How English football is still the biggest draw for Irish fans

Thousands travel to the UK every week for their football fix and numbers are rising

United still remain the biggest draw for Irish football fans. Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

United still remain the biggest draw for Irish football fans. Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

 

It’s a familiar scene in Dublin Airport departures every weekend from August to May when streams of football fans come through security, some wearing merchandise from the clubs they support, some not, but all travelling for the one purpose – to see a football match in the UK.

Manchester United and Liverpool are undoubtedly the biggest draws and flights to those cities are usually the busiest when either team is playing at home but the number of English clubs supported in Ireland spans well beyond the big two. For instance, with both sides playing away from home two Saturdays ago it was Leeds United supporters who made up the bulk of football traffic in the bars beside departure gates with Ryanair’s 7.55am flight from Dublin to Leeds Bradford and the 8.05pm flight back that evening always proving popular for a 3pm kick-off at Elland Road.

On that Saturday there were also Chelsea jerseys to be seen boarding a flight to London Stansted, a family of five decked out in Crystal Palace gear getting on the same flight while plenty of Everton and Aston Villa fans were also knocking around with both clubs still proving very popular over here thanks to historic (and some current) Irish links.

While football fans in Ireland have long been looking outside the country for their live match fix at the weekend – although plenty do go to both games in England and domestic League of Ireland matches – the advent of cheap flights to the UK really saw the numbers increase week-on-week, particularly during the early 2000s when the height of the Celtic Tiger and the seemingly never-ending success of Manchester United led to travelling numbers hitting their peak.

Despite playing in the second flight for 15 years now, Leeds are still popular among Irish match-going fans. Photo: Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images
Despite playing in the second flight for 15 years now, Leeds are still popular among Irish match-going fans. Photo: Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Those numbers did dip for a while after 2008 but they’re now steadily on the increase once again with current figures from Visit Britain estimating that over 2,000 Irish fans travel to and from the UK every weekend for football matches. According to Ryanair, the airline sees a 40 per cent rise in searches on their website for flights to Liverpool and Manchester when either Liverpool or United are playing at home.

Of course, those increased searches inevitably lead to increased prices. For instance, a return trip with Ryanair to Manchester on October 20th for United’s meeting with Liverpool will set you back over €300 while the same trip two weeks later – when United are Liverpool both play away from home the day before – will cost less than €60.

According to a recent survey carried out by An Post, Irish fans will spend up to €7,408 following their Premier League team this season, although that is based on a season ticket-holding supporter attending all 19 home matches.

There are plenty of travel operators who will organise the whole trip for fans at a premium price but with the amount of flights now going between Ireland and the UK at weekends it’s easier than ever to organise independently with airports such as Leeds Bradford, East Midlands and Birmingham all being used as cheaper alternatives for United and Liverpool fans who can then get a train to whichever city of the two they are going to.

The impact that a no-deal Brexit may have on such trips is yet to be seen but the Common Travel Area agreement between the UK and Ireland – which pre-dates the EU – means citizens will still be able to travel freely. Whether there will be longer delays at security or whether flight prices may increase due to rising fuel costs and value of sterling remains to be seen but, for now, the waves of travelling fans shows no signs of stopping.

Clubs tend to keep details of their ticket sales close to their chest and when asked by The Irish Times for a country-by-country breakdown of their season ticket sales, Manchester United, Liverpool and Celtic all said such information couldn’t be provided. However, estimates of United season ticket holders in Ireland alone put the figure at over 1,000 between independent holders, supporters clubs and travel agents. Indeed United sold out their 53,000 season tickets in record time for this campaign with a further 75,000 people on a waiting list for a seat at Old Trafford. This season United froze season ticket prices for the eighth year in a row with prices ranging from £532 (€595) to £950 (€1,060) depending on where the ticket is located. Liverpool’s prices range from £685 (€765) to £869 (€970) and both clubs are significantly cheaper than the £795 (€890) to £1,995 (€2,230) charged by Tottenham Hotspur for the most expensive season tickets on average in the Premier League.

For certain United matches tickets will go on general sale to members but for most Irish fans travelling over it’s a case of getting the use of someone else’s season ticket either through contacts, a supporters club or websites like DoneDeal and Adverts where season ticket holders will sell on their ticket for matches they won’t be attending, sometimes at face value but more often at slightly more than that.

Mancnester United Fans walk along Matt Busby Way towards Old Trafford. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images
Mancnester United Fans walk along Matt Busby Way towards Old Trafford. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images

However, the club has been looking to clamp down on season tickets being sold on for profit by carrying out random checks on fans during matches at Old Trafford to ask where they got the ticket from and how much they paid for it. The club’s policy is that tickets can be shared with family and friends but not sold on at more than face value, as some season ticket holders tend to do, therefore risking a ban if they’re discovered to have done so.

Supporters’ clubs have long been an avenue for Irish fans to organise trips and sort out tickets. There are currently 22 United branches around the country, 33 for Liverpool, 21 for Arsenal and numerous more for the likes of Chelsea, Leeds, Everton and others.

Louise Berney is the membership secretary for the official Manchester United Supporters Club in Dublin and she says that the branch currently has over 300 members and they are hoping for those numbers to increase as subscriptions are open until December. Last May the club celebrated its 50th anniversary and they organise either day trips or weekend trips to all United home matches, depending on kick-off times. The club buys season tickets each year and they can apply for up to 40 extra individual tickets for matches, depending on whether they are category A or category B games. With membership prices starting at €35 it’s a very reasonable option for fans to get access to tickets they may otherwise struggle to find.

While the inevitable response from many will be to question why all these thousands of people don’t attend football matches that take place on their doorstep in the League of Ireland, the fact remains that there is a huge appetite for English football in this country and, given the numbers, that trend doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.

Premier League season ticket prices (cheapest to most expensive for a single seat)

1. West Ham United: £320 to £975

2. Manchester City: £325 to £950

3. Aston Villa: £350 to £684

4. Leicester City: £365 to £660

5. Burnley: £390 to £580

6. Southampton: £399 to £855

7. Sheffield United: £402.50 to £513.50

8. Newcastle United: £417 to £811

9. Everton: £420 to £565

10. Wolverhampton Wanderers: £493 to £628

11. Watford: £496 to £722

12. Manchester United: £532 to £950

13. Brighton & Hove Albion: £535 to £845

14. AFC Bournemouth: £550 to £760

15. Norwich City: £569.50 to £630.50

16. Chelsea: £595 to £1,250

17. Crystal Palace: £600 to £810

18. Liverpool: £685 to £865

19. Tottenham Hotspur: £795 to £1,995

20. Arsenal: £891 to £1,768

– This article is part of a series of consumer-based sports stories. If you have any queries, stories or issues regarding travel, tickets, sport on television or anything else you can email rcroke@irishtimes.com or via Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.

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