It was spine-tingling to hear 'The Fields of Athenry' being sang loudly and proudly in Poznan and Gdansk, despite being 3-1, 4-0 and 2-0 down at the time. The national anthem was also roared with such pride it had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as a sat in my sitting room. The atmosphere from the stadium really did transfer through to myself and everyone at home - which is rare for a football match's atmosphere to be so clear when watching at home. The fans received a lot of press attention. The media jumped onto the support and Irish players often spoke of the brilliant atmosphere created by their fans. This glossed over a lot of on-field problems for the Irish, but I'm not going to discuss those problems (in this blog anyway, maybe another time.)
During the qualifying stage for the championships, the Irish support was poor. The attendances varied between 33'000 and 50'000. The one game that reached an attendance of 50'000 was the major game against Russia. This makes you wonder, who were the fans there for on that occasion? On more than one occasion there was only between 33'000 and 35'000 seats occupied in the 52'000 capacity stadium. This lack of supported was particularly highlighted during the Carling Nations Cup. The highest attendance seen for any of these games was 20'800 for the Republic of Ireland's clash with Wales. This is staggering when you consider that the domestic cup final attracted a crowd of 36'00 for a game between Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers. The League of Ireland is a very poorly supported league, yet the cup final still sold more tickets than a match in an international tournament that Ireland had a great chance of winning (which they did in the end.)
The Airtricity League of Ireland is an extremely poorly supported league. The title of 'Best fans in the world' that has been given to the Irish in recent days is extremely frustrating for this reason. If you were to visit any League of Ireland ground on a match day you will see that Irish fans are certainly not the best in the world. Far from it, in fact. My local team - Bray Wanderers would be happy to get 1'000 in the gate for a home game. Bray is a town of over 30'000 people, just outside Dublin. It is the only League of Ireland team in the county of Wicklow and is extremely accessible due to the road layout of the area. There is no excuse for attendances of this figure. It is shameful that in an area so passionate about sport and football in particular that attendances can be this low. It was not always like this for our domestic game, this is highlighted excellently in the book 'Who Stole Our Game? : The fall and fall of Irish soccer' by author Daire Whelan.
There is a huge following of the English football here in Ireland. I have nothing against this, I too support an English team but I also attend every game that my local team play. I do not support an English team at the expense of an Irish team. Sadly, many people do. If you were to visit Dublin airport in the early hours of a Saturday morning, you would find thousands of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Celtic jerseys. Thousands of supporters jetting off to see their favorite teams play. Unfortunately the support of the overseas leagues cannot be replicated in our own. I would imagine that more Irish fans visit their preferred English teams every weekend than many LOI teams get through their gates on a Friday evening. The league has attempted to tackle this problem. Everybody knows it cannot compete with the Barclays Premier League. The season runs from March to November, meaning the bulk of the season is played during the summer when the English teams are off on their holidays. Even for the time when the games overlap it isn't a problem because they are played on a Friday evening. What better way to end a week at work than to go and watch the football? The league has a bad reputation for having a poor standard of players and football in general. I do not necessarily agree with this belief. The likes of Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Stephen Ward, Keith Fahey and more recently Seamus Coleman and James McClean all left the league to go on to becoming full internationals. A year ago James McClean was playing for Derry City, most Irish fans had never heard of him. Suddenly, he moves to Sunderland and the whole country wants him in the national team. Did he become world class on the plane to England? I don't think so. Much of his development as a player came from playing on a regular basis for a team in a competitive league. As far as the quality of football goes, I couldn't disagree more with the thought that it is poor. Teams like Sligo Rover, St Patricks Athletic and even minnows UCD play some brilliant football and are thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
The lack of support for domestic teams has unfortunately been catastrophic. Too many teams have faced severe financial problems in the recent history of the league and many teams have ceased to exist. Dublin City, Sporting Fingal, Galway United, Cobh Ramblers and even Cork City have all come to an end in the last ten years. Luckily, Cork City have reformed under a new name and are now back in the league and Cobh Ramblers are in the lower leagues of Irish football trying to fight their way back up to the top two tiers. The most fascinating case, for me anyway was Monaghan United. Recently promoted to the Premier Division, half way through the season Monaghan pulled out of the league. They simply could not afford to go on. This happened on the very day that Ireland played in the European Championships. This was extremely hard to take for all of us who follow the league. It is madness to think that while Irish fans are being praised as the best in the world, a team in their own country has to pull out of the league. I obviously understand that supporters cannot solely be held accountable for a teams financial problems, but, with more support comes more money.
To conclude, yes the support of the national team in the three games of the European Championships has been nothing short of sensational. Irish fans however have no right to accept the label as 'The Best in the World' when their regular support of the national team is extremely questionable and they allow their domestic league to rot away as it has been left to do.