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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: Shelbourne Rovers (v St Patrick’s Athletic, Tolka Park)

Date: 18 February 2022

Competition: League of Ireland Premier Division (first tier)

Result: Shelbourne Rovers 0 – 3 St Patrick’s Athletic

Tickets: €15 (adult), €5 (kids)

Attendance: circa 4,400

The game: The opening game of the League of Ireland season, a freezing cold February night that saw newly promoted Shelbourne take on far more established St Patrick’s Athletic in Damien Duff’s first game as a manager (of anyone, but specifically of Shelbourne). Despite the score this was a fairly tight contest, with Pat’s handed the advantage after Darragh Burn scorched a fantastic finish into the corner from about 25 yards in the first half.

From there, Shelbourne were chasing the game and created quite a few chances, especially down the left hand side, but couldn’t put any away. Pat’s were far more clinical and look like a side that will at least challenge for Europe again this season, if not go a little futher. A good game that petered out towards the end with the result obvious. Good entertainment, and televised, too, though – the TV coverage meant a load of glaring spotlights in one corner of the ground, which I’d imagine were quite distracting to the players!