Compared to the large crowds and the modern architecture at AVIVA Stadium in Dublin, the Airtricity League struggles to survive. Most weekends during the British season thousands of Irishmen fly off to watch football in the Barclays EPL and Scottish Premier League, to Manchester, Liverpool, London, Glasgow and elsewhere.
A few years back the League of Ireland decided to try summer soccer, but poor financial management almost brought it to its knees. Some clubs were paying players 3,000 Euros a week with gates not much more than 1,000. Many were suspended or went of of existence all together. Kilkenny City in 2008, Galway United 2012, Sporting Fingal in 2011,( just after winning the FAI Cup), St. Francis in 2001, Newcastle West, Drumcondra, Dublin City.... Saturday evening I went to a couple of Premier matches, one on the North Side and the other on the SouthSside of the River Liffey.
About 5 years ago I chatted with some St Patrick Athletic fans at a pub on Cobh harbour prior to their match at Cobh Ramblers and they were passionate. This weekend I went to Richmond Park for the first time to see them play Limerick, who were First Division champions last season. St. Pats are top of the league and have played in the Europa League. Their home is snug and friendly with almost all of them kitted out in the home jerseys and making lots of noise and waving flags and chanting.
I was told by locals that they prefer Friday nights but since the national team played they had to switch to 5.00pm on Saturday. Just over 1,050 was the announced attendance, with the Garda keeping an eye on the 50 or so Limerick fans in one corner. St. Pats led the 12 club league with 36 points after 16 matches followed by Sligo Rovers and Derry City. A goal early in the match and one on half time, plus a third in the second half and they extended their lead with 3 more points as Sligo could only tie 0-0. Now they have a 7 point lead.
Luckily I sat next to Cian O'Connell, a reporter from Galway who had driven from the West Coast for the day.The brand new motorway means its only a 2 hour journey coast to coast. He took me to the 8.00pm match north of the river at Tolka Park, home of Shelbourne, who prop up the league with just 6 points. An even bigger stadium, but just 650 or so fans showed up. Their opponents were Derry City, The Candystripes from The Bogside in Stroke City- Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland which is one of two European Capital of Culture cities this year.
We took our places in the press box and were given a 'Welcome Package' in a plastic bag. A bottle of water, a packet of cheese & onion crisps and a twin bar of Mr. Choc caramel biscuits, plus a copy of The Red Thread, the official programme and a team sheet. Thank You Shels... a very nice touch.
It was all change at Tolka Park as manager Alan Matthews and his backroom staff departed after a torrid start to the season, to be replaced by Shels legend Kevin Doherty. They tried hard but were a step slower than the lads from up north. It was only 1-0 but they are mired in the bottom 7 points from safety, below Bohemians.
All five Dublin clubs are in the Premier League St. Pats, Shamrock Rovers, UCD, Bohemians and Shelbourne, with Bray Wanderers less than 30 minutes away. All chasing the same sponsorship money and fans, with GAA sports and Rugby Union. Without the many cheerful unpaid volunteers I met serving snacks, selling souvenirs, programmes and raffle tickets and manning the turnstiles the show wouldn't go on.
I have enjoyed watching matches from Finn Harps at Finn Park in Ballybofey, to Derry City at Brandywell, Bohemians at Dalymount Park, Bray Wanderers at Carlisle Grounds, Cobh Ramblers at St. Colmans Park. Long may they stay in business.