Eamonn Sweeney is as curious a hack as there is going. The first time he entered my consciousness was the publication of his book There’s Only One Red Army, a paean of praise to the virtues of following Sligo Rovers. I haven’t read the book, and my kneejerk reaction on reading the reviews was that this would be a typical blast from a chip-on-the-shoulder League of Ireland diehard who can’t understand why the domestic game isn’t carrying all before it and it must be the fault of the beastly GAA with their bog ball and their bog hockey.
Still haven’t read the book, so there’s a remote possibility that my initial prejudices were correct. But they’d be very remote as Sweeney has written some very complimentary things over the years about the GAA in general and Waterford in particular. Indeed his defence of Waterford in the face of Brian Corcoran’s withering comments about us in his autobiography was enough to make a grown man weep. Predictably I haven’t been able to find them online, but the most memorable comment was to the effect that Corcoran may have thought Waterford would try to drag the game down to their level but that Waterford had dragged the game up to a level that Cork couldn’t reach in the 2004 Munster final. I never had any great issue with Corcoran’s comments – one must assume they were what he thought at the time and all you can do is either agree or disagree with the sentiments – but it was nice to see a prominent hack leap to Waterford’s defence.
Having established Sweeney’s credentials as a latter-day sporting Renaissance man, time to plunge the knife. He was writing this week about the attitudes towards the League of Ireland (h/t to FootballPress, not that he’d appreciate it). It’s hard to dispute his central contention, that it’s not enough for certain sports fans to ignore domestic soccer and how many people get a good kick out of giving the League of Ireland a good kick. I’ve done it myself more than once and, having recently observed first-hand the aching sincerity of people following the Blues, can admit to feeling rather guilty about it.
Two things stuck in the craw though. Let’s take the shallowness of following teams in England as a given. It’s certainly true that it is relatively easy given that few people choose to support the bad teams. But if Liverpool FC were to implode and vanish from the earth, Colm Cooper and his ilk wouldn’t turn around and satisfy their love of soccer with . . . well, who would Colm Cooper support in the League of Ireland? Limerick United / City / 37 / FC? Having grown up in a GAA household, albeit one without any trace of supremacism, it never entered the heads of our parents to bring us to soccer matches. Chiding Colm Cooper for hankering after Anfield while not following the domestic game is akin to criticising a Protestant for going to St Peter’s and not getting Mass.
Secondly, and this is the elephant in the League of Ireland room, why is there no questioning of those who now go cross channel where they once went to the likes of Kilcohan Park? While perusing the match programme for the St Patrick’s Athletic game, I was gobsmacked to find that there were five thousand people at the quarter-final against Drogheda United in 1997. Those are the people Eamonn Sweeney should be chasing to account for the gap of at least 4,300 on the match against Pats. You’re unlikely to find them at a league match in Walsh Park.
While it’s reasonable for Eamonn Sweeney to be irritated by those who would “recommend that [the League of Ireland] be liquidated altogether”, some of those people would be genuinely concerned at the seeming death-spiral of professional soccer in Ireland. In their book Why England Lose: and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski noted that people ‘reward success and shun failure‘ (another book I haven’t read. Oh the shame). You don’t have to hate the League of Ireland to propose outlandish schemes to fix it; carrying on the way things are doesn’t look like an option if you want the League to be a success, or at least successful enough that people reward it with their bums on seats.
I’m not pushed. My future presence at the RSC will not be determined by whether Waterford can win things or not. It’s been great craic thus far, but the occasionally rancid contempt in which the GAA is held can be off-putting. Eamonn Sweeney has the experience to straddle the fence. Time will tell whether I’m too long in the tooth to learn this new trick.