All-Ireland League? Yes or No?

By Philip O’Rourke (@effect_phil)

I’ve seen and read a lot of articles recently about how we could promote the League of Ireland and how we can attract more people to games and take them away from their arm chairs from watching football on their TV screens.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy sitting down and watching any game of football on a television screen, but nothing compares to being there, does it? So, it got me thinking as to what makes a real live game so special, so much better than watching a football game from the comfort of your own sitting room.

First of all it’s the sense of belonging to something. You are surrounded by like minded people who have made the journey to the stadium to watch the same spectacle as yourself. The atmosphere is almost certainly going to be better than in your sitting room, unless you sit there with a flare and a banner singing your clubs songs, in which case you are depriving the other fans of your colourful character by not sharing it with them at live games.

Seeing something in real life is always better than seeing in on the television. But how do we get people to realise this? What can the league do to improve the attraction of football in Ireland. After reading through loads of online forums and talking to other football fans about this topic, one opinion is that we combine both the League of Ireland and the Northern Ireland leagues. I found that interesting, and in my opinion a good idea and still don’t quite understand why we have two separate football leagues on one island.

Now, before you start arguing why we can’t, I’m fully aware of the politic history on this island, but for me politics shouldn’t come into it. Let’s look at the positives of having an all-Ireland league.

The first one would be more strength and depth in the league. More teams means more competition. Some may argue that the Republic of Ireland clubs are stronger but there is nothing stopping the Northern Ireland clubs from bridging that gap. With an All-Ireland league you could easily have a 20-team top tier league with a second division also being made.

A 20-team league leads to more away days for the fans to enjoy, because who doesn’t love a good away day, and stops the fear of boredom setting in from seeing your club playing the same other clubs more than twice a season. The rivalries between north and south would be sure to attract more people as well and bigger attendances would be seen, creating more money for the clubs which can be invested into themselves, into the infrastructure of each club and then eventually spill out to the community and the grassroots clubs.

The lack of intense rivalries in both leagues is notable, with Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers being the only intense rivalry between two sets of fans in the League of Ireland and Linfield against Cliftonville being the only notable intense rivalry in the Northern Ireland league. I know there are other rivalries in both leagues but I’m talking about real ‘hatred’ between two clubs and who doesn’t love it when things get a bit spicy in a football match.

Could we see more clashes between Shamrock Rovers and Linfield

Of course, with any idea like this there are going to be negatives. As well as attracting more football fans it will more than likely attract more trouble makers. I suspect neither the Gardai or the PSNI would enjoy working at some of the fixtures that would be taking place. Maybe there can be regulations put in place for these games. For example, in Italy most football clubs require you to have a ’fan card’ to buy tickets for home games. You must be police vetted to get one of these cards and they are checked whilst you enter the stadium. It was brought in after trouble between rival fans resulted in the death of a police officer. It seems to have worked for now as no major trouble has been reported since in Serie A.

Another argument against this idea of an All-Ireland league is that if we join up with the Northern Ireland league, we will lose some sort of identification. As if we won’t be an independent nation. That to me is not an argument, as other sports on this island have combined and nobody from either the north or the south would say they are less Irish or Northern Irish as a result of it.

The recent trial of the Setanta Cup was also seen as a test and fail for this idea but again I don’t think it was fully implemented and it felt like a half-hearted attempt, as if the two leagues said, ‘okay we’ll try it, but we don’t really want to do it.’ It is also worth pointing out that a Northern Ireland club already plays in the League of Ireland, Derry City, and while there has been some cases where there has been trouble, they have been a welcome addition to our league.

There are so many reasons why this won’t happen anytime soon, ego’s from each of the FAI and IFA, security issues and of course Brexit (I’m sorry for using the word), but it is something of a topic, a controversial one, that seems to always pop up when we discuss how to promote our league and I’m sure it will continue to be as well. Will it ever happen?

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