Thursday, April 4, 2019

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle

IRISH EYES ARE SMILING WHEN THE FOOTY'S ON

I've just been on a quick trip to Northern Ireland to see relatives but I could not get away from football.

For one thing the Northern Irish are mad about the game, passionate about the Premier League and the big two from Glasgow.

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle


Walk around an Ulster town and you will see more football shirts than in a comparable English town. Travel to Liverpool or Manchester United for a home game and you cannot miss the many Irish accents around.

As it happened, all Ulster eyes were fixed on the telly on Sunday as there was an Old Firm game, a classically passionate affair won by Celtic, the team Irish Catholics gravitate to. Rangers are the Ulster Protestants' club of choice, their red white and blue colours chiming perfectly with their Union flags.

The Ulster connection with the Glasgow derby remains strong: Celtic manager Neil Lennon is Northern Irish and famously resigned from captaining its national team after Loyalist death threats (he is Roman Catholic); Celtic fans fly Irish tricolours.

The Northern Protestants, predominantly descendants of 17th century English and Scottish colonisers, support Northern Ireland as their national team while the Catholics cheer the Republic of Ireland, established in 1924 after the island's partition.

As a classic marker of the complexity of this island's politics, Northern Ireland wear green and their badge is a Celtic cross with shamrocks, all symbols of Catholics and the South eschewed by hardcore Unionists who assert their British identity. Confused? You are not the only one.

Northern Ireland has traditionally been the stronger but the Republic enjoyed a golden age under England hero Jack Charlton, reaching the last eight of the European Championship and the World Cup. At Euro 2016 both Irelands reached the last 16.

Currently the North is ranked by FIFA slightly higher, 36th versus the Republic's 39th.

There are also two leagues in Ireland, the NIFL Premiership (Irish League) in the North and the League of Ireland in the South. In 2018 the average crowd in the North was 1,090, in the South it was 2,139, the level of the fifth tier of English football.

The League of Ireland (the Republic's League) plays February to October, avoiding the worst of the notorious Irish weather. It was the Romans after all who called the place 'Hibernia' - Winter Land. It also cannily plays on Friday nights to avoid competition with English football.

The North's league, the NIFL Premiership by comparison goes head-to-head with English football by playing August to May on Saturday afternoons. Does that partly explain their lower crowds I wonder?

In Derry/Londonderry, the second city of the North, the town's team Derry City have played in the South since 1972 for security reasons, another curiosity. Local hero James McClean, now at Stoke City following spells at Sunderland, Wigan and West Bromwich, plays for the Republic despite having started in the North's U21s.

McClean, who hits the headlines every year when he refuses to wear a poppy, was in the press deriding Declan Rice, who had just made his England debut having played for the Republic, the country of his grandparents, since U-16 level up to senior team friendlies.

After an assured debut against the Czech Republic for the holding midfielder, Eire's loss is surely England's gain.

A handful of Northern-born footballers have crossed the border for international football, as anyone born in the island of Ireland can obtain an Irish passport, another curiosity.

This small FIFA nation (population 1.9 million) is a football backwater on the wider stage but has produced players like Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower, Arsenal/Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings and until recently Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill.

And the province also gave us one of the game's greatest ever players in George Best.

It was the Belfast-born ball wizard's wish that the two Irelands unite on the football field as they have on the rugby one, but unification is not on the agenda of either association, even though it would make sense for many reasons.

Friday night saw Derry City eke past Sligo Rovers at the evocatively named Brandywell Stadium, recently renovated to hold 8,000 and with a 3G pitch, the latter of which I was not too enamoured. Still the Candystripes fans sang and flew giant red and white flags, making for a fun night out.

Next door to the Brandywell stands another stadium holding 22,000, Celtic Park, used for gaelic football and hurling.

It is easy to forget the draw of traditional sports in Ireland as they do not feature in the rest of the British Isles, but the largest stadium in Ireland remains Dublin's Croke Park gaelic games stadium with a capacity of 82,000.

Another draw in certain parts of Ireland, particularly Munster and middle-class and anglophile areas, is rugby union, which draws sellout crowds to internationals in Dublin. Unlike in football, Ireland are a force in rugby, currently ranked third in the world.

Ireland in general is a second division nation in European football at international level and lower tier when it comes to the club game, a situation unlikely to change.

There is only so much you can do with a small population and the competing attractions of other sports and a football giant next door, whatever the local fervour.

A small landmark will be reached however when Dublin's Landsdowne Road (capacity 51,700) hosts a first and second round match in Euro 2020.

If the Celtic nations or British Isles can combine forces in the future then maybe even the World Cup itself could land on Irish soil.

In the meantime visitors can console themselves with talking soccer with locals well versed in the ins and outs of the Beautiful Game, whether over a whiskey, Guinness or Irish coffee.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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