Why do I go to Ireland? It is a question I was soon asking after arriving on the Emerald Isle. The country is inordinately expensive, whether one wants to find a hotel or B&B, buy a meal or a pint, use the infrequent and slow public transport systems or just enter a football ground. It almost always rains at some stage during a weekend trip, and the football itself is not very good.
And then, to add to the difficulties, there is the uncertainty about the fixture list. Part of the weekend trip I had planned featured a match between Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers, at the Tallaght Stadium. This being Shamrock’s first season here, after a number of years sharing other Dublin grounds. According to the fixture list seen when I booked my ticket, about two weeks before the trip, the game was scheduled for the Saturday. Having decided to make the trip, I was then hoping Sligo would meet early defeat in the Europa League qualification, because if they played in that on the Thursday, surely their league game would be postponed until the Sunday.
This is at least was not a problem – Sligo went out at the first hurdle. My travelling companion, Paul had found a cheapish hotel almost adjacent to the Tallaght stadium, and on booked this six days before we travelled. Later the same day, we found that the match was switched from Saturday to Friday! I then phoned Shamrock, confirmed they had switched the fixture and actually booked two match tickets, while Paul changed the hotel reservation. Based on this, I made plans for a long bus trip to Finn Harps on the Saturday, while Paul, who had been to Finn was heading to Longford. So all fine until I arrived in Dublin and picked up the local paper. On the day before the match was due to be played, the local council had decided that Shamrock could not use the Tallaght stadium due to health and safety issues as work was being carried out to increase the capacity for two prestige friendly games (one of which had already been played). So the date returned to Saturday, and the venue was changed as well. Fortunately, neither club not hotel complained about cancelling the reservations.
So, Shamrock was taken out of the equation, and we made our way down to our alternative fixture at Wexford (indeed the one we would have chosen for the Friday, had Shamrock played on Saturday). It takes almost 2½ hours to get down from Dublin to Wexford by train – a slow journey at this is under 90 miles. The four car diesel unit used demonstrates that the Irish Railway system is no better than the English at matching demand to train size. Not only was this one full to standing for over half the distance, but the one we returned on the following morning had far less custom, but six cars. Wexford is a pleasant enough town, but does not have a anything really special to promote it. We took up residence in the closest B&B to the railway station despite the extortionate €90 for a twin room. We at least persuaded them to put on breakfast before the first train of the morning. One might have thought that a B&B close by the railway station was used to getting customers who wanted breakfast in time for the early train (which was 8 O’clock), but apparently this is not the case. For the record, the room was comfortable, but not special; and the breakfast was good.
Wexford Youths are newcomers to the League of Ireland, having joined in 2007. They have grown out of the successful County Wexford Youth team, and the five stars shown above the badge on players shirts and the programme cover all refer to national youth titles won (and all within the last decade). The club owes its progress to local businessman Joseph Wallace. The club plays a quite large site at Ferrycarrig, about 5 miles north of Wexford, (no public transport, about €11 by taxi). Access is quite confusing – the ground is next to the main road, but there is no entry at this point. Instead, a one way system down small country lanes in instituted on match days. At the ground are two full size pitches, and with two five a side pitches further on. Two buildings separate the main pitches – one is still under construction, and appears to be a sports hall, the other holds dressing rooms, bar and offices for the club. Most of the main pitch surrounds are flat, with a single stand, apparently built from meccano, and with a tarpaulin type roof. Dotted at intervals around the ground, are converted portacabins or containers providing facilities such as lavatories, ticket office and tea bar.
All of the facilities have been paid for by Wallace, who is club chairman. A permanent stand is apparently due soon, and as one of Wallace’s companies is in development, I assume he knows how to get this. His son is manager of the team. It is interesting to reading the programme notes that at Wexford, it is not the senior team that takes precedence, but the youth teams, and in particular the under 18 team that has picked up the trophies. The notes said that in particular, the under-20 team would get squeezed by demands from the under 18s and seniors – but this appeared to be disingenuous. Despite the programme claim that most of the senior side also qualifies as under 20, no starting player was less than 20 years old (2 of the subs were 18, and a couple of the 20 year olds may still qualify if the under 20s have a spring qualifying deadline). The programme referred to was a 16 page A5 affair, selling for the princely sum of €3. Admission to any part of the ground was €10.
And so, to the game. The visiting club were University College of Dublin (UCD) currently third placed in the league compared to Wexford’s fifth. The UCD team are mainly students, although it also acquires a few additional hands and they started out as much the stronger of the two teams. It was no surprise when they went into the lead after just 18 minutes, but disappointing that they could not add to this in the rest of the game. A lot of football in this division relies on an uneven division between attackers and midfielders trying to show off a bit, (but lacking the real ability to make a telling pass or hit the target consistently), and well organised defensives. Many of the attacks broke down simply because the player on the ball was not looking for the simple ball, but seemed to believe it was a requirement to turn the defender before passing. At both Wexford, and Finn Harps the following day, the opening goal was partly helped by a fortunate bounce or block. Wexford rallied near the end, and attacked enough to feel they deserved an equaliser – but I felt that this would have been unfair on the visiting club, and in particular their best player; Evan McMillan, a 22 year old centre half who also still turns out for student teams, and who won almost every ball put into the box in the air.
Getting away from the ground, we were lucky enough that by just asking drivers leaving, we easily found someone heading back to Wexford and willing to give a lift – otherwise the alternative would have been to phone for another taxi. Plenty of time for a couple more pints of Guinness (average €4 per pint) before turning in.
So, without the easy option in Dublin (unless I wanted to return to Tolka Park), it was going to be a long day of travelling on the Saturday. The train took as away from Wexford at a few minutes past 8, giving me best part of an hour to arrange my transfer to a coach (the bus station being a five minute walk). Irish bus does a good selection of radial routes from Dublin, serving most of the country. The coaches are comfortable and not cramped, prices are a little less than the railways. Generally, I am told the timetables are kept to, but I was not lucky, and major traffic jams on the way into two of the towns en route meant my bus was 30 minutes late. No here is a problem – Finn Harps play in a small town called Ballybofey, which is not on a direct route from Dublin, and the connecting buses run only every two hours. Hardly any connection time is allowed, and they don’t wait. So I had 90 minutes to wait when changing. Fortunately, the bus stop was adjacent to the bar, and I could indulge myself in a Guinness while waiting.
So, by the time I arrived in Ballybofey, I had been travelling for over 10 hours. The main street was full of people in football colours drinking before the game. This, of course was not the game I was there to watch, but a qualifying round of the all Ireland Gaelic Football Competition, in which Donegal, (the Irish county including Ballybofey) were playing neighbouring Derry. I had booked into a really nice hotel, spacious and comfortable room, good breakfast, and not much more than I paid to share in B&B on the nights before and after. I noticed from the web site that rooms come even cheaper in mid week, and I would recommend Jackson’s hotel in Ballybofey to anyone passing the area during the week. Not much to do in the town, unless there is football or Gaelic sport on, but of course the town does have an appropriate number of pubs and restaurants. The Gaelic ground is just north of the main street, while the Harps Stadium is a few yards south, behind the shopping centres. Despite this being an old and interesting ground, it will soon be replaced by a new stadium in the neighbouring village of Stranorlar, (the Finn river marking the boundary between the two). The existing ground seems more than sufficient for the crowds that Finn get, even if they could return to the Premier Division, so naturally I was intrigued as to why they wanted to move. The answer is there is only one cramped building serving as dressing rooms and offices – no bar or other facilities, and pitch side refreshments served from temporary huts. There would be room to improve the current ground – but developers would prefer to extend the shopping centre and move the club elsewhere.
The ground is three sides – there is no spectator accommodation at the far end (away from the ground), while the cover is in the form of a barrel roofed stand filling most of the side close to the road. At one end some new seats have been installed on a standard scaffolding base, while the rest is low rise terracing. I am guessing there was once something taller, but this has been knocked down.
Meanwhile I was asking about the clash of fixtures with the Gaelic. “You do ask difficult questions”, the secretary responds – before telling me that the League of Ireland do not allow fixtures to be changed at less than two weeks notice, (a strange statement considering the Shamrock game had been switched twice in the last five days). The GAA, meanwhile, makes its fixtures only a week in advance, a necessity of a knock out competition with matches every week. With the strength of having much larger crowds than the association game can muster; the GAA keeps its own counsel, and only needs to discuss its schedule with the TV company. A few people did walk into the game last on after the GAA game had finished – something I had seen before when a game at Tolka Park in Dublin started while a GAA game was being played at nearby Croke Park. If the GAA match had considered kicking off an hour earlier, then many more people would have been able to double up.
As for the game, not much different to the night before. Defences were generally organised, whereas the attackers continually failed to make anything of the possession they had. Finn were the better team and took advantage when a clearance went back out to the winger – one pass and a good finish. In the second half, Athlone Town managed to level the scores. Again it was a good finish, and again there was little teamwork involved.
With the first bus out of Ballybofey being at 12.25 the next day, I had time for a good night’s sleep. The timing became critical as I had only a few minutes to make a change of buses. Even with all the transport going smoothly, (and it did) – I only arrived in Newbridge les than an hour before kick-off. Fortunately, Paul, with the shorter journey had booked into our B&B and met me at the station. The ground, is in Station Road and all we had to do was cross the railway to get there.
The ground actually belongs to Newbridge Town, of the Leinster Senior League, rather than Kildare County, and all the signs show the Newbridge name. On the side where we entered, there are two sections of open seats, made up on scaffolding. On a blustery and wet evening, not many people choose these seats, as those on the other side were protected by the club house roof. Again just five rows of low seating. The clubhouse itself is two storey, and above the seating there is a good area that can be used as a VIP viewing area, but it does not appear the club has managed to sell this idea. The referee’s dressing room was also upstairs. Downstairs were the other dressing rooms and a small bar – where care was needed due to exposed wiring just by some seats.
The game was no better than any of the others. The visitors, Limerick were on top throughout, but were quite incompetent and it did not take long before we had concluded a no score draw would occur. Kildare are about the worst team in the League, and would have been relegated last season, if Cobh Ramblers had not been thrown out of the league. Having been reprieved once, they have won only once this season, (away to Mervue, the team that would have replaced them), and this was their second home draw. Naturally, they are the only candidates for bottom place again – but relegation depends on a first team finishing in the top three at least one group of the A championship (the third division, split into two groups of 9, but including 13 reserve teams). It appears Salthill Devon may be the challenger – play offs will take place at the end of the season.
Note the small group of supporters to the right (as we see it) of the entrance way are from visiting club Limerick. They were very vocal, but could not spur the team on to actually score.
The Irish League changed to a summer season in 2003, and it has achieved its first objective in doing so – on the UEFA rankings used to determine numbers for club competitions, Ireland has risen about 10 places, from around 40th ten years ago. By comparison, Northern Ireland and Wales are still in the 40s. According to the web site, European Football Statistics, this has happened without much noticeable effect on the crowds attending the games. The season by season averages for the Premier Division are still around 1500, with Division One getting something less than half that. Now in its summer season, Irish football plays second fiddle to the Gaelic games, while when playing the winter season; there were always more people crossing the water to see Liverpool, Manchester United and Celtic than the total watching League of Ireland.
With these figures, the finances of Irish football are always on a knife edge. The cost of living in Ireland is high – most things are more expensive there than in the UK, and the recession has hit the Celtic Tiger hard. While Ireland is still a popular destination for English and Scottish clubs in pre-season, the really big crowd pullers, such as Real Madrid do not have this as a regular visiting spot. 10,000 spectators at Tallaght thanks to the addition of temporary seats is not normally enough of a crowd to pull in the giants – although once Lansdowne Road has been rebuilt, the prospect of filling this may generate the receipts guarantees required.
And while Ireland have improved their ratings with UEFA, it has not yet been enough to get the clubs into group contention in either the Champions League, the Europa League or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup. While I was there, some of the local papers had realised that Bohemians v Salzburg in the Champions League was the big game of the week, even if they still refused to give it the same sort of coverage as the glamour boys of Real Madrid, (the opposition was generally inconsequential and hardly mentioned). Bohs had already drawn in Salzburg, and if they could win this match, they would have to play Dinamo Zagreb – not exactly the top team in Europe. This is where the new method of keeping champions and non-champions apart can help. On seeding, most of the clubs winning second qualifying games in the old days would find themselves up against runners-up from nations in Europe’s top 15 – now they have to play Champions, but against teams from much poorer leagues.
Losers in the Champions League third qualifying round get a second try in the Europa League (but those who fall earlier do not), while the fourth and final qualifying round is a selector – winners go into the Champions League group stage, while losers play in the Europa League groups.
Having seen Salzburg in May, I thought they should be too good for an Irish team, but Salzburg have hardly played since then, while the Irish season is in full swing, and a 1-1 draw in Austria seemed to swing the tie towards the Irish – but as it turned out, Salzburg got a late goal in a defensive match in Dublin and now face Dinamo Zagreb (another team I saw in May – I am again predicting a Salzburg win).
Still, it has not been all gloom for the Irish in Europe. Bohemians may be out, and Sligo lost earlier, but the two Europa League contenders still in the competition both went through, following 1-1 draws in the first legs with single goal victories. St. Patricks managed this away to Valetta in Malta, while Derry City played Skonto Riga. St Patricks now take on the Russian team, Krylia Sovetov Samara while Derry will play CSKA Sofia. With another round to go, even if they win these (and the odds do not favour the Irish), group stage football still looks unlikely, but Ireland will at least hold its rating in Europe.