Michael Walker: Dundalk provide crackle, Glentoran the pop

‘When Oriel is full, it’s a brilliant, brilliant atmosphere and a great place to play football’

Dundalk’s Robbie Benson celebrates scoring his goal against Shamrock Rovers last weekend. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dundalk’s Robbie Benson celebrates scoring his goal against Shamrock Rovers last weekend. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Twilight in Dundalk, Friday last, and at Oriel Park a sign on the main stand proclaims: ‘The Home Of Football.’

Over the next four hours or so as night falls, Dundalk FC demonstrate on the pitch and off it that while this may be an exaggeration, Oriel Park is one of the homes of Irish football.

As the Dundalk support sang during the 2-1 victory over Shamrock Rovers, it is currently home to the best team in country: “Champions of Ireland, we know what we are.”

That chant was all part of an atmosphere that reflected well on both Dundalk and the League of Ireland as the 2017 season began. Manager Stephen Kenny had requested “electricity” and with kick-off approaching and the tannoy announcing the arrival of “the three-in-a-row champions”, Oriel Park crackled. There was noise, colour, rivalry, there was a new pitch.

Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Burke is shown a straight red card by referee Neil Doyle. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Burke is shown a straight red card by referee Neil Doyle. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

What was produced on it was a competitive, high-tempo, encouraging standard of football. That’s important - the product on the park. That it was animated by a crowd of more than 4,700 - including around 600 fans Rovers up from Dublin - made this feel like an occasion.

Which it was. Dundalk-Rovers was a big fixture to herald a new season. Dundalk’s rise has been noted far beyond Louth. Rovers’ status is known.

It worked, and given the fragile economics of domestic Irish football, you can never be sure.

It worked because people left excited and motivated by what they had seen. It worked because they turned up in the first place.

If you can do that every second Friday night, then there is something to develop, to grow. Once there is anticipation, money follows. That in turn brings better facilities, better coaching, better players. It is a happy cycle.

Dundalk’s Gabriel Sava and Jamie McGrath celebrate after the game. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Dundalk’s Gabriel Sava and Jamie McGrath celebrate after the game. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Of course there are challenges - former Sligo Rovers chairman Dermot Kelly’s column in last week’s Irish Times was instructive. So it needs support. It’s arriving from below - fans - it needs more from above, the FAI. Hard cash would be a start.

The domestic game has long had to fight for coverage. There was a healthy media presence here; it was televised. Sceptics might question whether Dundalk 2017 are representative of the League of Ireland as a whole but you can take that argument across the Irish Sea.

What cannot be denied is that last weekend more people went to watch Dundalk play Shamrock Rovers than saw Peterborough United face Rochdale in League One in England. There were more spectators at newly-promoted Limerick versus Sligo Rovers than three days later were at Hamilton-Aberdeen in Scotland’s Premiership.

It could be counter-productive to overstate a stirring on the doorstep, but it deserves to be noticed.

“If we can get that kind of crowd every week, it really helps the team,” said Dundalk full-back Sean Gannon. “If you ask any of the lads, when Oriel is full, it’s a brilliant, brilliant atmosphere and a great place to play football.”

As another announcement from the tannoy said: “Welcome back from our winter hibernation.”

This was the east Belfast UVF letting you know you were standing on their turf.

Less than 24 hours later, up the coast, Belfast offered a contrast. Standing at the corner of Dee Street on the Newtownards Road, a giant mural declared: “We are the pilgrims, master; we shall always go a little further.” There were three paramilitary gunmen encircled by the words. This was the east Belfast UVF letting you know you were standing on their turf.

There were not many pilgrims. Despite the fact a three-minute walk away Glentoran were about to play Linfield in Belfast’s ‘Big Two’ derby, the absence of anticipation was marked. Glentoran and Linfield have been playing each other since 1887 and this was their 455th meeting - it is the most-played senior fixture in the world - and familiarity may have bred boredom.

Down Mersey Street, as Glentoran’s Oval came into view, so at last did some punters, but it could not be called a rush.

Part of this is Glentoran’s slide. The famous old club of Peter Doherty and Danny Blanchflower, where in 1977 I saw a superb Glens team lose 1-0 to Juventus in the European Cup - Franco Causio scored - has faded.

Glentoran are eighth in the 12-team Irish League. They have not been champions since 2009 and do not have the look of a club about to change that. There is a withering of enthusiasm judging by the gaps on the terraces of the vast stadium.

Part of it was Linfield’s diminished following. Linfield Supporters Trust had leant itself to a boycott of the Oval due to (alleged) friction between the clubs. This revolved around the playing of the ‘Billy Boys’ on Linfield’s tannoy when the two met at Windsor Park at Christmas. Apparently there was a complaint from Glentoran (alleged), though not an official one. Welcome to Northern Ireland.

Linfield usually bring thousands across Belfast to the Oval. On Saturday they brought hundreds.

They saw a former Glentoran (and Hamilton) player, Andy Waterworth, score the only goal - for Linfield. There was little tension, little drama and the quality of play was described by Linfield’s manager, David Healy, the David Healy, as “crap”.

There were moments of interest. Nacho Novo, formerly of Rangers and Sporting Gijon, and soon to be 38, was a second-half sub for Glentoran. At the other end of the age scale was Alex Moore, 18 and still at school, making his debut in goal for Linfield. Moore attends RBAI, a ‘rugby school’.

McAuley, once of Crusaders and Coleraine, did not leave this League until he was 24.

Earlier this season a 15 year-old, Ethan Warnock, made his Glentoran debut. Warnock joins Everton this summer.

There is still talent coming through the Irish League. The same afternoon, Gareth McAuley scored again for West Brom. McAuley, once of Crusaders and Coleraine, did not leave this League until he was 24.

But Healy’s assessment of the game was accurate. He had been due to be at Dundalk the night before but could not make it.

“Dundalk are full-time, so straightaway they’re going to be ahead of what we have,” Healy said, when asked about the respective leagues.

“The standard down there is obviously better, and rightly so, because if you’re training full-time and you’re being paid a lot more money than the clubs up here, you would expect it to be better. It’s a full-time training environment.

“The finance isn’t there in the Irish League.”

Healy spoke in a cold room in an emptied ground and on the walk away from the Oval it felt like Glentoran’s cycle is sad, not happy.

Yet just as Dundalk may not represent the whole League of Ireland experience, Glentoran may not represent the entire Irish League experience.

Today Crusaders - League leaders, aiming for three-in-a-row themselves - host Linfield in the Irish Cup quarter-final at Seaview. It’s unlikely to lack crackle. Or snap.

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