An Airtricity League title on the line and nobody’s watching . . .

Dundalk are closing in on the title but played in front of 500 on Monday night

It has become quite a thing over the last year or so for those who follow the League of Ireland to wonder aloud as to whether this Dundalk side might be the best of all time.

The debate has rather a grand sound to it but if you were ever tempted to get carried away with notions of circus style parades rolling down main streets lined with excited local townspeople then Longford on Monday will have pretty much snapped you back to reality. Just 500 or so turned out to see Stephen Kenny’s side take another step towards the title. Being one of the Irish club game’s all-time greats can, it seems, be an unglamorous business.

Technically, this title race is still a two-horse affair and while Dundalk were winning in Longford, Cork City were, as it turned out, losing at Richmond Park in front of just 369. That's less than a thousand at games involving two sides challenging for the championship. If the FAI is going to claim credit for creating the environment required for Dundalk to succeed in Europe then it just might have to take some of the blame for Monday night too.

There are, as various people have been busy pointing out on social media since the two games, a variety of reasons why the respective attendances were so low; both of the home sides have had desperately disappointing seasons while the two travelling clubs have been playing so often of late that making a four-hour round trip on a Monday night would not have seemed an attractive prospect, especially when Liverpool and Manchester United was going to be on the box.


Both of those clubs are, of course, well supported here and based on Visit Britain figures issued last year, an estimated 120,000 trips are made from Ireland for football matches annually with perhaps 750 or so at the average Manchester United or Arsenal game, it is not unreasonable to surmise there would have been more Irish in Anfield on Monday night than there were in Longford and Inchicore combined.


The Monday night scheduling may have affected the numbers that travelled. Certainly it appears to have hit the Richmond Park figure badly. The club Monday games are a disaster in terms of attracting fans with many people having family, work or sporting commitments that account for their weekday nights.

Having played Cork on Monday, St Patrick's will host Dundalk and Derry City next week, potentially a dream way to finish the season had they been in some sort of contention themselves. However, they are not and so a club that has averaged just over 1,200 per game over the season and might have expected a bump to that for the visits of the top three, can instead expect crowds of just a few hundred. Gate receipts will scarcely cover the club's matchday costs – refereeing, stewarding, etc – never mind players' salaries, ground maintenance, insurance and the like.

That the core support can be quite so low at St Patrick's is remarkable. The club has a rich tradition, a good location with a reach extending into the soccer heartlands of west Dublin, Garrett Kelleher has invested millions and people working for it who clearly understand the issues and challenges they face. Despite all of that, however, it seems, people will only come in numbers to see a winning team.

Obviously, though, the problem is a league-wide one. Last year total attendances reached around 375,000. Growth has failed to materialise on anything like the scale projected. Even the modest percentages officially claimed may be about to evaporate with a detailed study last month by Gareth Penrose for the website, based on a mix of confirmed and estimated attendances for this season, suggesting a decline this year of perhaps 10 per cent or so. This, at a time when many were hoping Dundalk's performances in Europe would be winning the league renewed respect amongst the wider population.

Stephen Kenny's side are vying with Cork for top spot in the league attendances table and selling out a 5,500 capacity Tallaght for Europa League games – the stadium is set to be expanded to 8,000 by South Dublin County Council despite the fact Shamrock Rovers attendances have plummeted in line with performances over the last few seasons but it is clear now staging the games in the Aviva would have backfired terribly.

Some other figures put forward by Penrose, like an average attendance at Waterford United of just 316 stand out, but grimmer still is the suggestion by John O’Sullivan – once a prominent member of Cork City supporters’ group FORAS and a former chief executive of Limerick and Athlone – that the league’s clubs are hugely reliant for support on an active base that is probably not much more than 30,000 strong.

Base figure

Could it really be that the entire league has been sustained by a base figure that low? As it happens, the team to which Dundalk is often compared to now, is the Rovers one of the mid-1980s which won the third of its four titles in 1986. Its average crowd that year was between 2,000 and 2,500 with home supporters, club activist and historian Paul Doolin, recalls, becoming ever more choosy about which games to see while opposition fans simply stayed away.

That will all ring a pretty loud bell around Oriel Park as, most likely, they complete their own three in a row this weekend. Irish football, it seems, is working desperately hard to stand still in a world where just about every other aspect of the game has changed beyond recognition.

Numbers Game Official total attendance for all Airtricity games in 2015 375,000
Estimated number of journeys by Irish supporters to English games: 120,000
Estimated average attendances for 2016
Cork City circa 2,800 per game
Athlone Town circa 160 per game

Premier Division prize money
First place €110,000
Last place €17,000
Affiliation fees €17,000
Cost of Referees per season (based on 17 home games) €10,455

Premier League prize money (and associated TV revenue)
First place €165 million
Last place €110 million

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times