Paul Fennessy analyses the reasons behind the relative lack of spectator interest in the UCD football team in his latest column
Dermot Morgan, the actor best known for starring in Father Ted, and a longtime UCD AFC fan, was once asked why he went to UCD games. “Because I hate crowds,” Morgan reportedly said, in characteristically witty fashion. And like all good jokes, Morgan’s remarks had more than a semblance of truth to them, as the UCD football team often struggled to attract sizeable crowds.
Therefore, as another Airtricity League season draws to a close, UCD have once again performed inconsistently at best, while attendance numbers at the Belfield Bowl have also been less than impressive.
A common question asked by the coterie of die-hard Airtricity League watchers, in addition to the odd preternaturally curious sporting layman, is why Irish football fans invariably neglect their local sides and follow teams from across the water instead. One reasonable answer is that these Irish sides simply cannot compete with Premier League football and the glamour afforded by the millions of pounds that are routinely pumped into the upper echelons of the English game.
Some Airtricity League fans might argue that there is no point to following a football team if you lack any direct association towards your club of choice. However, on this point they are misguided. In civilised society, football – and indeed any sport – more often than not transcends all prejudices.
For the most part, fans that support their local team do not do so purely for the sake of local pride. The primary reason why people follow a team – any team – is because of an inherent attempt to partake in a sense of shared experience with their fellow supporters.
Countless Irish people support Manchester United despite having tenuous links to the club. Whether or not they are conscious of this phenomenon, these fans seek an excuse to have something to chat about in the pub – an excuse to bond essentially. And with the onset of global satellite TV, more people than ever can now share in this collective herd instinct.
And while the many great memories which have arisen as a result of the endless hours of entertainment which Premier League football has provided is certainly no bad thing, it remains a shame that UCD (among many others) do not gain a modest share of supporters’ attention. So why does this patent apathy surrounding Irish football exist?
One of many reasons for the disheartening attendances, from which the team routinely suffers, lies in the fact that the majority of the season takes place over the summer. This is a particularly significant factor in the case of UCD AFC. It is little wonder that seeing a significant number of students attending a game would be considered rare in the extreme. They are being denied this opportunity, as games in the summer means that a large proportion of the team’s student-based target audience are residing outside of Dublin, while awaiting the beginning of the new semester.
In addition, I recall my own childhood experiences excitedly attending UCD games in the bitter, blistering November cold. Notwithstanding the mixed standard of football on display, there was a sense of magic about the occasion. Yet the inception of summer football alleviated this magic somewhat, depriving the atmosphere of its intensity to a certain extent. There was less muck, less rain, less freezing conditions and ultimately, less charm embedded into match day proceedings. Hence attendances have dwindled and innumerable clubs continue to struggle for survival as I type this piece.
Ignoring its inconvenience to many UCD supporters, the summer soccer scheme remains a failed experiment, an idea of ultimate folly, which the powers that be stubbornly persist with for their own inexplicable reasons.
One of the central arguments given for summer football – that it would improve Irish clubs’ prospects in Europe – has still failed to materialise. Although Shamrock Rovers put in a valiant effort in their recent Champions League qualifier, the Italians appeared to be on auto-pilot throughout the two-legged tie. The performance will surely be a false dawn rather than a sign of better things to come for Irish soccer, in a manner reminiscent to the scare which Shelbourne gave Deportivo in a similar encounter in 2004.
Irish sides have continued to perform haphazardly in Europe since the phony watershed of that venerated Deportivo fixture, and will do so for the foreseeable future unless drastic changes are made to Irish football from grassroots level upwards. Indeed, a cynic such as myself would suggest that Manchester United’s recent 7-1 hammering of an Airtricity League XI was a more accurate reflection of the current inextricable chasm in quality that exists between Irish sides and their far richer counterparts.
And finally, a certain amount of responsibility for the somewhat inept state of the league, and especially with regard to UCD, lies with the fans themselves. They inarguably have the potential to be the best supported team of the league. Yet the majority of the 22,000 plus inhabitants of this institute are hardly even aware of the team’s existence.
The university needs something to create a galvanising effect in these troubled times, and a successful, well-supported soccer team would go some way towards implementing a sense of community spirit which UCD is sorely lacking at present.