31 October 2008

Best Supporters in the World™

Here's an editorial piece I wrote for the UCC Express.

Ireland has long maintained a romantic self-image as a nation sports-lovers. And while it’s certainly true that GAA, rugby and soccer dominate chat in pubs up and down the nation, the question has to be asked: are we truly, utterly, madly in love with our sports, or is it just another example of us patting ourselves in the back in that “Ah sure, aren’t we great?” manner in which we excel at in so many other areas? Are we true supporters, or is our support merely a fickle, superficial diversion?

On the surface, the case can be made that Ireland has a vibrant and healthy supporter culture. Croke Park is the fifth largest stadium in Europe, for one. The national rugby team pack the rafters whenever the play. The soccer team, despite lean years, still bring in big numbers and are pitching their corporate packages at rates that would make even the greedy suits of the English FA blush. Munster are, well, a phenomenon at this stage, and even the Leinster ‘ladyboys’ are bringing in respectable numbers in these days. The GAA is part of the very social fabric of this nation, and inspires devotion to an unfathomable degree at every level.

So far, so good.

There is much debate as to which sporting code reigns supreme in this country, but I don’t think it’s presumptuous of me to draw a few rough assumptions. GAA, across both codes, must surely dwarf all others in playing numbers, support, and social penetration. Soccer, although always well supported at the international level, still benefits from the massive influx of ‘new’ support built on the success of the Charlton era. In a similar vein, Rugby has overcome its old, elitist status, and is now widely followed. As with soccer, the unprecedented success of Ireland and Munster has been the greatest contributing factor, along with a certain degree of social aspiration which went hand-in-hand with the rise of Celtic Tiger. And as with the Charlton success, its rise in popularity is sure to outlast the lean economic times ahead.

But this only tells part of the story.

It may be an inconvenient truth for many, but the provincial rugby sides are essentially franchises, which have excelled in responding to the radical changes brought about by professionalism. This is not in itself a bad thing; indeed the benefits for the national team are there for all to see. But, in the rush to greater success, the All Ireland League is dying a silent death. Attendance numbers are paltry. Of course the national league itself is something of a newcomer, having been inaugurated in 1990. But up and down the country every weekend, the core supporters of rugby, those who can remember the days of 5 Nations wooden spoons, where victories over England were a panacea and not mundane, are the only ones there- to support what has become a hugely popular sport- at its grassroots level. This is a far cry from the mid-1990s when Young Munster took on St. Mary’s in a title-decider in front of 25,000 spectators. We’ve all heard of Munster vanquishing the All Blacks in 1978, but in 1992 they also defeated then world champions, Australia; and far from there being queues around the block at Musgrave Park, your erudite narrator can remember ambling in, without difficulty, with ten minutes played. The standing of the provinces then and now brooks no comparison.

Nowadays, great names like Cork Con and Clontarf are no longer the big draw they were in the past. At junior club level crowd numbers have remained static- at best- in the last decade. Indeed a constant (and valid) criticism of this brave new provincial era is that even the mighty Munster have struggled to draw decent crowds to Magner’s League matches; indeed, you only have to go back a few years to find a time when HEC pool tickets weren’t too hard to come by. Is this the mark of supporters, or of event junkies?

Not even GAA is immune this bandwagoneering- contrast the annual struggle in acquiring tickets for the Munster hurling final with the pathetic attendance at this year’s Cork v Kerry football semi-final. (Don’t mention the league)

Soccer in this country, meanwhile, limps on. Not at international level; nor amongst the hordes who make their weekly pilgrimage across the channel to support bigger names. But beyond Cork City and Derry City, attendances at League of Ireland games remain abject. Strangely enough, it wasn’t always this way. The 1950s and 1970s were glory days for the national league, the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Drums, Bohs, Cork Hibs and Cork Celtic were regularly drawing in 20,000 gates. A combination of the increased availability of live English football and sheer administrative incompetence killed this era with a fraction of the effort it will take to ever repair the damage wrought.

Nobody in their right mind would claim that the clubs have their house in order off the field; financial implosion at several top sides (and lesser ones) since the advent of professionalism attests to this. But the football played is attractive, and Ireland remains a soccer-mad country. European results are improving. There are many other countries out there of a similar size, also sharing our mania for the polished sheen of the Premiership, where domestic football is thriving. Supporting a Premier League team and your local team need not be an either-or matter.

One only has to look at what Norway has achieved in the last 30 years, starting from a much lower base. This year the champions of Cyprus(!) have taken the champions League by storm. Two years ago, their champions exited at the first hurdle to a League of Ireland side. Scotland has punched well above its weight for decades because of its entrenched fan culture. With a few more thousand bums on seats, there is no reason why our own league can’t do the same.

Sport, as ever, is all about the big occasion. The last-minute All-Ireland final victory; triumphing at Cardiff in club rugby’s showpiece; beating Spain and Holland, and qualifying for World Cups. But support runs much deeper. It’s not about donning the latest kit, or urging everyone to hush down the pub for a vital conversion-kick. It’s about getting out there and cheering on your team, feeling the anguish of a windswept November afternoon and the joy of a glorious summer evening. It’s about making a connection and becoming part of something. This is the essence of fandom the world over, and it’s what makes those special days taste all the more sweet. So why not get out there and give it a try? You have nothing to lose, but your barstool- well, that and the guy to your right who cannot tell his offside from his backside!