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Groundhopping: Loughgall (v Cliftonville, Lakeview Park)

Competition: Northern Irish Premier League

Date: 16 March 2024

Result: Loughgall 2 – 3 Cliftonville

Tickets:  £13 for adults

Attendance: circa 500

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: Conditions didn’t help with this, a scrappy contest played out on something of a bog, and made somewhat closer by a very average performance by the Cliftonville goalkeeper, who played a fairly major role in both the Loughgall goals. Both sides had several more decent chances in what could have been a goalfest, and ultimately the final minute or so – which saw a brief barrage on the Cliftonville goal after Loughgall got back within a goal – were the best part of the game.

There was something quite mellow about the whole thing, though – I didn’t ever feel that Loughgall really believed they could win the game, despite being well in it at times, and the Cliftonville fans on the way out sounded less than happy with their performance despite the three points. It was very watchable, but certainly not a great advert for the quality of the Northern Irish Premier.

The ground:  Lakeview Park doesn’t, at least from within the confine of the stands (and yes, I checked), have a view of Lough Gall, or any other lake, but what can you do. An unlikely spot for a top-tier football club, I went early enough to feel like the attendance might be in the two figures, but the ground – which will hold the population of Loughgall more than four times over – soon filled out, not least with two thirds of one side and one end’s worth of away fans, outnumbering the home support.

It’s a tiny but tidy little ground, with a small amount of seating and a handful of very windy terraces. A youth side welcoming the teams on is a nice touch. For this particular rainy March day, I did briefly think my trip up north might have been in vein, with the pitch a bog in some areas and probably not a million miles from seeing the game called off. Proper, old-school football; remarkable to think it’s at the level it is, really – I understand the club represents the smallest town in Europe to have a top tier club.

Extras: I didn’t find a programme, and while there are two food outlets – a coffee and snack stall and a cooked foot spot – I didn’t visit either as they were both cash only and I didn’t have any sterling with me. They did seem more than adequate for the number of people there.

Assorted asides: As someone commented on Twitter, what a superb Football Manager challenge this spot would be. I had a great walk around Loughgall Country Park for about an hour before kick off, and learnt that the town is where the Orange Order formed more than 200 years ago, which made me feel slightly nervous of my Irish reg plates. A friendly and enjoyable experience, though.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 2. Home wins: 1 Draws: 0 Away wins: 1

Goals: 11. Home goals: 6. Away goals: 5. Goals per game: 5.5

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

The League of Ireland without a team: can you be a fan of a league?

As the League of Ireland prepares for the 2024 season, which kicks off this evening, I am preparing to spend (some of) my Friday evenings travelling all over the Dublin region supporting… no one in particular. While the concept of groundhopping (you can find mine here) is certainly not alien to football fans, the idea of watching a league on a week by week basis without picking a team, or even one that could potentially be in that league one day, is likely an odd one. After 15 years of watching the League of Ireland, though, I’ve found it the best way.

The key value it gives me (and my son) is that I can pick the game that looks like it might be the most fun each week. Not that it’s typically necessary in the League of Ireland, but I have a booking record at every club within an hour of Dublin (and a few further away, too), and when I look at the League of Ireland fixtures on a Friday night with the intent of heading out, I look for what I think will be the best game.

Not ending up at the same place every week probably has a lot to do with having a loose definition of what the best game is. Last year, for example, I went to Bray Wanderers on the second game of the season, because I wanted to check out Kerry right after their acceptance into the League of Ireland. I wanted to see what their fanbase was like, how they were coming together (not great, as it turned out – they had a really poor season), and what style of play they would have. As it turned out, I also got to see their first ever goal at League of Ireland level (they lost 3-1).

Later in the season I decided I had a liking for the Louth derby, and went to Drogheda United v Dundalk, at either side’s ground. It has pyro, a slightly edgy atmosphere, and typically a few goals. Speaking of goals, picking Bohemians v Cork City (a 5-0 hammering) was a good call, and my absence of having a ‘team’ meant that I saw Shamrock Rovers and Derry City play several European games in Tallaght, a chance to see a few teams from outside Ireland (I would have gone to more European games, but unfortunately it was quite a poor year for Irish sides in Europe).

Of course, there are certain things I particularly enjoy. I have a soft spot for stadiums that feel like they’re from the 80s, so while my son will almost always opt for Shamrock Rovers given the choice (sorry, Shamrock Rovers fans, it’s the McDonalds in the Square carpark he’s most enthused about), I would fairly regularly opt for Shelbourne or Bohemians, just because it feels like going to football when I was growing up.

I have a soft spot for some teams, too. Drogheda United, for example, seem to gather odd results, often threatening the big clubs and losing to the little ones, and I enjoy the chaos. Bohemians left-leaning thing is not for everyone, but I’ve always enjoyed that, too, not least for the grafitti and the memorable away shirts. It would be a huge stretch, though, to say that I support any of those clubs. I simply don’t: their results don’t effect me on any meaningful level at all. I just enjoy the games.

One thing that’s different about the League of Ireland to what I grew up with in England is that while it’s growing in popularity (try getting a Bohs ticket at late notice), a lot of people here don’t go to games, don’t know a lot about the league, and don’t grow up supporting a team. As such, for a lot of people it might become necessary to ‘pick’ a team.

For those getting into the game, yes, of course, go down to your local team, enjoy the (in my opinion very good value) entertainment, and throw some money in the coffers to help the league’s development. But equally, especially if you live in Dublin and have, potentially, comfortably half a dozen clubs within an hour, consider simply picking something that looks entertaining one week, and then doing the same the next, and so on. I’ve found it a great way to engage with the league, and at this point, I can’t see myself every picking an Irish club. I’ll simply keep flitting around soaking up the best the league has to offer.

Groundhopping: Crusaders (v Carrick Rangers, Seaview)

Competition: NIFL Premier Division

Date: 30 December 2023

Result: Crusaders 2 – 0 Carrick Rangers

Tickets:  £13 for adults, £9 concession.

Attendance: circa 1,000 (best guess)

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: I was quite disappointed in a first half that we watched from the very quiet family stand up against the Shore Road, with both teams lacking quality in the post-Christmas cold. It got a lot better in the second half, with Crusaders pressing Carrick until they first broke through with a nice passing move, and then pressured the fairly well-supported visitors into a red card, at which point the game felt over. It finished 2-0, with Crusdars legend and one club man Jordan Owens grabbing the second.

It wasn’t an exciting fan experience: perhaps the lack of excitement around it all came from the positions of the two sides. Crusaders are in a bit of a nothing position, isolated in the middle of the NIFL Premier League table with Cliftonville and unlikely to finish anywhere other than right where they are. Carrick already look safe from relegation below them. This was my first glance at the NIFL though, and I can’t say the quality impressed me all that much.

The ground:  Seaview is located in what is clearly a very unionist part of Belfast, with lots of flags around the neighbourhood, but even parking our Irish registered car outside I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable – in fact, i found the place to be quite welcoming. The ground has some nice aspects: a tall stand on one side, a two-storey bar that was quite cool to walk around in one corner, and some popular food stalls that we couldn’t face the queues for. The little standing area in the back left hand corner was particulary good; we stood there for the second half and it was a huge improvement atmosphere wise.

Extras: A programme was available, though having no sterling, I didn’t get it. The bar looked particularly good. It would be useful if they made ticketing policy around youngsters clearer on the website – I paid £9 for a two year old just to be sure we got in online. I suspect I didn’t need to.

Assorted asides: Truthfully, we came up to Belfast for the Glentoran game that was rained off, hoping to see The Oval. This was a solid compromise, though, under the circumtances.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 20. Home wins: 12 Draws: 4 Away wins: 4

Goals: 56. Home goals: 37. Away goals: 19. Goals per game: 2.80

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

Groundhopping: Drogheda United (v Bohemians, United Park)

Competition: League of Ireland Premier

Date: 22 September 2023

Result: Drogheda United 0 – 0 Bohemians

Tickets:  €15 for adults, €5 for kids.

Attendance: circa 1,500

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆

The Game: I think we can all admit that sometimes football is just a bit dull. Just as often it’s fiercely exciting, but this game fell firmly into column A. A really indifferent, low-energy encounter that saw the Drogheda ‘keeper make a couple of fine saves and very little else happen at all. Europe seems to be slipping through Bohs fingers, and this was the worst game I’ve seen all year. Nice to watch with Chris Lee of Outside Write, though, who I’ve known ‘online’ for some time. He’s over in Ireland sniffing out a new project, which is well worth keeping an eye on.

The ground:  I like United Park, if only for its ramshackle, proper oldschool feel (much the same reason I like the visitor’s ground, too, as it happens). It has decent facilities for the state of it, and generally sells well with good local support. Not great for walking around (you’re always stuck on one side or the other), but it’s a cool place to watch Irish top-tier teams in close proximity.

Extras: I saw programmes for the first time at Drogheda. I don’t buy them – this is my alternative – but good to see paper offerings. I think the food and drink is decent and decently priced compared to a lot of places.

Assorted asides: A week earlier these two teams had a really entertaining cup game that Bohs won 3-1. We drew the short straw!

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 20. Home wins: 11 Draws: 5 Away wins: 4

Goals: 54. Home goals: 35. Away goals: 19. Goals per game: 2.70

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

Groundhopping: Derry City (v Tobol Kostanay, Tallaght Stadium)

Competition: Europa Conference League Third Qualifying Round, Second Leg

Date: 17 August 2023

Result: Derry City 1 – 0 Tobol Kostanay (1-1 on aggregate, Tobol win 6-5 on penalties)

Tickets:  £25 for adults, £9 for kids.

Attendance: 3,128

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆☆

The Game: Derry came into this game 1-0 down from a trip to Kazakhstan, and based on the highlights I’d seen, a little unfortunate with that. Forced to play in Tallaght instead of Bandywell or Windsor Park (which works for me, though I’d imagine was a serious frustration for their fans), they created an almost manic atmosphere which I really quite enjoyed, although almost entirely in the Tallaght Stadium’s West Stand.

I thought Derry dominated most of the game, creating a host of chances, though their actual goal came from a penalty. There wasn’t a lot of cutting edge, as demonstrated by the final kick of normal time, a one-on-one with the Tobol goalkeeper that was frustratingly scuffed. There was nothing in the tie, though, which is always a bonus, and ultimately it went to penalties, with Tobol’s goalkeeper, something of a game player, delaying loads of kicks and causing a few issues.

It was Derry goalkepper Brian Maher who was eventually key after Tobol had hit the crossbar with their first chance to win the game. He hit the seventh Derry penalty quite tamely at Tobol’s keeper, and then got nowhere near the reply, with Tobol coming out 6-5 winners after seven penalties each. A good contest that Derry were unlucky not to win, but neither side felt riddled with quality.

The ground:  I’ve been to Tallaght countless times but it felt different occupied by lively Derry fans, who lit up the normally quiet-ish West Stand. I particualrly enjoyed their renditions of ‘Teenage Kicks’. The North Stand looks close to completion, maybe another month’s work.

Groundhopping: Shamrock Rovers (v Breiðablik, Tallaght Stadium)

Competition: Champions League First Qualifying Round

Date: 11 July 2023

Result: Shamrock Rovers 0 – 1 Breiðablik

Tickets:  €20 for adults, €7 for kids.

Attendance: 7,216

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: I’ve made a habit of seeing some Irish clubs in Europe every season, as my groundhopping entries for the last few years show, and the Champions League appearance, being a knock out game for a single team, can often be very short lived, so I wanted to get to this one.

Shamrock Rovers have had some great runs in Europe in recent years but despite being top of the League of Ireland, they feel a bit off colour this year, and this game highlighted it. On balance it was fairly evenly matched, but Breiðablik’s tight close passing and defensive strength frustrated Rovers, who snatched as the best chances they created (including at least two clear one-on-ones) and always looked vulnerable at the back.

As it happened, the goal they conceded was a brilliantly worked free kick that was slightly moved when taken before being belted hard over the wall. Breiðablik are a much better side than I had expected, truth be told, with their neat midfield in particular impressing, but Rovers should have done much better, and now have the major challenge of going away to Iceland needing to win. Disappointing.

The ground:  Tallaght is by some distance the best League of Ireland stadium in Dublin if what you’re looking for is something modern and comfortable (I prefer the old-world ones personally), and the final side is almost finished. We headed for our usual spot up the top of the west stand, where you’ve got a great view of the hills as well as what’s going on in front of you. Easy access and relaxed (especially on nights like tonight, where there were only about 50 away fans), it’s always a decent experience.

Extras: I saw programmes but didn’t buy one. The kids went mad on the sweet stalls as usual. Apparently the burgers are decent but I’ve never been bothered queuing for them to be honest.

Assorted asides: No Champions League music tonight. Apparently it can’t be played until the group stages. I mainly watch football in a country where no side has ever reached the group stages of the CHampions League. In terms of building atmosphere and making the occasion special, this seems a spectacularly shortsighted rule.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 16. Home wins: 9 Draws: 4 Away wins: 3

Goals: 45. Home goals: 30. Away goals: 15. Goals per game: 2.81

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

Groundhopping: Drogheda United (v Dundalk, United Park)

Competition: League of Ireland Premier Division

Date: 23 June 2023

Result: Drogheda United 1 – 2 Dundalk

Tickets:  €35 for a family ticket (two adults, two kids)

Attendance: circa 2,500

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆☆

The Game: My second Louth derby of the season, and they are generally quite exciting if not overly high quality. Drogheda dominated much of this one, well on top in the first half, including taking the lead and hitting both posts early in the second period, too. Dundalk are dangerous, though, especially with Pat Hoban up front – he became the club’s record goalscorer with his first of two goals here.

Dundalk scored two second half goals in as many minutes to take control of the game – pretty much their only decent chances of the game, from what I can recall. That said, I may have that wrong – dealing with a toddler while you watch the match isn’t the easiest and I didn’t exactly take every second of this in. From what I saw, it was a good game overall, without ever being truly compelling.

The ground:  I’ve been to United Park before, and unintentionally found myself in the away end that time (they were playing UCD, and there were next to no away fans). This time I was the opposite side of the pitch, and it’s a much better set up: easy access, lots of flares from the home fans and a couple of decent snack spots. There’s a slightly irritating policy around standing on the barrier (the stewards allowed it for 70 minutes and then decided not to anymore), but otherwise a pretty good place to watch football. Fairly run down, but that’s part of the charm, I think.

Extras: Decent coffee, lively fans (at least until they were behind, which is understandable in a derby), a surprisingly large full-time police presence, and a nice lad in a technicoloured suit. All good fun.

Assorted asides: I’ve worked out recently that this is actually the easiest professional club to visit from my place, so might well be back more often. Fingers crossed they stay up, a promotion/ relegation play off is not looking impossible this year.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 15. Home wins: 9 Draws: 4 Away wins: 2

Goals: 44. Home goals: 30. Away goals: 14. Goals per game: 2.93

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.

Groundhopping: Ireland v Gibraltar (Aviva Stadium)

Competition: European Championship Qualifers, Group B

Date: 19 June 2023

Result: Ireland 3 – 0 Gibraltar

Tickets: As part of our season tickets, circa €50 for one adult and one kid.

Attendance: 42,156

Game/ Experience Rating:  ☆☆

The Game: Stephen Kenny’s Ireland project has been a strange journey. He’s launched a lot of younger players into international football, and unqiestiobnably plays a more attractive version of the game than his rather tactically limited predecessors, but is it more effective? I’d argue not. It was quite ugly to watch today, too, with the team far too focused on firing crosses into Evan Ferguson instead of actually trying anything all that original against an (obviously) below average Gibraltar side.

The first half was particularly poor, with Ireland going in at half time at 0-0, and the action so bad that for the first time ever, I let my son drag me downstairs five minutes before half time because he wanted a snack. The Aviva’s catering is dire, by the way. They were already out of any kind of soft drink before half time, and those prices…

Second half, thankfully, was better, with they ever-promising Mikey Johnston making an immediate difference (he really should be starting every game at this stage). It eventually finished 3-0, with Johnston, Ferguson and Adam Idah getting the goals. Honestly, though, this one wasn’t worth the effort, really. A shame, as I generally love seeing the minnows. San Marino, Lichenstein and Andorra are firmly on my bucket list.

The ground:  Great views from everywhere in the stadium as far as I’ve seen in the Aviva, but the atmopshere today was library-like, the most end-of-season vibe I think I’ve experienced at the place. The highlight was a Mexican wave, which probably says it all.

Extras: Let’s not get into the catering again. Poorly stocked and a rip off, what an odd combination.

Assorted asides: It’s a strange sensation going to an Ireland game that they’re expected to win very easily, and even stranger when, for the first half at least, it looks like a potentially memorable night because they might not. Not a classic, it’s fair to say.

My totals for the year so far:

Games: 14. Home wins: 9 Draws: 4 Away wins: 1

Goals: 41. Home goals: 29. Away goals: 12. Goals per game: 2.93

VIEW ALL GROUNDHOPPING POSTS HERE.