As we head for (hopefully) a long, fine summer, Kevin O’Leary opens up about his love affair with the League of Ireland and explains why you should allow yourself to be smitten.
I’M a Cork City fan. My first League of Ireland game was on a gloriously warm summer evening, glued to the edge of my seat as Cork and Bohemians battled out a titanic clash for the 2008 league title. And even though we lost that night, it still provoked the birth of a vivid passion that has intensified immensely in the years since then.
I had always been a massive football fan, but my attention had almost entirely been drawn to the leagues of England and mainland Europe. It was easy to follow the Premier League from the comfort of my armchair, as I actually still do. Nowadays though, I combine my liking for Manchester United with avid support for the Rebel Army. Despite knowing a professional league existed practically on my doorstep, it was only when RTÉ started showing Monday Night Soccer (now Soccer Republic) that I became suitably inspired to take more interest in the domestic game.
The league here has always seemed to be tucked away, hidden from public view, as if Irish football can’t evoke the same intrigue as the foreign equivalents. Ask most people why they don’t follow an Irish club and the typical response is that the standard just isn’t high enough.
Yet in the few short years that I have been a supporter of our domestic league, fans have seen the likes of James McClean, Séamus Coleman and Daryl Horgan dazzle defences and play the game at such a high level that they have since gained deserved places in the national squad.
While I’m not so blind as to think the league is of a comparable standard to the Premier League or La Liga, I would trade quality for excitement any day
And to think we’ve only paid €10 to see our international stars mesmerise us just a few yards from our seats. The league’s current stars, such as Seán Maguire and Patrick McEleney, are showing all the signs of following these players to the highest levels of professional football.
While I’m not so blind as to think the league is of a comparable standard to the Premier League or La Liga, it certainly matches them with excitement. I would trade quality for excitement any day. No amount of Sky Sports hype can change the fact that you just watched another boring José Mourinho team get a scoreless draw at home.
Some of the best sporting moments I have ever experienced involved League of Ireland clubs. The manic celebrating when Cork clinched the First Division with a last-minute winner; my jaw nearly dropping off my face when a 25-yard Pat Sullivan piledriver helped send Shamrock Rovers into the Europa League; and the unbridled joy I felt when my team won the FAI Cup with a 120th-minute winner in front of almost 30,000 fans…all of these were feats made more special by the fact that it was Irish teams who had achieved them.
Being a League of Ireland fan puts you in a pretty unique position. A Liverpool fan would like nothing more than to see the Manchester clubs dumped out of Europe at the first hurdle. As a Cork City fan, there’s nothing I’d like to see more than an Irish club in the Champions League group stages, even if it’s not my own club.
Although it would put them in their own financial sphere were they to progress, I will be cheering on Dundalk every step of the way in the Champions League qualifiers this summer. Supporting a rival in Europe would be unimaginable in almost every league in the world, but not here. In addition to such an achievement being a massive coup for an underdog, the exposure the league would get would benefit the rest of us, as Dundalk’s run last year seems to have done.
I sat on my bed with my laptop, looking out the window at Manhattan’s skyscrapers in the distance, while American pundits sat discussing Dundalk and the beauty of football in Europe
Working on a J1 in New York last summer, I got up early one August morning to watch Dundalk take on BATE Borisov in the Champions League third qualifying round. It was an unforgettable experience, sitting on my bed with my laptop, looking out the window at Manhattan’s skyscrapers in the distance, while American pundits sat around in their New York studio discussing what the possibility of having Dundalk in the group stages said about the beauty of football in Europe. It was a moment that was as exhilarating as it was surreal.
There’s always a dream for our league’s fans that we will have modern stadia, well-paid quality footballers, and regular appearances in Champions League and Europa League groups. Dundalk’s trailblazing last year felt like a definite and timely step in that direction, and the buzz in the league created by their success has remained.
If you go to a League of Ireland match, you are buying into all those things; the last-minute goals, the incredible European nights, the thrill of witnessing top-tier football in a stadium just a few minutes from your doorstep. One trip to Anfield could easily cost €400. You could go to 40 Shamrock Rovers games for that amount. I know which option I would pick.