Donal Fallon takes a look at the months in the wilderness for the friday night faithful as they find something else to do in the League of Ireland “Off Season”.
One of the real peculiarities of Irish football is the ‘pre-season friendly’. These clashes between League of Ireland sides and a team ‘off the telly’ like the Manchester United reserves or a mid-table Scottish side tend to bring out the largest crowds to Irish football stadiums, and while few British supporters would be mad enough to fly over for the clashes, plenty of Irish supporters of the respective British sides fill Irish stadiums for the clashes. In a word, the clashes are depressing.
Even more depressing is the labelling of the encounters, because they’re not pre-season at all. Not for us. You see, the Irish play summer football now unlike the British leagues, and these clashes tend to occur more than mid-way through the Irish season. They’re pre-season clashes for the visitors, and a reminder that soon we on the other side of the ground will have a lot of free time on our hands.
From November onwards, up and down the island, members of the ‘Friday Night Club’ find themselves a bit lost. It should be said that with tickets ranging from €10 for students to between €15 or €20 for adults, and with many clubs offering discounts for OAP’s and even those on the Dole, the League of Ireland is a rather affordable hobby in some ways, or at least more affordable than a Friday night in most Dublin boozers. For the diehards, who would follow their club anywhere from a Leinster Senior Micky Mouse Cup match in Crumlin to a Europa League qualifier in the Ukraine, things are of course more expensive when you factor in travel costs, but missing a match just isn’t an option.
The effect of a League of Ireland club on a local community, and indeed economy, is evident immediately walking down the streets on which the stadiums of the capitals clubs are situated. Walking down Emmet Road in Inchicore on the first Friday following the end of the season, the red and white bunting looks ragged and the pubs quiet. Even on away days a certain buzz descends, with people purchasing tickets from the club offices or buses departing from the pubs of the street on route to away clashes, ensuring memorable bus journeys.
One thing that is guaranteed in the off-season is drama. When one hears the words ‘drama’ and ‘off-season’ together, thinking of UK football, it’s high profile transfers for millions of Pounds or millionaire footballers antics that comes to mind perhaps. In Ireland, it’s a very different kind of financial drama. In recent seasons almost every off-season period has seen a club bid the world goodbye. Last season, the chopping-block victim was Sporting Fingal, a club who existed only from 2008 to 2011. This was a club backed by a financial consortium which included a property development company and which mockingly became ‘Sporting Franchise’ to supporters of other clubs. Their fall may not have broken many hearts, but in previous seasons clubs like Drogheda United, Bohemians, Cork City and others have also found themselves in serious financial dire-straits, clubs with long and proud histories in their own communities. Ireland must have one of the only western-European leagues where even the League champions run the risk of going bust in off-season periods.
“The off-season presents a change to re-organise and plan for the new season” a friend active within the utras grouping at Saint Pat’s told me over a pint in a much quieter McDowell’s in Inchicore than we’re used to. “The banners, flags and colour doesn’t create itself and this is the time to get to work.” That helps maintain some sort of community and social aspect to following the club, but for older fans the loss of the Friday night ritual that is the match has a serious impact on their week. It dawned on me recently that there are dozens of people at my own club for example whose faces I recognise and who I have chatted to on an almost weekly basis, yet whose names escape me! I’m unlikely to see any of these people until a ball is kicked again well into the new year.
One of the big blows to fan culture in Ireland in recent years in my own opinion was the demise of the fanzine culture around the game. That culture thrived for years on the terraces of Irish football and provided a fresh and different take on the game from the official outlets. If the off-season allows us to do anything, it is to look at the football community and scene here with a critical eye and see what can be brought to (or brought back to) the game in the new season. It is the task of those of us who believe in the strong spirit of community the beautiful game can create to contribute towards it, because hard as the few months off are, the next kick-off is never too far away.