Why the League of Ireland isn’t better than the English Premier League (but it is)

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The new League of Ireland season is about to roll around and I approach it with some trepidation.

As a Shamrock Rovers supporter (fan is the wrong word here, you are not generally a ‘fan’ of things that cause you so much frustration, grief and occasionally embarrassment), the prospects for the coming year look mediocre. Probably Dundalk will win the league again, for the fourth time in five years. Cork will probably come second and the Hoops will probably come third. Maybe we’ll do something in the cup (for the first time since 1987).

Around this time of year, LOI fans will generally write things like, ‘the LOI is better than the English Premier League (or whatever it’s called nowadays, I thought it was called the Premiership of something) because of the community, the atmosphere, the realness etc’.

Now I want to introduce a dose of realism here. Just because it’s more honest. In terms of the quality of football, the LoI is not better than the English top flight. Standards here have improved in my time (about 25 years now) of watching the Irish domestic league, but standards in the English top flight have sky rocketed in that period.

Watching (as I very occasionally do) Qatari Manchester City (the original Manchester City, the one Niall Quinn played for, was a very different creature) it’s impossible not to be awed by the technique, the fitness and the athleticism of the players. Let’s not pretend that we can match that, because we can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, you can see some good football in the LoI – Rovers’ battles with Dundalk last year were as full throated and attacking as you could wish to see, but nothing of the standard across the water.

So we might argue also that, ok, technically we inhabit a different planet in the LoI, but at least our games are more exciting; less diving, less defensive play, less cagey football. Sadly this is nor really true either, at least not anymore. The tactics of risk averse football – with one striker (maximum) and endless aimless passing the ball around between the defenders, followed by an aimless ball forward, it doesn’t matter so long as you still have most of the team behind the ball in a defensive posture – have also seeped into the League of Ireland.

Under Trevor Crolly and Pat Fenlon at Rovers, we had to put up with so many excruciating games where basically nothing of any note would happen, that it made you want to scream. Like everywhere else, the football in the LoI is sometimes great, mostly mediocre and sometimes god-awfully dull.

Diving, which you almost never saw in the LoI when I started going to games has also crept in, indeed it’s as routine here now as it is everywhere else. I always remember seeing Matt Britton, a Rovers fullback, in around 1998 (today he sells carpets and has successful chain of shops), nearly breaking a Dundalk player in half in an over the ball tackle on the main stand side of Tolka Park, in reprisal for some previous tackle.

And the Dundalk player ( I forget who it was), just got up, limped for a bit until the pain went away and got on with it. That would never happen now. The player would roll around on the ground long enough to try to make sure Britton was sent off and his manager would go ballistic on the touchline demanding the same.

So we can’t really claim moral superiority in that regard either.

But here is where I get to the rub. Despite not being terribly excited about the new LoI season, I will still go to most Rovers home games and some away ones in the Dublin area, whereas I do not plan to watch any English football, either live or highlights, in the immediate future.

And the same basically goes for the Champions League. I might watch it if it’s on, but I feel no attraction towards it anymore. None at all. (And, just to be clear, Rovers-supporting notwithstanding, I used to watch both religiously).

Why is this?

Because top level football today is an utter circus, to the extent that it is demeaning to the viewer. Competitive football is in a sense, absurd anyway – putting so much energy and emotion into the efforts of a group of young men trying to kick or otherwise propel a ball between two sets of posts.

But we invest it with meaning because it embodies so many of the things that are, rightly, very important to us; teamwork, hard work, dedication, mastery of a skill, belonging. And, importantly, it also gives us clear, easy to understand, measures of victory and defeat, which are so difficult to mark out in day to day life, and which, psychologically, I think we need. But all of this depends to an extent on the sincerity of those engaged in the spectacle.

Today in the English Premier League it is impossible to believe in this sincerity. A player, before he even kicks a ball, will likely be paid far more in a single week than an average spectator could earn in a year. I am not exaggerating. The average weekly wage of a player in the top flight of the English game is £44,0000 or about 60,000 euro. While average yearly wage in England is £27,000 and in Ireland 35,000 euro.

And the top players in England are paid far more than this.

In these circumstances it’s impossible to believe that the players actually really care about the results or the clubs they are playing for. Why would they? Regardless of what they do, they will be massively rewarded. Nor in any case, do the players assembled expensively from every country in the world in a club like Manchester City or Chelsea, or even Manchester United – a much diminished club – have any emotional connection with the club they are playing for.

Now maybe there is no connection between these facts and the fact that most English games today seem to be listless pallid affairs, but I think that there is.

So if English or indeed Irish fans of English teams want to pretend to get excited about a bunch of apathetic millionaires pretending to care about winning games for ‘their’ club, or worse, paying their own money to pay such a cadre of overpaid spoilt children, well that is up to them. But personally I find the idea of investing any emotion, let alone money, in such a farce offensive.

It wasn’t always like this, I look back on clips of English football of my youth in the late 1980s early 1990s and even up to about 2000 and it can still make me smile. But not anymore.

So here’s my point. The League of Ireland for all its many faults, is still part of the real world, not just a scam to take money away from ordinary people and give it to millionaires. The players cannot be doing it just for the money because there simply isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. The annual average LoI wage is about 16,000 euros and even the best paid players only make about 40,000 a year from football. Oddly this makes them seem to care far more.

I can cycle to Tallaght, lock my bike outside, pay 15 euro for a ticket, watch games with people from all walks of life (the LoI is a predominantly working class sport, but supporters actually come from all social backgrounds) and watch young men who have trained hard and who want to win and who, for the most part, seem proud to play for the club. (Thank you, by the way, to Stephen Bradley, who restored my faith in Rovers teams doing this after the aforementioned Crolly and Fenlon era.)

So there it is. I can’t argue that our league is better than the English Premier League by any objective standard, but I will be consuming 100% more of one than of the other.

 

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World Cups

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You can, they say, measure out your life in world cups. This now frightens me quite a lot as I have 7 under my belt. I’m now 34.

In 1990 I was 9 going on ten. For Ireland it was perhaps the best world cup ever. But for me it was not only that. It was a party and festival of football. Far off teams from far off countries. Johnny Giles explaining it all in his perm. How disappointed I ultimately was with the final – an utterly cynical spectacle. So indeed were many of the knockout games. It seemed a violation of the spirit of the game. The death of idealism somehow. And the weirdest thing is that my nine year old self could feel this as a betrayal and yet know also that in the scheme of things it didn’t matter.

But in 1994 there was still a sense of fractured idealism that had to be recovered. 1990 had seen the fewest ever goals. Everybody myself included willed it to be ‘the best tournament since 1970’. It wasn’t really but Brazil did win it, their first triumph since that fabled team of Pele and co. They even played Italy in the final, as in 1970.

But whereas the 1970 team had swept away the azzurri 4-1, Brazil of 1994 vintage stuttered to a 0-0 draw followed by penalties. Again at the end a strange sense of betrayal for me. As if the reality that you wanted to believe in wasn’t real at all. There was only sterility and negativity out there. And genocide in Rwanda which broke out around the time the World Cup was ending. The news that reported the World Cup Final led with thousands of bodies floating down rivers in the heart of Africa.

Writing this it’s interesting that I felt and to some degree still feel, with a deeply irrational conviction that the ills of the world, even of human nature could be set at nought if only the best teams, playing free flowing football could win and win in style and without bad grace. Why do I think this? What does it mean?

By contrast, 1998 seemed strangely dead. For the first week the main story was continuous rioting by English fans in Marseilles. No Ireland, which removed a degree of emotional involvement. But also many of the games seemed anaemic, many of the stadiums half empty. Brazil had great players at this time – Ronaldo, Rivaldo etc but strolled into the final with such little effort that they hardly seemed to deserve it. France also had a great team –Zidane, Deschamps, Desailly and co. Zidane then and later was probably the best all round player I’ve ever seen.

They did have a more epic run to the final – including a surging come back against Croatia (and Suker one of my favourite players of that era). And the final itself had a kind of epic feel about it, with the Marseillais crashing out and the French tricolour everywhere. Zidane’s two goals decided it but what I most remember is Petti’s breakaway goal which had that gorgeous quality of the inevitable that the best counter- attacking goals have.

2002 was a real low point. Brazil had some excellent players but never needed to really play well to win the tournament, though I was glad they did. The final was really a stroll, though I was pleased for Ronaldo who scored two goals. Ireland had the Roy Keane affair and spirited game against Spain early in the morning, going out on penalties, after which, here in Ireland, the heavens opened. The odd thing is that none of these things are my abiding memory, which is just of the poor football and the extremely irritating success of poor but hard working teams such as South Korea, Turkey and God help us, the USA. There was no glorious football, no sublime triumph of the excellent. No titanic matches. It was not the first time I realised it but the clearest example of my distaste for the plucky underdog.

2006 had at least one classic game – Germany and Italy but the final was a dour affair, to be mainly remembered for Zidane’s sad swansong. And then penalties. Italy, as far as I was concerned, were champions in name only. The same, strange cheated feeling as back when I was 9. Betrayal almost. The cheats like Matterazzi would always win. The talented, the creative would lose.

It is notable that as the numbers of participants has gone up, the quality of world cups has fallen sharply. Since 2002, the better teams have indeed generally come out on top. In 2010 Spain started slowly, but playing remorseless possession football ploughed their way through to the final. Their victory in a bad tempered final did soften the old feeling of betrayal, Iniesta’s excellent winner in particular but it did feel as if they were only temporarily staving off the forces of darkness. None of this stopped me watching almost every game, as usual of course.

And 2014? Well, there was good and bad. One of the main plus points was that it was in a real football heartland, Brazil and thousands of South Americans followed their team there. The atmosphere was somewhat less contrived than in South Africa, where armed police kept the locals a safe distance away from the stadiums.

The football? Again it had its upsides. Germany had a team of genuine quality. Messi produced just enough moments of magic to keep us interested. There was the drama of Spain’s decline and Brazil’s rather fortunate run to the semi-finals and dramatic implosion against Germany. And yet. Brazil – the country that somehow used to be the guardian of football’s soul – has lost that title forever. Their 7-1 rout at Germany’s hands was slightly sad to see but no one could say it was undeserved.

And again, there was just a lack of ‘epicness’ about it all.

The naïve joy of the World Cup seems to have gone a little, dissipated by too many games of inferior but well organised teams set up to defend. And, in fairness, too much cynical and world weary lethargy from the stronger nations. But maybe I’m just getting old.

 

First Post, February 6, 2015.

Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.
Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.

Just a little first post to whoever comes across my blog. I’ll be posting thoughts on more or less whatever interests me; culture, world affairs, sport, cycling and life in general.

The main idea is to write things not connected with Irish history, which I do on my other site http://www.theirishstory.com