Monday, September 25, 2006

The Football Association of Ireland Eircom League

Although soccer will most likely never eclipse such good-old American sports as baseball, football, and basketball in popularity in the United States, it does have its niche here. Major League Soccer has survived against the odds for over a decade, with support from small but very ardent fan bases. The advent of round-the-clock television programming dedicated to "the beautiful game" on channels such as the Fox Soccer Channel has also led to an increase in attention being paid to the overseas game, particularly the European brand. Casual fans can easily follow top-flight leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Scotland, and the Netherlands, among others.

However, being Americans, most of us are consumed by a bandwagon mentality that finds few people aware of the existence of all but a few teams, usually those regularly affiliated with the UEFA Champions' League, the only club soccer competition that is aired on standard cable channels in the U.S. I'll be the first one to admit that I was sucked in by the lure of the English FA Premier League, arguably the most popular and successful club soccer league in the world. Although the idea of latching onto a top club sickens me to no end and I settled for following a perennial mid-table underachiever in my now-beloved Tottenham Hotspur, I never stopped to consider what else might be going on across the Atlantic Ocean, not even in a place that is nearly as close to my heart as my own hometown of Pittsburgh.

My mom's father was born in Dublin in 1915 and was the grandparent I had the closest bond with, by far. His sister, my great-aunt, remained in Ireland when he emigrated to the U.S. shortly before World War II, and both raised families, one on either side of the Atlantic. Through them, we still have strong connections with the Emerald Isle. I have been to Ireland a half-dozen times, and we still maintain close contact with my great-aunt and her three daughters, each of whom have multiple children. We are closer with my family in Ireland than many people are with family who live in the same city as themselves, and I feel blessed because of it.

Despite all of that sappy feel-good rhetoric, I completely failed to even make an attempt to see what kind of professional soccer took place in my favorite country. It seems so obvious now, soccer and Ireland going hand-in-hand, but it took until my most recent trip there for it to occur to me. For my Spring Break this March, my roommate and two of our friends decided to visit Ireland as an alternative to the sunny beaches of south Florida and Mexico. One night, we were on our way back, on foot, to my great-aunt's house after a routine pub crawl, when all of a sudden we were overwhelmed by a sea of green-clad folk chanting and singing waving banners and scarves. This was the first inkling I'd ever had of the possibility of an Irish professional soccer league, and it was extremely disheartening to think that we were so close to European soccer, on however small a scale, but had completely missed the boat.

Naturally, I forgot about this incident by the time I returned to Boston until earlier this evening, when I was being pestered to blog something by a certain other contributor to this fledgling site. Inspired by Canadian football and Japanese baseball, I wondered what sort of mainstream sport I could find some obscure league to obsess over. Cue a flashback to that rainy night in March, and I had my solution.

The Football Association of Ireland is one of the littlest-known in Europe. It is comprised of two divisions, the Premier Division and the First Division, currently with 11 and 10 teams, respectively. Like other European club leagues, it has a promotion and relegation system, although the promotion and relegation system is rather unique. The 11th-place Premier Division team is relegated and the 1st-place First Division team is automatically promoted, and there is a playoff between the 10th-place Premier Division team and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-place First Division teams to determine if anything else happens. I am not aware of any other system in Europe that involves teams from higher flights having to actually play teams from the lower flight to retain their status in the league.

For such a small league, the Irish league has a rich history. In the 60s and 70s, there were only 16 teams in the league, over half of which were located in Dublin. These Dublin clubs experienced fierce rivalries with one another and often drew crowds upwards of 40,000. However, in recent years, with the growing popularity of bigger leagues in other European Countries, the success of the Irish league dwindled. Six teams were added to the FAI in 1985 and the First Division was created, with a 12/10 split.

Other fun team facts about the FAI:

Derry City was expelled from the Northern Irish league due to political and religious unrest in the early 1970s and was admitted to the Republic's football association. It has been one of the most successful clubs in Irish soccer since then.

In July of 2006, midway through the league schedule, Dublin City F.C., one of six Dublin clubs at the time, resigned from the FAI entirely, citing financial woes. Premier Division games played by the club to date were expunged and the league table formatted accordingly.

A primary reason I am finding Irish soccer to be so appealing is that it is one of the few European leagues to play a summer schedule, with games from March through November. Like Scandinavian Leagues, this is done to capitalize on the small amount good weather Ireland receives, just about exclusively during the summer. This schedule also means that teams will be playing games at times when I am most likely to visit Ireland. The EPL plays a winter schedule, and the two times I've been in England since I started supporting Spurs were both during the summer, which was extremely frustrating.

Now that I've hopefully sold you on the league itself, I need to sell myself on a team. I personally find it difficult to get seriously involved in any sport unless I have some rooting interest. After careful consideration, the obvious club for me in this case is Shamrock Rovers F.C.

Shamrock Rovers have an interesting and very anecdotal history. They are one of the longest-running clubs in Ireland, having been founded in 1901. They have a rich track record of success, capturing the FAI Cup six consecutive years during the 1960s, and winning four consecutive league titles in the 1980s. They also spent the 1967 season playing in Boston, Massachussetts in an effort to spark the ill-fated North American Soccer League, perhaps most famous for playing host to the twilight of Brazilian great Pele's career.

The club has also been without a legitimate home venue since 1987, when their park, Glenmalure Park, was demolished for housing. Since then they have bounced from venue to venue in and around Dublin, playing the home games of their current 2006 season at Tolka Park, which happens to be a block-and-a-half from my great-aunt's house in the Dublin neighborhood of Drumcondra:

Despite the ultra-convenience of the location in relation to my vacation plans, a stadium in the southwestern Dublin suburb of Tallaght is currently under construction, although it has been in the works for nearly five years with no end in sight to the bureaucratic haggling and red tape that has prevented much progress from being made.

Shamrock Rovers were on life support in 2005, ownerless, with no home ground, and sinking to the bottom of the Premier Division. A fan group calling themselves the "400 Club," originally created in 2002 to secure a mortgage for the new Tallaght venue, pitched in and took over the team. This fan ownership group is now called the Shamrock Rovers Members Club.

Despite the newfound financial security, Shamrock Rovers suffered the indignity of their first ever relegation, although they have taken it in stride, as they are involved in a heated battle for the top spot in the First Division this season. They are currently tied on points with 50 with Galway United and Dundalk, although Rovers have the edge on goal differential, having conceded just 10 goals in 27 matches while scoring 35. They also have a game in hand, and would be in an even better position had they not been docked three points for using a suspended player in a match in mid-August. Rovers have also advanced to the quarter-final stage in their quest for their first FAI Cup title since 1987.

The team itself seems pretty fun, too. The goalie is named "Baz" and everyone on the team except for one player is under the age of 25. Their top striker is an 18-year-old kid named Padraig Armond. There's even an American midfielder named Jamie Duffy. I think I like this team.

So in addition to the Steelers/Pirates/Spurs/Pitt Panthers posts I'll be inundating this blog with, I'm pleased to announce that Shamrock Rovers Football Club will be joining the family.

1 comment:

Medical Blog said...

The Football Association of Ireland is one of the littlest-known in Europe. It is comprised of two divisions, the Premier Division and the First Division, currently with 11 and 10 teams, respectively.