A new season is almost upon us. For those of us who choose to follow a League of Ireland team, this is our time. There’s snow in the air, temperatures are really low, Pancake mix is on sale everywhere. All of this is secondary. The scheduling gods have bestowed upon us men and women who have partners who do not follow their local team a gift. A gift of two days grace. We can celebrate Valentine’s Day on Wednesday and then visit our one true love under the lights on Friday night when the League of Ireland returns.
For Dundalk it’s a new season and a new dawn, one laced with scepticism, trepidation but also excitement. The hands that steered the club away from extinction and brought them to the cusp of European glory have handed the reigns over. The local boys who took on a sinking ship and transformed it into a vessel capable of sailing around Europe and conquering ports of call have relinquished their command. While time will tell if the new owners can continue the incredible work done by Paul Browne and Andy Connolly one thing remains paramount. You.
Let me tell you about a horrific thing that happened to me. On my 30th birthday, while liquid drunk in my friend’s house, I dislocated my left knee. It was gruesome but luckily I was biblically befuddled therefore unable to truly experience the full pain of what was happening. This was in 2014, right smack in the middle of Dundalk FC’s first title-winning season in a thousand years. Having my leg in a cast from hip to ankle provided minor difficulty in getting into and out of some of the “stadiums” around the league but I persisted because the team were on the verge of a historic achievement.
I haven’t gotten to the horrific bit yet. Months before there was any hint of a duel on the final day between the top 2 in the league I had booked a trip to London. It was all based around my birthday and an NFL game in Wembley. So now on one leg I was going to be in London while Dundalk played in Cork in Oriel to decide the title. I couldn’t cancel the trip so off I went.
Now as it happens, if I had been in Oriel that night I probably would have done even more damage to my knee in the celebrations. I tried to figure out where I would have stood, or sat, or how on one leg I would have rushed the pitch at the final whistle. The horrific thing I’m talking about was watching it on a small TV screen in a pub in Queens Park, with the sound turned off, trying not to disturb the locals who were watching Rugby League and had absolutely no interest in Irish football.
To not be a part of those celebrations killed me. I know I would have hurt myself but I was willing to put myself in harm’s way to be amongst the thousands of my fellow townies that were there. That experience drove home to me the difference between supporting in front of a screen and supporting in person. Don’t worry though, I did make it to the celebrations for the next two seasons!
This ad, made by Bohemians, is fantastic. It conjures up memories of when I was a kid going to Oriel park in what seemed to be eternal winter. Even since the switch to Summer football it still feels like the league exists in some sort of alternate dimension where the temperature in the stands refuses to rise above freezing. But the freezing cold weather is all part of the experience. It builds character, toughens you up, makes you appreciate the heat and warmth of home or a pub on your way home after the game.
I often compare going to a live match with going to the cinema. When I go to the cinema, the film gets my undivided attention, I never use my phone or get distracted by my dog. A brief side note, If you do use your phone in the cinema, you should be fired from a comically large cannon. When you see a film on a big screen, in a darkened theater, with ear drum bursting sound, you’re seeing it as it was intended to be seen, in the film’s natural habitat.
A stadium is football’s natural habitat, it’s where you’re supposed to see the game. You’re supposed to hear the grumbles of some of the world’s angriest people around you. The protestations of people who are convinced every referee and assistant are conspiring to prevent your team from winning. You’re supposed to wonder why the away fans are making sexually suggestive hand motions at you after their team has scored. I’ve actually never understood that reaction. I’ve never thought to myself “Yes, we’ve scored! Now I will turn away from the celebrations on the pitch, face the opposing fans and begin making masturbatory gestures towards them”. I don’t get it.
The walk to your teams stadium is supposed to be one you can make in your sleep. Knowing where you’re going to cross the road, knowing the faces you’re going to pass along the way, faintly hearing the stadium announcer on the tannoy as you get closer and closer to the ground. Depending on the magnitude of the match, the atmosphere can grab you long before you’ve taken your seat. The tension and nerves can be passed from person to person, spreading among the crowd, infecting anyone who cares. The lights. Football should exclusively be played under lights. It’s all part of what makes a live football experience so mesmerising, so rewarding and so invigorating.
I, apparently, have a loud cheer. My neighbor was able to tell me that I was a Man United fan, not because she saw a jersey hanging on the clothes line but because she could hear me cheer Romelu Lukaku’s first goal of the season through the walls of my house. The wild celebratory animal that I am was never meant to celebrate in such a confined space, in such a repressed environment. That’s another great thing about going to live football: You’re encouraged to make as much noise as possible!
It goes without saying but football without fans is nothing. You are what makes a team a club. The people who live in the area can make their football team their own. There can be a spectacular bond between fans and the club that can enrich the experience for everyone. That bond begins by taking the first step. The first step out the door and the first on a journey to your local ground. It should be treated as a privilege to have these teams on our doorstep at a time when the quality of the league is improving.
There have been some wonderful players in the league in recent years who have made the journey to England or Scotland and onward to Republic of Ireland squads. There are many, many more who have the talent to follow them. There have been some fantastic games played around the league full of drama and suspense. It feels like the league itself is on the verge of a major breakthrough, about to make the next step. The main ingredient needed to get there is you.