THE journey took 10 years but gave me the best 10 minutes of my life.
10 golden minutes last September when the scoreboard at White Hart Lane said it all: Tottenham Hotspur 0 Shamrock Rovers 1.
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Sure, Spurs went on to win the Europa League fixture 3-1. But those 10 minutes were priceless. 10 minutes during which the silence from the League of Ireland naysayers was almost as deafening as the thundering throats of 4,000 lusty Rovers fans in north London. Because being a League of Ireland fan means being regarded as something of an oddity. Bray Wanderers, Derry City, Monaghan United? Sure, that’s hardly football.
Of course, that depends on how you like your football. Personally, I like it the way I like a good steak; bloody, raw, and preferably with a pulse.
That’s how football used to be in the UK. I just (just, mind you) caught the end of that era before the all-singing and all-dancing Premiership arrived in a fanfare of inflated wages and exorbitant ticket prices.
Back then, working class people like me could afford to go to matches week in and week out and stand among the huddled masses screaming our guts out. But as television made the game more accessible, actually going to a ground became exclusive to those with the fattest wallets. Going to the watch the game meant going down to the pub.
I’d fallen out of love with football by the time I moved to Dublin in 2001. But then … maybe it was a mid-life crisis, maybe it was breaking up with yet another girlfriend, and maybe it was because the drugs don’t work. But for some reason, I needed a football fix. A proper football fix.
And so I went to a handful of League of Ireland fixtures. I followed the floodlights and walked down narrow laneways in the procession of die-hard fans who stood firm in fantastically archaic grounds and backed their team the old-fashioned way with passion, noise, and no little banter.
The Shamrock Rovers fans in particular never failed to impress. The result didn’t seem to matter to them. All they asked was that the team gave their all, and if they did, it meant everything. Bitten and smitten, I became a season ticket holder and saw the homeless Hoops relegated, then promoted, and finally move into their new Tallaght Stadium home and become champions of the Airtricity Premier League of Ireland.
Over the years friends and family from the UK have come to a game. Some were bemused by the whole thing and spent most of the time trying to work out where the big screen was. Others relished the “real” football experience.
Okay, so it’s not all jumpers-for-goalposts and oranges-at-half-time goodness. Some of the League of Ireland stadiums are far from salubrious. But redeveloped grounds such as St Patrick’s Athletic’s Richmond Park and UCD’s newl ‘Bowl’ offer the choice of either comfortable seating or standing so close to the pitch you can smell the action. All of which is a far cry from the recent wave of bland, identikit, edge-of-motorway all-seated stadiums springing up in Britain.
Differences between the leagues are even clearer off the pitch. In England, the top two Manchester clubs spend hundreds of millions of pounds, fuelled either by debt or foreign benevolence. But after a period of financial recklessness in the League of Ireland (and no doubt in Ireland full stop) Shamrock Rovers’ fan-owned, financially prudent membership structure is being replicated by others. League of Ireland supporters look set to have a voice in the way their clubs are being run that supporters of Glasgow Rangers would no doubt be envious of.
Just like Barcelona and Real Madrid, Shamrock Rovers are owned by their supporters. Some would say the similarities end there but who can say for how much longer, given Rovers’ meteoric progress on and off the pitch since the fans wrestled control of the club in 2005?
With the league kicking off on Friday March 2 and playing until the end of November, there’s no better time to adopt a League of Ireland team alongside whoever you support. And believe me the €10 – €15 you pay on the gate will make a bigger difference to a League of Ireland club than to the likes of Arsenal if you pay £60-£70 to sit in their shiny new library.
You’ll also be making a massive contribution to the future of Ireland’s national side. Until recently, the likes of Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, James McClean and Seamus Coleman plied their trade in the League of Ireland. They typify what the league is all about: effort, talent and hunger. And for all the criticism the league attracts for its standard of football, it should be noted that these players who were on part-time contracts worth peanuts, strolled into Premier League squads and made an instant impact.
But in all honesty I can’t promise the football will be good. I can’t promise there’ll be prawn sandwiches. I can’t promise a comfy seat. I can’t even promise you’ll be warm and dry. It might be called summer football, but it is Ireland after all.
But you’re guaranteed a warm welcome, as well as blood, sweat, and the occasional tear.
And maybe, just maybe, the best 10 minutes of your life.
Who to follow? Take your pick …
Where? Dalymount Park
Last season: 5th
Prediction for 2012: 11th
Support because: Beset by money problems, the Gypsies have ditched big-spending in favour of hungry, home-grown young amateurs who’ll be fighting for their lives in the season ahead.
Where? Carlisle Grounds
Last season: 6th
Prediction for 2012: 10th
Support because: The lovely DART journey along the coast to Bray, sea air in your lungs, fish and chips on the beach and then on to the match…football heaven.
Where? Turner’s Cross,
Last season: First division
Prediction for 2012: 5th
Support because: Only a tenner in and a noisy atmosphere guaranteed in the compact stadium. The latest club on the up following a fan-takeover.
Where? Brandywell Stadium
Last season: 3rd
Prediction for 2012: 4th
Support because: The only team in Northern Ireland to play in the Republic’s League of Ireland. Great city and the perfect destination for a weekend footy break. Club anthem: Teenage Kicks by the Undertones.
Where? Hunky Dorys Park (yep, really)
Last season: 9th
Prediction for 2012: 12th
Support because: Erm…the Drogs need it more than most!
Where? Oriel Park
Last season: 7th
Prediction for 2012: 9th
Support because: A curious blend of the old and the new … traditional vintage ground with a plastic pitch…or a Certified Star Field Turf pitch, as they like to call it. FIFA seem okay with it, anyway.
Last season: First division
Prediction for 2012: 7th
Support because: Promoted to the Airtricity Premier league from the first division, the Mons are this season’s unknown quantity. If they can keep Roddy Collins at the helm, it won’t be boring.
Where? Tallaght Stadium
Last season: Champions
Prediction for 2012: Champions
Support because: The model club, Ireland’s most successful football team, the famous green-and-white Hoops, the best fans in the league…need I go on?
Where? Tolka Park
Last season: First division
Prediction for 2012: 6th
Support because: Another club to have suffered from over-spending, Shels are now back in the Airtricity Premier big-time with a young, committed and skilful team.
Where? The Showgrounds
Last season: 2nd
Prediction for 2012: 2nd
Support because: The league isn’t big enough for two Rovers, and the FAI cup-holders will push Shamrock Rovers all the way for the title having bolstered their squad with league stalwarts.
St Patrick’s Athletic
Where? Richmond Park, Dublin
Last season: 4th
Prediction for 2012: 3rd
Support because: With a new manager (Liam Buckley) who believes in playing the game the right way and having assembled a decent squad, Pats are an enticing prospect for the season ahead. Richmond Park is a curious, lovely old ground hidden behind a row of houses.
Where? The UCD Bowl
Last season: 8th
Prediction for 2012: 8th
Support because: An unfashionable club affiliated to UCD, the outfit has a proud history of developing talented young players. They were also the subject of one the best gags in Irish football when Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) was asked why he supports UCD. “Because I hate crowds.”