March 4th 2016; the turnstiles lie silent. Blade after blade withers under the spring time breeze. Turners Cross is silent. Not even 24 hours later, a City will flock to the much hallowed ground; draped in the green red and white of Cork City FC. Turners Cross; traditionally an aging population brought to life each day by the lunch time bells from Capwell Road, will burst and sizzle with life, to the cries of “City till I die” and the ever present moans of missed chances to the ultimate euphoria of the first goal of a new season. League of Ireland is returning to Cork City after a brief three month hiatus, and what a year have we in store.
2015 year was a massive year for the Rebel Army. Less than five years after the tragic demise of and rebirth of the club; the green and white of Leeside returned to the European stage, finished comfortably second in the league and reached the FAI Cup final in the scared Aviva Stadium. Boasting crowds of 4,817 for league games against Sligo Rovers, 6,900 for title deciders against Dundalk and 4,641 for European nights against KR Reykjavik; Cork City can look back with a grin at was a most a successful year. The trophy cabinet maybe empty, but the spirit and energy of the Rebel Army is back.
Yet, with every turn of the turnstile and every banner held so high in the “Shed End” can we say that, our club- and league- live up to the billing of, “Real Football, Real Fans?” which is so famously broadcasted across the SSE Airtricity website? Do we live up to the billing, which follows us in every major tournament of, “The best fans in the world?” Unfortunately, as a devout League of Ireland fan and Irish football fan, we can’t.
Ignoring all football matters aside, to say, “Real Fans” for the League of Ireland is an oxymoron. When you look at the stats, the stone face realities of Irish football are startling. At home, attendances and gate receipts are unreliable and a false prophecy to where a club truly lies. This being a problem which all clubs; from Cork City FC to Cobh Ramblers face. In April 2015, Cork City faced Dundalk at Turners Cross; two of the league’s undefeated heavy weights setting up what was a sure title decider, and a crowd of over 6,900 greeted both teams. Less than a fortnight later, Sligo Rovers where in town and City managed to gather 2,882 supporters; a -58% reduction in support. Across the league this problem is very much prevalent; from Shamrock Rovers who saw a 33% decrease in attendances in September 2015, to Bray Wanderers who’s average attendance in September 2015 was 483.
For a league which has an appeal to roughly 4 million people; we can’t except to sell out Old Trafford style stadiums week in week out. However though, when you compare the league stats against the Irish football fans awaiting in Dublin airport each week, Manchester United scarves in hand; a real picture emerges of the gap developing. Based on a Sky Sports survey in 2014; Republic of Ireland topped the list of most supporters venturing across the channel to watch the Premiership with 121,000 fans making the pilgrimage in 2014. Atop this, it is estimated that over £700 million pounds was put into the British Economy through Irish fans. When you have clubs such as Bray Wanderers, who had debts accumulated of over €1 million, with manager Alan Matthews and his backroom team rumoured to have walked away from the club in April 2015 due to unpaid wages, with champions Dundalk also having €300,000 debts to Louth County Council.
Excuses like, “League of Ireland is too pricy” or, “it’s just hoof ball” seem to be the underlying padding to it all. Let’s look past the stereotypes and past all prejudices. In 2014, Colin Healy scored a last minute over head kick to gift City a 1-0 win. Chris Forrester weeks later scored an absolute wonder goal against Drogheda United for St. Pats. Then, on the final day of the season City and Dundalk clashed; City a point clear and only needing a draw to secure the title, and Dundalk needing all three points. In 2015, Limerick FC clawed up from the graveyard to get grips to safety on the final day of the season, after spending the whole season at the bottom. In the cup, City and Dundalk clashed blows once more to 25,000 spectators, neither sets of fans silent for the 120 minutes, but bellowing out the national anthem together, bearing banners of past glories and City striking a chord with everyone with the immortal phrase, “It is up to us to make the most that comes our way”. At full time, City fans cried around me, Dundalk fans where swimming in Euphoria. Nothing beats live football. Nothing beats being there, seeing the frustrations and fever building, for it all to be capped with the bulging of the net and the ecstatic screaming of a thousand fans.
On March 5th 2016, the League of Ireland kicks off once again. If you’re like me, grab your green and white scarf and make the pilgrimage to Turners Cross. Turn off the Sky Sports and brave the elements to watch John Caulfield’s men big for league and cup glory. We’re not just a football club at the end of the day, but a whole City.
Let’s stand up and reclaim our title of, “Real Football, Real Fans!”