If anyone asks me what I miss about home after living abroad for 14 years, I often surprise them when I mention Friday night football down at the Carlisle. It must sound like I’m pulling their leg, how can you possibly miss standing in a chilly shed shivering with a few hundred people watching a game of dubious quality in the bucketing rain and wind blowing in off the Irish Sea?
But in today’s global village, where we can all watch the English Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga live anywhere in the world, following one’s local club, even in the soggiest of surroundings is a precious experience of sharing your love of your club with a tightly knit community of fellow supporters. And naturally absence makes the heart grow fonder. Looking back, those Friday evenings of yore seem like halcyon days.
And back in March, during a brief trip back home from Canada I had the chance to attend a match for the first time since I left. This was a bottom of the table clash, and Bray were on a terrible run of form. How on earth would it measure up to even the MLS fare that I have grown accustomed to in the intervening years?
In the event it confirmed what I’d seen from years of watching highlights of the league on YouTube: Players are more technically adept now, the tempo of play is faster and overall it’s more entertaining than before. There are a number of players throughout the Premier Division who would not look out of place at in in the MLS.
Don’t just take my word for it. In the last 10 years we have seen Irish clubs make the group stages of the Europa League twice, Shamrock Rovers in 2011 and Dundalk in 2016. Those weren’t isolated successes. From abroad I have followed a number of clubs go on runs in the qualifying rounds. Back in 2009 St. Patrick’s Athletic came from 3-0 down in the second leg of their Europa League tie against Russia’s Krylya Sovetov to sensationally knock the Russians out, in Russia.
The following year Shamrock Rovers beat Bnei Yehuda in the stifling heat of Tel Aviv to book a clash against Juventus. La Vecchia Signora failed to overwhelm the Hoops in either leg of that tie, who came out of the experience with their pride very much intact. The experience no doubt counted the following year, and gave the side from Tallaght the confidence to pull off a near-miraculous victory against Partizan Belgrade, which put them into the aforementioned Europa League group stages.
Not for nothing have several players been called up to the national team squad over the last couple of years. Something that was almost unheard of in the past is starting to become a more regular – or at least occasional – occurrence. And it’s only on merit.
What makes these recent successes truly remarkable is that they have occurred after the free-spending days of the Celtic Tiger. A number of clubs had moved to a full-time professional set up, and domestic success followed quickly. Some of the clubs went on great runs in Europe then, most notably Shelbourne in 2004, but that was fueled by unsustainable investment in players and we all know how that ended.
Today, the professional approach is again in evidence at clubs around the league, but it’s backed – mostly – by sounder finances. Spectator facilities are far better in many places. Tallaght Stadium, Turner’s Cross and Market’s Field have led the way in this regard, while gradual improvements can be seen elsewhere. Progress is slow, and attendances generally are lower than they might be. Potential patrons have numerous calls on their time and attention. Clubs need to work ferociously hard to market their product and get people through the turnstiles.
In Canada, teams at every level in every sport market themselves relentlessly, even when they are top of their division or conference and are easily filling their arenas. There is no room for complacency and considerable time resources are devoted to these activities. I think there is an important lesson in that for clubs back home.
Time – and distance – can help with developing an objective picture of how our league has progressed. From a distance I can see that even despite setbacks, the long term trend is one of gradual progress. But the world is changing and standards are advancing elsewhere too. It will take a lot of work just to keep pace.
The shed at the Carlisle is now gone, though the place is as cold and blustery as ever. The place seems to be populated with the same few hundred shivering people even as the football on offer gets better. Some things will never change. But I’ll never stop missing it.