“Absolutely gutted to hear the news about my old club Monaghan United!! They gave me my chance to get where I am. Some great people involved.”
A simple tweet from former Monaghan United goalkeeper and current Wolverhampton Wanderers player Aaron McCarey summed up the feelings of many as Monaghan United’s 27-year membership of the League of Ireland came to a dramatic end on Monday.
Somewhat appropriately, the news was largely overshadowed by Ireland’s latest loss in Poland later that evening and the release of the English Premier League fixtures for the forthcoming season. In a week in which the Irish fans have been largely lauded for their unconditional support in Poland, the lack of support for the domestic league in Ireland has once again been brought into focus. We’ve been here before with Kildare County, Kilkenny City, Galway United, Sporting Fingal and Dublin City in recent years - but this time it’s personal as – somewhat inevitably and inexorably – the end has come for Monaghan United as a senior football club.
Death of high-level football
Yes, United - with their splendid facilities and dedicated unpaid workers – will continue as a club but, make no mistake, Monday marked the death of high-level football in the town and the county. While McCarey’s tweet eloquently summed up the feelings of those closest to the club and the role the club has played in developing players to the highest level, other social media commentators pointedly remarked that, ultimately, United’s demise will only affect a few hundred people.
And there is the brutal truth. For all the vitriol being directed at the FAI in the aftermath of United’s decision to withdraw from the league, top-level football has largely proved unsustainable in Monaghan. When Roddy Collins led Monaghan back to the promised land of the Premier Division last November, hopes were high that support from fans and local businesses would follow.
It didn’t. Only 151 people turned up for the Premier Division match against Bray Wanderers in April. A number of high-profile sponsors flirted with involvement but, in the end, no shirt or stadium sponsor was secured.
The reasons for this lack of a connection between club and county and town are manifold and complex. I can only speculate, but the popularity of the GAA; the lack of solidarity between junior clubs and United; a misplaced perception that United was not really local and didn’t play local players; and, of course, the preference of the great majority of self-professed Irish football fans for watching British football on television rather than attending actual matches all played a part.
The issue of local players not featuring again cropped up this week - most noticeably in a tweet from Monaghan county footballer Dick Clerkin. Rationally, having more local players in the first team should bring more local support. But the experience in the early days of United as a league club – when Seamus Finnegan, Paul Forde and Mickey Conlon were star players – and again in the 1990s when Declan Smyth, Martin Slowey, Colin Malone and David Ballantine all featured – does not back this up. It is also worth noting that United has helped revolutionise underage coaching in the area and that the club has played a key role in the aforementioned McCarey, Mark Connolly, Paul Whelan, Paul Shiels and Jonathan Douglas carving out careers in the game. Douglas became the first senior international from the county while Connolly and McCarey were in the most recent Ireland under-21 squad.
Other locals have fallen by the wayside and possibly could have been given a greater chance to gain a foothold in the first team, but others have opted out and chosen the lesser commitment of junior football, or continuing parallel GAA involvement.
Even with Monaghan contesting national finals and regularly hosting Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers and Derry City, home support has never reached four figures. In a nutshell, Monaghan town and county does not deserve and cannot sustain a semi-professional League of Ireland team.
The problem extends beyond Monaghan, as the failure to extend the reach of the League of Ireland beyond Dublin and traditional outposts like Sligo and Dundalk shows. Tellingly, 30,000 Irish fans travelled to Poland - but only 12,500 supporters attended the opening weekend of League of Ireland Premier League matches this season. The reality is that in a free market, League of Ireland football does not appeal even to the “greatest fans in the world”. The custom of regularly attending your team’s home matches every fortnight, the mainstay of the game elsewhere since its industrial-era origins, simply does not exist here. With the noble exception of club GAA, Irish sports followers are largely event junkies – county team supporters need only make three or four outings per summer, Leinster fans have no more than five or six big home matches to attend, and there are only three or four home Republic of Ireland internationals each year.
I was not privy to the final fevered weeks of fund-raising and survival struggle at Gortakeegan, but ultimately the decision was rightly – if surprisingly suddenly - reached that scraping together money from the same old sources and the superhuman efforts of a small band of people could not continue.
The club will live on with a vibrant under-age structure, as well as women’s and – perhaps - under-19 football. Football in the county has a future with United’s fine facilities and hard-working people while strong junior clubs such as Carrick Rovers and Clones Town prosper. But the once-in-a-lifetime dream to have a top-level club in the area has died. And that is a tragedy for all who care about the beautiful game in Monaghan.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of his employer or Monaghan United FC.