraphrase Trump’s famous Diet Coke tweet: “that’s OK, I’ll still keep watching that garbage”.

League of Ireland clubs are never going to be able to compete with this, but that’s fine – nobody can. The president of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez, wants a Super League because he knows that even La Liga can no longer compete with the Premier League. That’s a problem for La Liga, because historically it has seen itself as a competitor league for the one that is now increasingly referred to as Football’s NBA.

It’s not really a problem for the League of Ireland, which is offering something else, and the Premier League’s TV popularity is no more a barrier to its current growth than is the success of any other show on TV.