Are We Better Off In The First?

(originally published in the Waterford United match day programme for the Athlone Town game on 26 July 2013)

In a previous episode I made separate references to Liverpool and Ipswich Town, or Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town as they were known at the time. If you were hoping for a page devoid of references to the game across the water, look away now because what follows is a twofer with references to both clubs, and Colchester and Braintree thrown in for good measure. It’s like Little Britain here!

Spoiler warnings out of the way, my story commences at Anfield for the clash of Liverpool and Ipswich Town in the Worthington Cup on 4th December 2002. Now there’s a bit of geekery that would put Brian Kennedy to shame. A work colleague, who hailed from Braintree in Essex, was there to support his team, i.e. Ipswich. If I saw him now I might give him stick for not supporting Braintree Town. But I digress . . . at half-time we met up in the Kop and he mentioned how he had forgotten how difficult it was to keep tabs on the progress of the Tractor Boys after they had spent the previous two years in the Premier League, the first improbably going toe-to-toe for the whole season with Liverpool and Leeds United in trying to qualify the Champions League, and the second seeing them plunge back down to the bottom and eventually through the trapdoor after a last day walloping at Anfield. Now they were back in what was then called the First Division, today’s Championship, and coverage was thinner than Wayne Rooney’s hair.

This surprised me, and not just because no-one would ever accuse the media of not covering Liverpool in enough details (with the recent shenanigans surrounding Luis Suarez, less coverage would have been nice). It had only been a few years earlier that I had read a magazine called 90 Minutes which, when you consider it had no public service remit like RTÉ or the BBC, covered lower leagues in admirable depth. When even a club with a distinguished pedigree like Ipswich found itself being sidelined because they were out of the big top, you know there was something wrong with the football circus.

It was an article in 90 Minutes that came to mind as I watched the recent game between the Blues and Salthill Devon. This article concerned Colchester United, Ipswich’s near-neighbours in bumpkindom (a ‘bumpkin’ is the English equivalent of a culchie) and the belief among Colchester fans that their relegation from the Football League in 1990 was a blessing in disguise. Having spent several years sliding ever closer to the Division Four basement, it was almost a relief to be relegated. They were completely overpowered for the teams they were now facing in the Vauxhall Conference – apologies to the marketing suits of Blue Square Bet, but I’m of an age where the Conference will forever be sponsored by Vauxhall – and their fans thrilled to the experience of going to games expecting to win rather than hoping or despairing.

As I waited for the Salthill game to kick off, the memories of the previous week against Sligo Rovers were still fresh, where the Blues gave it their best but were never looked like causing an upset. If Sligo had taken any of the string of chances they had in the first ten minutes it could well have been a massacre. It wasn’t going to be like that against Salthill, right? And in retrospect it was even better than I had hoped as the Blues emerged victorious after a game as ridiculously entertaining as the game against the Bit O’Red had been a damp squib. Great goals, goalkeeping clangers, defensive howlers, open goals missed, brilliant finishes, attempted lobs from the halfway line – it had it all, and was exciting right up to the final whistle. When you consider some of the dross at Anfield for which I’ve forked out the best part of €50 over the years, this had been a bargain at a multiple of the admission price.

And that brings us back, in a typically meandering fashion, to the fate of Colchester United. Their fans had thoroughly enjoyed their time in the lower leagues, dishing out hidings to the teams at the bottom of the table while having ding-dong battles with their rivals at the top. It’s not like that for the Blues – the struggle to put Salthill away would tell you that – but we’re certainly looking at the flip side of Colchester’s situation, i.e. would there be much pleasure to be had in being in the Premier Division, containing so many teams who are firmly entrenched? We could look forward to some fearsome beatings and victories would be as common as a British winner of Wimbledon. In the First Division we have a genuinely exciting league where three-quarters of the participants have serious hopes of promotion and we can expect to have better than a 50% rate of success. With all that in mind, are we not better off where we are?

Time for a short lesson in media studies. If a headline poses a particularly provocative question (“Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the universe?” “Will the oceans freeze over?” “Have the Kilkenny hurlers lost the plot?”) the answer is invariably NO. Yes, we would most likely get stuffed if we got promoted, but we want to be up there with the big boys. Everyone does. If Salthill Devon were given the chance to be parachuted into the Premier Division, they take it without a second thought and the prospect of even more carnage be damned. It is the nature of the sports fan to always want more. Should we get promoted it would be absolutely fantastic – and be forgotten come the start of the new season as we moan that such-and-such isn’t pulling his weight the referee must be blind oh come on you can’t miss from THERE . . . are we better off in the First Division? Back to the drawing board with that idea.