#Greatestleagueintheworld is the famous hash tag being associated with this season’s SSE Airtricity Premier Division. Everyone connected to the league in some way shape or form, from the volunteer staff, to managers, players, officials and reporters are hoping to generate a new and almost viral buzz around the domestic game with this eye-catching phrase.
Whether it was intended or not it is a very clever turn of phrase considering that the neighbouring Premier League in the UK spent millions on advertising, which included a Thierry Henry propaganda style advertisement, trying to convince masses they genuinely have the best league in the world.
Improving online popularity aside, just what exactly makes the League of Ireland so great and what is it missing to get to the next level? Could the short answer to both be money?
One such person more than qualified to offer an interesting perspective is Chief Sports Writer for the Sun newspaper Neil O’Riordan.
In a buzzing city center café, amongst the smell of freshly ground coffee, shouting of orders and clanging of cups, Neil was kind enough to offer an interesting insight into what he thinks makes the league so great. He explained: “Even though its not a full time professional league, you can find as much entertainment in a domestic game of football for a few Euro, as if you paid 10 times that going to England to watch a team. As a journalist, it also helps having more access to players, managers and officials. The same goes for the fans, being within touching distance of their heroes and if you want an autograph or a picture then they will, more often than not, get it.”
It was having this direct access to players who you’ve just paid to watch that gave him a soft spot for the league growing up. Having lived just a stones throw away from Dalymount Park in Glasnevin, Bohemian F.C. has always been his team. Reminiscing of what attracted him to the league in the first place, he added: “It’s my local team. The days of going to games with your friends as kids, having a day out, cheering on your heroes was fantastic. It sticks with you. Football wasn’t as easily accessible at all hours of the day as it is now. So they were special times.”
Thinking back to your first game you’ve seen live as a kid, it takes just one special game, one magical moment or even that hot bag of chips on a chilly night after a game to stick with you and that’s it, the love affair has begun and these memories will resonate forever.
This is a particular aspect that the experienced sports writer feels the powers that be are failing the domestic game. By not having a bit more emphasis community involvement they are potentially missing out on a new generation of fans. “I don’t think clubs have done enough to embed themselves into local community, schools and local teams. Again as its not full time professional, so it’s unfair to ask players to find time to go to schools and speak when they have full time jobs, families and training, but definitely more can be done to get the kids through the gates,” saying passionately.
Also keen to add what could be a potential solution to the problem would be the re-introduction of club promotion officers. “Originally 10 years ago, they were co-funded by the FAI, think they were given maybe fifteen grand over a three year period and after that the clubs themselves would have to pay them in full. But because of finances, the clubs just let them go after the three years period. For a club thinking long term it would probably be better for them paying a promotion officer than paying a player, they’d get more out of it in return.”
The conversation inevitably turned to the financial aspect, or lack there of, throughout the league. “One thing is for certain is that some investment is needed when you look at some of the changing facilities, pitches and the fact, as I said, majority of the players are not full time. Players can earn more in League 2 in England so there is the danger of losing our better players. Having full time job and families to juggle along with training four times a week, not including games, is a huge work load for anyone.”
Now, in his 21st season covering the league, he was keen to further praise the players for their dedication and professionalism as things have changed dramatically throughout the years. “The players deserve credit for their commitment, and now with the online push and exposure, that brings pressure also. Years ago after games the players would stay for a few pints and it was the done thing. But not any more, the lads are a lot more professional now in terms of trying to look after themselves and can only be a good thing for the league also.”
To put it into perspective, last seasons highest paid player in the #Greatestleagueintheworld was earning 40,000 euro a year, just under 770 euro a week, and the average wage across the league was just 16,000 euro a year, roughly 307 euro a week. This is nothing when compared to their Premier League counterparts who’s average take home is a staggering 60,180-euro a week and the highest earning player receiving an eye watering 300,000 euro a week. But it can be argued the League of Ireland players have the much busier schedule.
Money is no guarantee for success as the Leicester City fairytale has shown this season. And in terms of getting value for money and entertainment there are a huge number of Manchester United fans that are bitterly disappointed at what they are getting in return for their expensively priced match tickets. Yet you can get similar drama and entertainment but with the added feeling of the live atmosphere right on your doorstep and for a fraction of the price. To add to this Neil stated: “It is hard to envisage where the domestic game can or will go with limited purse-strings and some investment would no doubt help, but even now, as when I was a kid, I genuinely enjoy going to games regardless of the money involved. Watching a live game is much more enjoyable than on TV”
So to answer to the original question, what makes the League of Ireland so great in a roundabout way could be the lack of money and what is it missing to get to the next level is obvious investment?
Maybe, just maybe, what makes the League of Ireland so great is the fact that it hasn’t had the sensationalist type of money pouring into it as other leagues have. Maybe what’s really great is that having volunteers and some of the local community involved at every level of the club, gives it that added engagement and feeling that it is actually their club. As we’ve established this could improve slightly, but as much as fans wish for that mega-rich oil tycoon to take over the running of their club, and in the process potentially limiting their direct involvement and personal investment, they should ask themselves would that take the “great” out of the #Greatestleagueintheworld?