The allure of the multi-million pound dealings and media accessibility has seen the EPL remain the focus for the majority of Irish soccer fans. The national league in Ireland is predominately semi-professional, and it struggles to gain focus over the GAA (Gailege football and hurling) and more recently Rugby. Away games involve travelling, and with games often being held on a Friday night, it is nearly impossible for someone holding down a job to make it. In comparison, the EPL is just the click of a remote away.
The fascination started when players, most notably Johnny Giles, started to break through into top English sides. Giles was a former Manchester United youth, but came to prominence with Leeds United at Elland Road. During his time at Leeds, he formed a formidable midfield partnership with Billy Bremner. The pair would go on to be part of, what was known as, the best team in England for the best part of a decade. While Leeds no longer hold a Premier League status, there is still a large following for the club in Ireland.
It is not just Johnny Giles doing alone. While growing up I supported Manchester United, mainly due to Denis Irwin and Roy Keane playing for them. My father supported Liverpool, I’m sure Ronnie Whelan and Steve Heighway had a hand in this. The Republic of Ireland squad, through the years, has tended to be composed of English based players—though this is not exclusive, largely it is correct. A number of the players tend to be English born or British born with an Irish heritage. Even in the current squad, there is Aiden McGeady, Simon Cox, Sean St. Ledger, James McCarthy and Jonathon Walters, for example. I do feel, in recent times at least, that the increased coverage of the EPL has led to a slight change in the manner of which Irish people choose a club to follow.
My brother is probably as good an example, as any other that I could think of. He supports Arsenal. He started watching football around the time Arsene Wenger had taken charge. At this stage, Sky subscriptions had become common; it was easier to see a team play more often than it used to be. It was no longer a case of fifteen-minute highlight on Match of The Day, on a Saturday night. Arsenal was the obvious choice, although I probably wouldn’t have admitted that at the time, the football they played, was more than appealing. To add to this case, if you look at the last ten years, the number of Chelsea shirts on view, has certainly increased.
To put its popularity into perspective, it’s probably best to look at attendances in the national league. Where I live, the local club is widely regarded as one of the best in the country; they hold the mantle of playing the most aesthetically pleasing football—they even managed to score more goals and concede fewer than any other side last season, it resulted bizarrely in a second place finish. They have won three trophies in the past two seasons, not to mention three consecutive cup final appearances. They still average an attendance of around two thousand. They are rarely on television– cup finals being an exception. The league itself has a total average attendance of one thousand five hundred and fifty nine (average attendance taken from 2011 season). It is worth noting that prior to Sky subscriptions becoming a common feature of local households, attendances had been as high as five thousand.
Another matter to consider is the relationships between the clubs and their fans. In Ireland, there is no superstar syndrome. It is highly unlikely that a player will be a megalomaniac, in general players are approachable– the majority of the players often become friendly with members of the club’s fan base. The same goes for the managers and the committee members. The fans, who regularly attend home games, often comment on the atmosphere— they feel like they are a part of something. So why is there such an infatuation from Irish football fans when it comes to the EPL? It is most likely a vicarious or escapist fascination. The level of competition is far higher. English clubs can target an accolade that will only ever be a dream to an Irish club.
The recession that Ireland has been hit with in recent times has had a devastating effect. Through much of the ninety’s a boom, known as The Celtic Tiger, an unrealistic amount of resources were poured into real estate investments. Sporting events during the down turn have become a release– the fantasy in a non-fiction novel. Businesses that can capitalise on this use the EPL as a marketing ploy. You are far more likely to see a Premier League game advertised in a bar than you are likely to see an Airtricity Premier League game. Bookmakers join in with this endeavour— window displays often feature an offer of some sort relating to the EPL. It’s of no great surprise, a money back special on Wayne Rooney scoring last, is always more likely to attract a wider range of attention, than that of one involving Gary Twigg.
There is little to no volatility towards fans that follow English clubs in the country. It is taken as normal, that people will have a greater interest in English football than Irish. Whether it is the spectacle, ease of access, vicarious glory hunting or a route of escapism, the EPL offers a package that is just too tempting to resist. An obsession that was primarily started through the emergence of Irish players in a league has grown, the EPL is as near to a surrogate league as it gets when it comes to Irish football fans.