It’s often said that the Irish love an underdog, which is not entirely unsurprising given that we are a small island nation on the western edge of Europe with no discernible source of natural wealth and a political and cultural history of oppression and repression. In an international context we have spent most of our existence as a scruffy little slip of a left winger, anonymous for most of the game but showing occasional flashes of maverick genius.
We spent a brief period playing with the big boys but soon found that our natural place, in the wider scheme of things, is on the fringes. We feel more comfortable there. In short, we are Damien Duff. So our natural affinity with underdogs is as much due to the fact that we usually are one, as to any Christian sympathy with the downtrodden.
Whether it be the world of international sport, the glitz and glamour of the music business, or the surreal stage of the Eurovision song contest, Irish people have a perceived tendency to fly the flag for he who is least likely to win. But the truth is, everyone likes an underdog. And what’s more, the only kind of underdog we, or anyone else, have any real interest in are those that have already started pulling up trees. Those that show no signs of troubling the big boys need not apply.
Take the League of Ireland. Under-financed, under-resourced, and, crucially, overwhelmingly under-supported, it is a prime candidate for underdog status if ever there was one. This is something we all know so let’s not bang on about it but a survey was released last week that showed just 0.51 percent of Irish people attend League of Ireland Premier Division games. I’d hate to see the figure for the First Division. It seems our characteristic support for the little guy is 99.49 per cent absent when it comes to watching football.
But if we do have some kind of communion with those against whom the odds are stacked, this is probably the year to start showing it. This season our league is really starting to show the signs of it’s financial ill health. But rather than complaining about it, clubs across the country are putting their heads down and getting on with things. And, in large part, the fans are doing the same.
At the end of 2009 Bohemian FC had just won their second successive league title. The following year, just eighteen months ago, they lost out on a third title in a row by goal difference. In the intervening period the club’s playing squad has transformed from a ‘who’s who’ of the League’s top players to a gathering of talented but largely inexperienced youngsters, many of who probably wouldn’t have got the chance were it not for the inclement conditions at Dalymount Park. And there is a palpable sense of understanding among the club’s supporters. The glory days may be gone, for now, but the efforts of the players and management are appreciated.
Dundalk too are a club that have seen hard times affect the make-up of their playing roster, while Bray Wanderers and UCD continue to battle against the tide with sets of inexperienced players that learn their trade en masse rather than being drip fed into an team of established veterans that can help to show them the way.
Monaghan United are another club that provide an outlet for young talent. One of the first things Roddy Collins did at the club was to hand a debut to fifteen year old Kevin Loughran, a player now developing in Dundalk’s U19 squad. And this year’s Monaghan squad will be competing in the top tier with emerging talents such as Jordan Keegan, Roddy Collins Jr, Michael Isichei and Darragh Reynor among their starting eleven.
The tendency towards youth is even more pronounced in the First Division where, purely for the sake of example, Athlone Town are giving the hugely promising Val Feeney and Sean Guerins (a fifth year student) their introductions to competitive first team football.
Salthill Devon, Mervue United and Wexford Youths have always been clubs that provide access to senior football for the bright young things of their localities, but there isn’t a club in this year’s lower tier that won’t be relying on youth and, in so doing, offering our young players a priceless opportunity to stake a claim for a place in our national league.
From top to bottom, this is a trend that will only accelerate. The disbanding of the A Championship and the introduction of the U19 league in it’s place, combined with the further tightening of resources that were thin in the first place, will ensure that we all see a lot more young and inexperienced players than we have been used to thus far. And this will present all of us with a dilemma and, dare I say it, a responsibility.
Just a few weeks ago Pat Devlin spoke to the Bray People newspaper of his disappointment at the abuse one of his young players received at the hands of one of his own club’s supporters. Devlin was genuinely shocked that a young lad should get such a reaction from one of his own club’s fans.
Over the course of this season the supporters of all our clubs will, if they haven’t already, find their teams blooding young players who have been fast tracked to national league level. Over the next six months an unprecedented number of young lads will be struggling to adapt to the pressures of playing at a higher pace and intensity in front of vociferous fans who are not used to exercising the virtues of patience and understanding.
A League of Ireland football ground is a very public arena in which to make mistakes and they are intimidating places to learn a difficult trade. Our grounds may not match the Bernabeu or Old Trafford for scale, but rest assured that when we voice our displeasure we are heard.
For a young player, the transition from youth leagues, where the only spectators are friends and family, to first team league football, where hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of paying punters stand in loud judgement, can be a brutal process. Some will make it, and some won’t. But none of them deserve to have their chances cut short by unthinking criticism.
If, as we would have ourselves believe, we really do share a natural bond with the underdog, this is probably a good time to take it to the park and let it off the leash.
Simon O'Gorman began reporting for Extratime in 2010. He remembers Milltown and Flower Lodge and, back in the mists of time, saw Diego Maradona play at Lansdowne Road. He now lives in Co Kildare and reports on Shamrock Rovers among others. Simon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org