Mons’ demise a timely reminder of Irish football’s sickness

18 Jun

Published by TheScore.ie, 18 June 2012

AS “THE FIELDS of Athenry” rang long into the miserable Gdasnk night last Thursday, Europe’s footballing fraternity stood back and admired the 30,000-strong Irish contingent, for their defiant singing in the face of adversity if not for their complete lack of perspective.

Fast forward to Monday and one of the country’s top-tier clubs, Monaghan United, announces that they are withdrawing from senior football because they can’t attract more than a couple of hundred paying punters through the Gortakeegan turnstiles every other week.

The timing could hardly have been more striking, the numbers more jarring. While Europe lauds Ireland for supposedly having “the best fans in the world,” back home we’re left with yet another domestic club which is starved of enough supporters to make ends meet.

When Ireland’s brief, brutal major championship flirtation comes to an end tonight, these 30,000 will dust themselves off and return home but where will they go? Not to cheer on their local team — on the opening weekend of this season, the combined attendance for all Premier Division and First Division games stood at just over 12,500.

There have been plenty of League of Ireland jerseys proudly worn on the streets of Poland this last fortnight. It’s wrong to a suggest that there is a complete disconnect between the domestic game and the national team; between the two extremes of those who put their hand into their pocket week in, week out to support the club they love and those who are only interested when there’s a sing-song and a party to follow. But the numbers just don’t add up.

Increasingly it’s clear that Ireland does not have the culture of football supporters that other nations do. Not of fans or people who enjoying watching and talking about football — there’s no shortage of those — but “supporters” in the literal sense. A groundswell of people who commit their free time, money and energy to support the growth, development and improvement of the game in this country. In that respect football in this country still lags far behind the GAA which commands the time and attention of its disciples in a way that is beyond football’s wildest dreams.

Much of that problem can be alleviated with some careful plans for reform which need to begin at the top. Ask most football fans why they don’t go to the League of Ireland and the answer will invariably be the same: they’re not interested because the standard isn’t high enough.

This is where marketing comes in to it. It doesn’t take a particularly long memory to recall the days when the Leinster rugby team were struggling to fill Donnybrook and fans wouldn’t cross the road to see them. The growth and success of rugby in Ireland in recent years is largely down to the success of the IRFU and the provinces in designing a sustainable and attractive product at an affordable price. Times may be tough economically but if you give the public a compelling enough reason, they will dip into their pockets.

Rightly or wrongly, most Irish football fans have little faith in the FAI to get things right. That’s hardly a surprise when the news of Monaghan’s collapse was competing for attention with YouTube videos of John Delaney partying late into the Polish night, rallying whatever Irish troops were left standing alongside him.

But it’s too easy to blame any one of the FAI, the players, the management, the fans and the public for the sickness of Irish football. The reality is that each of these groups are stakeholders, bound to each other for better or for worse, and all have a part to play if this is to get better. Either that or we might as well just settle for letting our clubs wither away one by one and hope that we win the sing-song on our rare international outings.

Thursday night’s schooling against Spain was the most comprehensive argument yet for a radical overhaul of Ireland’s footballing structure, from the grassroots all the way up to the top. Today’s sad demise of Monaghan United might just help to hammer the message home.

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