Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
It’s a little over a month now since I sat in Limerick’s Strand Hotel scribbling notes on Cork City’s televised Dalymount Park triumph. I should have been in Tallaght that night, commentating on a creditable Limerick FC draw. Instead, I was making the best of a bad situation, after running afoul of Shamrock Rovers director Mark Lynch.
I am not alone in that regard, mind you. In the ensuing days, several tenured journalists and broadcasters queued up to assure me that Mark’s sensitivities are legendary. Even mostly benign pieces, emitting only the faintest whiff of criticism, can elicit contact from the Hoops’ hyper-reactive media officer.
My own conversation with Mark, held the prior Monday, proved equally revealing. Tetchy and downright rude throughout, Mark let slip he’d been on the warpath one week earlier, too. That was the week arch-populist Alan Cawley referred to the Rovers goalkeeping situation as a “shambles” on RTÉ’s Soccer Republic. Alan was also spoken to, Mark assured me. And had Cawley visited along with Bohemians that past Friday, he “would have known better than to ask [for accreditation].”
And what of my crime? Press box access was denied to me for questioning Stephen Bradley’s position in the aftermath of Rovers’ latest loss to bitter rivals Bohs; at that point the club’s third defeat in four games. Past criticisms directed at Bradley, and the performances of captain Ronan Finn, were also cited.
That same Monday held a healthy dose of irony in store, however, as a catastrophic Finn error cost his club another three points; in Bray, of all places. Fortunately for Lynch et al, during a typically ill-informed appearance on RTÉ that night, Declan O’Brien deflected attention away from ‘Bradser’ by assassinating Greg Bolger’s character.
In an all-time Soccer Republic low, ‘Fabio’ singled out the midfielder for unfair flak, rather than point to the defensive structure Bradley failed to fashion around him. In implying Bolger should “give [his] wages back”, the ex-striker was totally out of order. But few deserve the not-so-friendly chat O’Brien likely endured the following morning.
Such efforts to stamp out any and all criticism are, of course, absolutely outrageous. All over the world full-time professional football clubs, particularly those with Rovers’ admirable ambition, are held up to serious scrutiny. It comes with the territory. Or, at least, it should.
Not so in this green and pleasant land, though. Which is why, in fairness to Mark Lynch, his suppressive efforts have not been in vain. And his unrealistic expectations, of the yang of praise without its yin, are not unfounded. Media coverage of the League of Ireland, both for broadcast and in print, has always been weak on constructive criticism and rigorous analysis. Back in the part-time days, this was perhaps understandable. Now, a few years into a predominantly full-time era, it’s a disgrace.
The implicit message has long been received loud and clear by a nation of football fans: this stuff is not to be taken seriously. That night in the Strand, amid a huge throng of diners and drinkers, only I took any notice of the football. That is not to say I wasn’t surrounded by football fans; undoubtedly I was. Football is, after all, the most popular sport in the country, as successive annual surveys conducted by PR company Teneo PSG confirm. The world’s game is, dare I say it, also the people’s game.
But precious little of that widespread footballing goodwill trickles down to our national game. Most would rather watch Premier League football on television than support their local club in person. League of Ireland true-blues look down their collective nose at such folk, branding them with the pejorative “barstoolers.” They are a lesser class of football fan, to be mocked and derided for caring about the fortunes of Liverpool or Manchester United. So the conventional train of thought runs; a train of thought I have never boarded.
If anything the so-called “barstoolers” are the sensible ones. Leisure time, for adults, is more precious than ever now. Everyone, on a subconscious level, ranks their options, making time for those that seem to matter most. Everything about the narrative surrounding English, and European, football screams: this matters. The League of Ireland media corps, meanwhile, scream the exact opposite. The majority of fans switch off, leaving a rump populated by footballing obsessives like me and those with an emotional connection to their local side.
Paltry attendances relative to other Irish professional sports, therefore, cannot simply be explained away by the standard of our football. If that were the case then Manchester United would have driven fans away in their droves over the last five years! Indeed, the Irish national team, under Martin O’Neill, have also been abysmal to watch over that same timespan. Yet, still, come matchday, both red and green jerseys command a great deal of national interest. Because we are told, time and again, that what happens in those matches matters.
That’s why the old, well-worn, refrain that the FAI doesn’t promote the game well enough holds little water with me. Certainly, there is an onus on the association to fund league football more generously. But administrators alone cannot convince legions of disinterested football fans that it matters. Nor can the SSE Airtricity League, who have increased their in-house media activities significantly over the last two years.
What is required, in fact, is a marked evolution on the part of football media in this country. Only a complete culture change, altering forever the way we talk about the League of Ireland, will do. The days of preaching to the choir, confirming the smug self-satisfaction of many proud true-blues, should be over; yesterday.
The League is, at the end of the day, far from perfect. There are many other facets of our game, aside from those who cover it, that need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the full-time professional era. The drinking culture, for example, still rampant at some clubs — and visible on player waistlines — is never referenced.
A strange omerta also hangs over managerial underperformance. Shane Keegan, for example, got away with absolute murder at Galway United last year, relegating a squad strong enough to secure a comfortable mid-table finish. The disgraceful manner of his departure from Wexford, leaked on the eve of a decisive relegation play-off, also drew little heat. Keegan must be good at making friends.
Perhaps Stephen Bradley is among them, as the Rovers boss appears to have inherited Keegan’s Teflon mantle this year. Six away defeats sees an uber-talented Hoops selection marooned in sixth, a whopping 19 points off leaders Dundalk. Bradley, who appears out of his depth across all metrics, is massively underperforming the expectations implied by the budget at his disposal. Of that there can be no question. And yet any criticism directed his way is diluted, always stopping short of making the scale of his underperformance absolutely clear.
In fact, on more than one occasion this year, writers have fallen over themselves to proclaim the 33-year-old’s tactical genius. Johnny Ward, writing for the independent League of Ireland blog after Rovers’ surprise 3-0 win over Cork, waxed lyrical about the new dawn surely heralded by Bradley’s brand-spanking new 3-4-2-1 formation. Alas, that same back-three then went on a three-game winless run, before being summarily dropped for the visit of St Patrick’s Athletic.
Victory over the Saints, only Rovers’ second in 10 league games, also prompted Ward’s broadcast colleague Daniel McDonnell to bubble over with enthusiasm. Bradley reinvented the wheel that night, you see, opting for a revolutionary 4-2-3-1 system to which Pat’s had no answer — a “clever tactical plan”, according to the Irish Independent’s soccer correspondent.
Sarcasm aside, Bradley’s tactical ADHD, his desperate grasping in the dark for a system befitting the resources at his disposal, was whitewashed. McDonnell, too, was quick to defend Rovers on Twitter, on the night of my Tallaght non-start, pulling press box space out of the clear blue sky as a potential excuse for Mark Lynch’s capricious behaviour. Staying onside, and maintaining access, as always, is paramount.
Which is why unkept promises of action — or, at least, talk — at union level don’t surprise me. More than one established media personality mooted this in the direct aftermath of my dealings with Lynch. But, over a month later, I have heard nothing. Nor did I expect to, really. As a non-union member, I am not entitled to any protection, after all.
But if what happened to me occurred across the water (of course, it wouldn’t), isn’t it infinitely more likely that writers and broadcasters would fight it en masse, on principle? The appalling vista potentially made real by such censorship, left unchecked, would be unacceptable to those who engage with their subject matter seriously.
And therein lies the rub. Our present media set are, almost without exception, hangovers from an era in which the League of Ireland was a part-time pursuit, not be taken wholly seriously or analysed with any great rigour. Rigour that familiar faces like O’Brien, Johnny McDonnell and Stuey Byrne have always lacked, and will continue to lack.
Recent additions to the punditry roster are not exactly going to upset the paradigm either, and for this RTÉ bears much of the responsibility. Cawley, despite exuding confidence, is the definition of style over substance, as even a cursory glance at his banal Twitter output will reveal. And, yet, the former midfielder is everywhere; on television, in audio form, but mercifully no longer in print.
That baton has been passed off to Paul Corry, the inexplicable recipient of our national broadcaster’s latest big push. Corry is another ex-player making the optics work well for him; a well-heeled accent, apparently, covers a multitude. The former Sheffield Wednesday man has also appeared on the LOI Weekly podcast, a co-production of eir Sport and the Irish Independent — presented by the aforementioned pair of Ward and McDonnell.
That this appears the most popular of the many available League of Ireland podcasts also comes as no surprise. Its casual, banterrific nature will always appeal widely to an audience that isn’t conditioned to, nor necessarily wants, real analysis.
This is the same audience hearting tweets about Graham Burke’s largely insignificant friendly appearance in their droves. They are the true-blues, desperately seeking confirmation that the stupid “barstoolers” are missing out; an us-and-them mentality that the likes of Ward and Cawley skillfully tap into. True blues want, nay need, to believe their membership of what is, in effect, a cult makes them superior to other Irish football fans. Especially those silly “barstoolers.”
But without those supposed fools — the vast majority of the 20% or so of this country who cite football as their favourite sport– average Premier Division attendances will never explode beyond their current sub-2,000 level. The League of Ireland will remain a minority interest, loved primarily by those with an emotional or historical connection to the product.
Legions of football fanatics will continue to stay away — because no-one is speaking to them. Hell, the discourse around our league is so backward that not a single content provider keeps accurate records of assists; let alone any other instructive statistical metrics! Presumably the demand for such information just isn’t there, from a journalistic cadre that continually abstains from real analysis.
Meanwhile, the majority our footballing public continues to abstain on matchnights. A state of affairs that will not change until they are told, in no uncertain terms, that the League of Ireland is important. Facile tweets, preaching to the already Kool-Aided choir, simply will not do anymore. Nor will glib match reports that rarely single out underperforming players.
Nor will a magazine show that eschews contributors of intelligence and insight. Nor will live television broadcasts voiced by a commentator who doesn’t know the players’ names or histories. Nor will feeble analysis, for broadcast or in print, that lets underachieving managers — friends in many cases — off the hook.
Any and all vestiges of amateurism, anything that perpetuates the bubble, must be shed. Many of the truest-blues will instinctively take against this message as, deep down, they like the bubble. The League of Ireland is their dog and only they may pet it.
But I, for one, want to see real progress. I want to see the League of Ireland flourish and be discovered by thousands of football lovers who have not yet experienced it. They don’t care at the moment, and I don’t blame them. They are not the problem; we are. The so-called “barstoolers” need to see and hear that the product is worth caring about. At the moment, we’re telling them the opposite. And until that changes, expecting them to do so is madness.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112