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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Why the future is now for Irish football 

This is a question which is not easy to answer convincingly.

It is clearly part of a broader pattern whereby soccer in Ireland is increasing in popularity. There has been sustained growth in Premier Division and First Division attendances. There has also been a dramatically improved presence on television, with an accompanying increase in viewership.

There is nobody pretending that there are not immense challenges to overcome. But, equally, there is an obvious gathering swell of interest. Why is this?

Here is a tentative, incomplete explanation for why this is all happening now:

Higher quality

The League of Ireland has improved. The players are fitter and more skillful, the style of play is more attractive, the pitches are of a higher quality with summer soccer definitely a help in that, the whole thing is just better.

This has been made possible by people in clubs who have taken decisions that have allowed for the development of full-time squads. It is also clear that there is now a pathway for players to stay much longer in Ireland, rather than simply heading away in their mid-teens.

The roll-call of players who have cut their teeth in the League of Ireland and then gone to England or elsewhere is lengthening every year. There was a time when staying in Ireland left a stigma of failure, now it is a proven pathway to success.

Better marketing

Part of this story is the marketing undertaken by clubs around the country. It is much easier to market something that is worthwhile, of course. And many League of Ireland clubs are doing a fine job in drawing in people who would not previously have gone.

Better organisation

For too long, too many people in Irish soccer were inclined to blame everyone else for the sense of stagnation in the game. It was always somebody else’s fault that the League of Ireland was not going well and there was a tendency to ignore the follies of the people who were supposed to be in charge (at every level).

For decade after decade, there was no sense of long-term sustainable development. Instead, there were ridiculous wages, madcap speculation and a wholesale failure to invest in basic facilities and structures.

This is evidence of change made real in bricks and mortar and viable business plans.


More people mean more potential spectators. And the bottom line is that there are now many more people in Ireland and – in particular – more people in Dublin than at any point in the history of the League of Ireland.

Sustained growth in population is one of the great success stories of modern Ireland. Census 2022 showed that for the first time since the 1850s the population of the 26 counties exceeded the five million threshold. This was an increase of 8% since April 2016.

More than that, the fact that there were 5,149,139 people when the 2022 census was recorded stands in dramatic contrast to the 2.9 million people who were recorded in 1951.

More than that again, the population of Dublin in Census 2022 was recorded at 1,458,154, this is an increase of some 110,795 since 2016.

As part of this, the greatly increased presence of immigrants has added a whole new dimension to Irish soccer. This extends from local clubs through to the national team. It will be fascinating to watch how this continues to play out.

Although the number of Polish people in Ireland has significantly reduced since the Covid years, the overall number of people living in Ireland who were not born on the island now numbers about one in five of the population.

Latent love

There is a deep tradition of soccer in urban Ireland. This tradition is rooted in loyalty and belonging and community. It also echoes a world of childhood dreams. For example, there is the undying thrill that comes when you are walking to a ground as the night closes in and the glow of the floodlights is pulling you along. 

For example, the walk into Dalymount Park through a narrow lane between rows of red-brick houses is like a portal to a comic-book past. A walking tour organised by Senator Marie Sherlock and given by Aodhán O Riordáin TD (both of the Labour Party) on the eve of the final brought people from Tolka Park to Dalymount Park. 

It was a brilliant way to pass two hours. The streets of the northside of Dublin – although they lie in the shadow of Croke Park – are filled with incredible soccer stories that go back into the 19th century.

Layered into this past is a profound love of soccer.

Family outings

There was a time when soccer matches were essentially the preserve of men and certainly so much of terrace culture and the idea of matchday was profoundly male.

It is also the case that there is a lot of that culture still present. The Garda presence at and around certain matches makes this plain.

But what was striking about the FAI Cup Final is how many families were present. The FAI and the clubs of the country have done a lot to open the game.

The fact that soccer for women and girls is now more popular than at any time in its relatively short history will undoubtedly feed into that change.

Again, there is plenty that remains to be done.

A crowd draws a crowd

The magic of crowds is potent and magnetic. Spectators are an attraction in themselves – people do not go to games just to watch the play. They also go for a day out. And because so many others are also going.

The future

The conclusion has to be that there is a growing opportunity for Irish soccer to fashion a prosperous future. It could even be said that future is now here – there is certainly evidence that the sense of decay has lifted and in its place there is a sensible optimism.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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