Let The Football Shine, Not The ‘Product’: Irish League Attendance Growth

There will have been many pleased, but also perhaps surprised at the increase in local football’s attendances just under a quarter of the way into the season. I say surprised as it was expected these figures would suffer with Portadown’s deep dive into the Bluefin Championship.

For those who get excited by this sort of thing they will, of course, be conscious of September only just finishing. Those tasked with the general and financial administration of the game will be particularly happy. For them, every month can be a struggle and every foot passenger eases the load. Let us deal with the increases. The biggest reason without going all Desmond Morris is the simple and sheer competitiveness of the local Premier League.

Every game really matters and people want to see things that matter. The results so far have shown some things you would have expected, but by and large a lot more that you wouldn’t have hung your hat on. At a superficial glance you would think that it might be just down to the following three teams, but it is more than Glenavon and Coleraine fighting back hard against Belfast and showing signs they will be a season-long force, or Glentoran shaking off a few years of financial, institutional and player morbidity.

The teams that are inhabiting the lower reaches of the table have created interesting results now and then, but primarily are involved in seriously important crisis matches with each other even at this stage of the season. A lot more fans know things about other teams that less interesting seasons would not have demanded of them. The expected capitulation of Warrenpoint and Carrick has not quite happened and the battle down there is one dogfight. Managers McAlinden and Tipton have brought their personalities into the top flight in all sorts of ways and it is very welcome.

Other things bring their leverage to the table. The feel-good of last season that big name manager David Jeffrey has brought to Ballymena will carry them through erratic matches. But make no mistake, David has created a mini-revolution in the middle of County Antrim and home matches are a big deal to the town. The feeling that Cliftonville are a building force ready to cut loose again lingers and straight talker Barry Gray does little to dismiss that thought. Also the possible fear that the season was simply going to be a Crusaders and Linfield shootout has been stymied though that may yet materialise. Many Linfield fans have enjoyed the Healy resurgence but they know they will have a huge fight to retain the title.

All these above narratives need to be communicated and there are now quite a few online mediums to do this. On top of the established Irish League Show, journalist Stephen Looney can be found on his Football Express show and the Social Club with fellow journalists, managers and ex-players. This season that chat format has been augmented by Jackie Fullerton’s Belfast Live show and also Pete Snodden’s Cool FM show weighing in promoting the local fare. That is a fair amount of publicity available and then, of course, you have the return of Sky which tends to be more arguable.

This being as to who is it benefitting – the bar stool/ sofa fan or the real ones. This can be well summed up by the message board fan in reply to the idea that fans should be placed in front of cameras to make it ‘look better’. His response, essentially and not unreasonably, asked why he should be shunted to a part of the ground so that bar stool bloke can feel better about himself. The greater Sky argument goes beyond the local game of course.

Put together it all adds up to idea that local football is something that is interesting and taking up a lot of folk’s time and thoughts. For £11 or less it is an easy thing to get involved with and become ‘part of something’ which sociologists love to bang on about. But people do like to be part of their local infrastructure and football clubs enable that better than a lot of things.

Coleraine’s ruddy and weather-beaten north coast face lead the charge in the league at the moment. Whilst that continues the league will fascinate. I don’t concur with their possible winning of the league being equivalent to ‘doing a Leicester’ as it would be less of a surprise, but it would certainly be a huge talking point. Glenavon too have a team of goals and squad consistency looming large at the higher echelons. This is before you throw in a new Glentoran team showing the beginnings of a  different face to the world than their tickled underbelly. The hunger in East Belfast for something resembling a half decent side is evident by increased crowds around them and they have a fan base very keen on travelling to other grounds.

In short, there are fascinating matches being thrown up every weekend now and with strong identity being given to all this, the false excesses of England become more apparent against the solid appeal of live football in front of you. Even the publishing of these crowd figures when they are on an upward trend provides positivity to many as they feel they are really contributing. In this league this feeds in to being relevant rather than a faceless customer in England. Of course, the English Premiership is one of the most exciting leagues in the world but in tandem with both the Republic and Northern Ireland international sides, local teams are providing a platform for people to go out and be proud to let their local club strengthen their sense of self – pride and identity.

We should give praise to the players who provide this and who do it for the love of the game rather than the pound.

This should only continue but the game will forever have its scoffers but they do need to be challenged. Whilst much of it is a national and cultural issue that goes beyond football, their real issues about the game seem false crutches for their insecurity. The insecurity that actually comes from the real reasons they don’t watch the game lest those should ever have to face the air. I have still yet to hear a comment about the ‘standard’ of local hockey, cricket, GAA or rugby clubs. Certainly, some of that is snobbery and that is another cross for them to bear. A classic comment from someone recently summed this up in all its patronising, pompous self – harm.

“Some good Irish League goals on TV recently….in fact some of them were almost as good as you would see in England”.

Classic stuff. That is the sort of baggage being carried around and is a comment simply which dwarfs the speaker. But you can see it is not really local football that is his issue and the game is probably better off without that sort.

If the rest of the season is as interesting as the first two months the league will be hosting a lot more people. The NIFL and others are doing a great job in their dutiful promotion of the local game and let them get on with that. But I feel as in all organic growth spurts, it will be natural nutrition that carries the game forward rather than hyped promotion. The game here will find its natural place and space. It is moving away from the lazy and casual perception of it being in some sort of relativity to the English game. That is what will sustain it more than anything. Organic growth brings fans and not consumers.