An unusual dally into the world of Irish football, of which I write with scant credential. Having borne no sentimental attachment to the national game, though like many people I cannot have been unaware of its presence growing up in Ireland, I do not now deign to cultivate any interest (selfless or otherwise) in its prosperity. So to the following musing pay what little consideration you deem fit. Hopefully, its brevity will dissuade you from outright dismissal.
The FAI, under the stewardship of Declan Conroy, released its SSE Airtricity League Consultation Process Report this September with a view to stoking a conversation on possible steps to improve football played in Ireland and the branding of same.
The report acknowledges several factors that the public has offered for their uncurried and uncourted interest/their unpatriotic, superpub-inhabiting , EPL-induced oikophobia (delete where appropriate). Poor facilities and, perhaps most substantially, poor quality of football on display were just two of the reasons cited for a lack of enthusiasm regarding the local game. First off, let me state that any deliberation I would make before entering such a conversation would be coloured by a particular view of not so much the quality, as the nature of football played in Ireland.
Forgive me cultural nationalists, but: we play British football. Irish football is a subset of British football.
Let’s accept where we’re at before embarking anywhere.
How we play football, how we think about football, even how we talk about football signifies that we gravitate within an Anglocentric sphere. Our best players never contemplate a successful career that does not pass through years service in English (or Scottish) leagues of all levels where the remuneration is fantastically high and cost of cultural adaptation relatively low. Or do you swear you went to school with a bunch of lads who headed off for trials to PAOK Thessaloniki, Rapid Vienna and FC Nantes?
Now, that’s not something that makes us uniquely gelded among nations, for sure. The same can be said for football in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is true that there was once such a thing as ‘the Scottish game’ wherein north of Hadrian’s wall the game’s practitioners offered a style of play comparably different from that of England as Uruguay’s was/still is from Brazil’s. Scots grew up not just with expectations of beating England on the field, but also a pride in the manner of their doing so.
By the interwar period, however, that stylistic difference had largely diminished, and in the post-war period, even accounting for Scotland’s highs of European Cup (Celtic in ’67) and Cup-winners’ Cup (Rangers in ’72) attainment plus its not infrequent World Cup participation (’54, ’58, ’74, ’78, ’82, ’86, ’90 and ’98), who can refute that a process of centralisation and homogenisation of football in this part of Europe has been apace, such that uniformity was the end result? Ireland too was not immune to that process.
Scandanavia, notably, has long been influenced by English footballing culture, and yet Denmark’s rise in the 1980s was perceived as all that more scintillating precisely because the experimental Danes, with their intricate passing play, their Rorschach formations and their liberos, contravened the stodgy British-inspired strictures of their Norwegian and Swedish cousins. A small country managed to buck the trend and produce a lesser – if no less gratifying – version of football as played in more alluring leagues beyond their parish confines. That alone would be worth turning up at the local stadium for.
I wonder if partly what dissuades people from binding themselves, however fairweatheringly, to the fortunes of Finn Harps, Sligo Rovers or St. Pat’s is not that the inferiority of the product to the readily-available behemoth leagues across the Irish Sea; it’s that the product is too similar to the fare on offer in the lower divisions of England (or Scotland, or Wales, for that matter). In such a crowded marketplace for appetites, were you to transplant into Ireland a footballing culture from, say, the Portuguese third tier or the lower Dutch echelons, the quality might conceivably be as low-grade as that purveyed by the status quo, yet that same low-grade football on display would at least have as its USP a football that looked and felt different. You couldn’t delude yourself that somewhere a cheap flight or a satellite-TV channel away there wasn’t the existence of superior football for your consumption, but you just might be that extra bit arsed to bring the kids out for the day.