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The League of Ireland Just Can’t Win

For teams in the League of Ireland, surviving is more impressive than winning.

As stoppage time ran out in Dublin’s creaky old Tolka Park last October, dozens of Beamish-sodden fans of visiting Cork City FC stormed the pitch, joy in their hearts and low-key rioting on their agendas. With the home team, rival Shelbourne FC, vanquished like so many plates of calconnan, the Cork City faithful—“Leesiders”—celebrated, mauling striker Graham Cummins, who had won the match on a header in the 94th minute. After the trophy hoisted, tears were shed, and more beer consumed, the victorious Cork City side made their way home, their place in Irish soccer history secured.


Obscured in the glow of City’s triumph were darker details, such as the fact that the 3,000-odd crowd filled just a third of the 9,681 capacity stadium. And the fact that both City and Shelbourne, and the league they play in, exist under a dark cloud of financial woe. And the fact that Irish soccer is less likely to be televised in its home country than Young Ones reruns. So it goes for the League of Ireland, a top-flight national soccer league in name only. Though it’s gifted with some of the oldest stadiums in Europe—Dublin’s Dalymount Park, once regarded as the home of Irish soccer, dates to 1901—the LOI barely has the fans to fill them. Founded in 1921, some of the league’s clubs predate independence from the United Kingdom; others have been outlasted by the Vancouver Grizzlies. The quality of play lags: The league’s marquee franchise, Shamrock Rovers of Dublin, became the first LOI side to reach the group stage of a major European tournament last season, but lost its six matches by a combined 19-4 (which is akin to an NFL club losing its playoff debut, 120-17).

The league suffers from mounting debts, clubs that struggle to meet payroll, and players who bet on games. Take Sporting Fingal FC, which was born in 2007, slated to play in a new 10-million-euro sports complex in 2008, qualified for continental competition in 2010—and then dissolved in 2011, unable to pay its players. Or when Bohemian FC midfielder Gareth McGlynn was suspended for placing a five-bagger of bets on LOI matches in 2010, a betting scandal that was less appalling than it was sad—he lost all of his bets. Despite its foibles, the LOI has a core group of supporters who treat rivalries, like the 97-year-old Dublin Derby—a matchup of crosstown foes Rovers and Bohemian—as part of a holy trinity alongside church and dry stout. In relation to soccer’s much-hyped globalization, there’s certainly room for such a league to succeed. Enough stateside soccer fans roust themselves from bed at odd weekend hours for Premier League and Serie A action, supporting a cottage-industry of bars, men's leagues, and less-than-legal streaming websites. The YES Network’s alliance with English powerhouse Arsenal is a prime—and strange—example of American media’s desire to siphon cash from American soccerheads’ wallets. Still, the League of Ireland is not for such people. In fact, most Irelanders don’t even follow LOI. Irish soccer is a minor league at home. The finale of the 2011 FAI Cup, Ireland’s main club competition, drew less than 22,000 soulds to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, a 51,700-seat venue, and ManU jerseys are more likely to be seen on the streets of Dublin, Cork, and Limerick than those of home squads.


Alan Smith, who covers soccer for the Evening Echo of Cork, says LOI fans are present, but remain a consistent minority. “There is a good core there, with a fair-sized floating fan base if a team is doing well,” he explains. “Sadly, media coverage focuses on English football.” He notes that LOI's coverage at home has "improved in the last while.”

“Improved,” in this case, means that in 2008, Irish television station RTE 2 began running a Monday night highlights package called “Monday Night Soccer.” For perspective, imagine if the New York Islanders were limited to weekly highlights on PBS.

The recent fortunes of two of the league’s most-followed clubs—Shamrock Rovers and Cork City—are telling. Rovers, the Yankees of Irish soccer, have won the league title 17 times since 1921, including the last two, and the FAI Cup 24 times, both records. They’ve got a fancy mascot, Hooperman (no relation to this guy) who looks a bit like Buzz Lightyear after a few pints, and they’re popular enough to have their own credit card—a sparkling emerald number available through a partnership with MasterCard. They also can’t manage to sell out their home ground at Tallaght in Dublin, which seats less than 6,000. The gold standard of LOI success is but a sometime-feeder for the Irish national team, with no pull internationally, and even less in European competition.

Last season Rovers reached the group stage of Europa League, a continent-wide tourney that's essentially the NIT of soccer, and picked up buzz about high-profile matches with England’s Tottenham Hotspur and Russian giants Rubin Kazan. They went so far as to hold a lead on the road against Spurs at White Hart Lane, before falling, 3-1 (Spurs would later stomp them in Dublin, 4-0). If it was a good feeling, it was short-lived—the Guardian reported that Rovers were due for “a bout of belt-tightening in response to the slashing of their domestic prize money and commercial revenue,” a pair of pains felt by all LOI clubs, many of whom operate on a part-time basis. Add to that the fact that Rovers were essentially homeless for more than 20 years—the club bounced from park to park from 1987 until Tallaght opened in 2009—and you have as odd a circumstance for a top-billed franchise as there is in sports.


Cork City, meanwhile, located in Ireland’s second city on the south shore, nearly became extinct before being saved by its fans. The club, beset by financial problems and mismanagement, was kicked out of the Premier Division for 2010 and looked destined for obliteration before a supporters’ trust bought it—imagine if Montrealers had done the same for the Expos—and secured a license for lower league play. That kept soccer going at Turners Cross, and in 2011, Cummins' header won the club a return to the Premier Division, where they will play when the new season starts in early March.

It's never been easy for soccer in Ireland, where many folks are bigger fans of Gaelic football (a bizarre sport, derisively called “bog ball,” that resembles a more violent version of handball, only with more kicking, both of the ball and players) and hurling (a caveman-like sport that is more violent than bog ball, and involves sticks). Cummins, the league’s top scorer for 2011, has, like most good young players, fled to play in England. His two-year deal, thought to be in the neighborhood of 100,000 pounds, is with Preston North End, a club that plays in the third tier of English soccer.

But the League will survive, said Smith. “There has been and will continue to be, trouble,” he said. “However, Rovers and City are two good examples of how a club should be run, let's just hope others follow suit in years to come.”

That’s the League Of Ireland for you: The models of stability are a once-nomadic team and a side saved from death by its own fans. Surviving those kinds of oddities is, in a sense, more impressive than winning.