It’s a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon toward the tail end of January. Me, my brother, my father and my close friend pile into a car to make the short journey to the airport. Our destination is Liverpool, a short 50-minute flight across the Irish Sea.
As we arrive at Ireland International West, we notice we aren’t the only ones making the trip. We make our way into the departure lounge toward the bar for a quick cup of tea and we’re greeted by a busy barman and a hoard of thirsty Liverpool fans making the same pilgrimage to Anfield as us.
Surprisingly, this cross border trek is a regular occurrence. In fact, this football-inspired voyage to England takes place at nearly every airport in Ireland from August until May. Scores of Premier League and Championship supporting Irish fan’s make the journey over the water to support their team of choice. In 2015, it was reported that some 121,000 Irish fans made the journey to England solely to watch live football, spending millions in the process. In recent years, teams like Liverpool and Chelsea have made the reverse trip during preseason to take on Irish teams, giving Irish fans the chance to see their favorite clubs on home turf.
Ireland’s domestic league, the League of Ireland, has a proud but small number of fans compared to the Premier League and Championship. One of the main reasons for its size is the fact that so many Irish people support English teams rather than Irish clubs. Many wonder what an extra 121,000 fans through the turnstiles each season would do for the transformation of The League of Ireland…
This whole situation does not go down well with fans who support clubs in the League of Ireland. Growing up in Mayo–a rural county in the west of Ireland–I did I didn’t know any League of Ireland fans. Thanks to the rise of social media, especially Twitter, I now know plenty of them, and in their eyes, I’m the worst type of football fan: Irish born and bred, but a supporter of a foreign team.
Do I understand their grievances? Of course. I would like to see a thriving domestic league in Ireland, too, but it’s much more complicated than many make it out to be.
Like most football fans I know, I didn’t choose the team I support. It was handed down by family. In my case, and in the case of nearly all my friends, the team handed down to me was English. And you can’t just stop supporting one team after years of fandom to support another. That’s not how it works.
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t know any League of Ireland fans growing up. This was because the closest teams to me were Galway United and Sligo Rovers, both over an hour-long car ride away. That was too long a journey for clubs I had no allegiance to. Instead, I supported one of my local amateur teams, which was common for many football fans outside of Dublin and Cork.
It’s also important to note that the only Irish football I was able to watch on television growing up was the national team, as domestic games were rarely shown. And where did our heroes on the national team play? England of course.
The main argument thrown at Irish fans of English teams goes like this: if you’re willing to travel a few hours by plane to another country to see your club play, surely you could hop in a car and drive a few hours to support your domestic league. My answer to those critics? It’s not my league. The same goes for the 121,000 odd fans who cross the Irish Sea every season.
Do I dislike the League of Ireland? Of course not. I would love to see it grow and become one of the best in Europe. I might not support a team full time, but I make it my business to try and get to a few games every season when I can. But at the end of the day, my priority will always be Liverpool Football Club.
The focus now has to be on the next generation of fans and how we can get them to support Irish teams from a young age. Coverage of the domestic league today remains small in comparison to the Premier League, but there’s a wealth of content available for fans to interact with. There’s weekly live games on television, a host of podcasts and websites exclusively covering the league. A lot of this content is produced independently by fans, which makes you think: the current League of Ireland supporters are doing the work to bring new supporters into the fold. That’s a beautiful thing.