Jamie Casey on why his enforced desertion of Armagh City is part of a wider problem affecting football both sides of the Irish border.
The last time I went to watch my hometown team, Kevin Pressman was keeping goal for the opposition. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, really, given that the former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper was 39 years old and carrying even more weight than his usually plump self.
The game was Armagh City versus Portadown in October 2006 and, but for the wonders of Google, I would not have remembered anything other than Pressman’s presence, never mind the fact that his team put one over mine in a 3-2 away win at Holm Park.
But the point of the matter is – it’s been almost five years since I last watched my hometown team, which I’m rather ashamed to admit. Of course, me living and earning a living in England whilst Armagh City now dwindle in the second tier of Northern Irish football has a large part to play in that, but it does little to shed the guilt as I have more often than not passed up on the opportunity to visit Holm Park upon my quarterly trips home.
No, I’d prefer to meet up with old friends in the pub than witness what latest tripe the Eagles have on display in their Blue and Black stripes. Sure, I might ask those in the know how City are getting on, but, deep down, do I really care? In all honesty, no, I suppose I don’t, and herein lies the major problem Irish football faces both North and South of the border.
Last month, Shamrock Rovers of the Airtricity League Premier Division in the Republic of Ireland made history by becoming the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a European Competition. Literally between 40 and 50 Rovers fans were present when their dreams were realised courtesy of a very creditable 3-2 aggregate win over FK Partizan in Belgrade.
The low number of away fans at the Europa League qualifying play-off second-leg is an unfair reflection on Rovers fans, however, who so far this season have mustered up an average home attendance of 3,689 – an impressive figure for the capital-based side, what with the abysmal state of the country’s economy and indeed the resurge of Dublin’s Gaelic football team, a sport prioritised ahead of ‘soccer’ by the majority of the Roman Catholic population.
To compile an accurate average figure for Armagh City’s attendance of late would require more than an internet search engine, such is their lowly level of competition. However, I can confidently estimate that it would fall well short, perhaps as low as a third, of Shamrock Rovers’ lowest turn out this term, which was 785 against Lisburn Distillery in the Setanta Sports Cup - a cross-border competition between clubs from both sides of the island’s divide. It must be stressed, though, that the difference in quality between the lower end of the IFA Championship 2 [Northern Ireland’s second tier in which Armagh City struggle] and the right end of the top flight in the Republic is substantial.
Last November, an old colleague and compatriot of mine boarded a plane to Dublin to watch his hometown team Sligo Rovers lift their first FAI Cup in 16 years at the Aviva Stadium. It was literally a flying visit - he never even set foot in County Sligo – and, as one of the 36,101 spectators who watched The Bit O’ Red defeat Shamrock Rovers in a penalty shoot-out that day, he was very much a bandwagon jumper.
But bandwagon jumpers are precisely what Irish club football needs right now, and Shamrock Rovers’ success in Europe could be the perfect springboard for a golden generation, within the limits Irish football can realistically stretch, of course. For if more fans watched their local sides play in Ireland, one of their own brushing shoulders with Tottenham Hotspur and Rubin Kazan in Europe’s secondary club competition - as Rovers will be - might not be such a novelty.
More changes are required, but the last major decision made by the FAI [Republic of Ireland’s football governing body] was to convert the division’s format to a summer league in 2003, a move designed to give leading Irish clubs a head start in terms of fitness by the time European qualifiers came around. Eight years on, it’s finally paying dividends.
Whether the IFA [Northern Ireland’s football governing body] will take heed and sanction a copycat restructure remains to be seen, but they’ll certainly hold discussions over how they can at least bridge the gap that has developed between the two domestic divisions since the Republic took the successful gamble. Pride may stand in the way of the IFA accepting the fact they missed the boat, but there are other options.
Upon re-reading Nick Hornby’s Penguin Classic ‘Fever Pitch’ of late, I was reminded that once you choose your team, there’s no going back. You can change your car, your house, even your wife, but not your football club. Thus, the IFA must focus on attracting youth back into faltering football grounds in Northern Ireland, from Solitude in Belfast to Lakeview Park in Loughgall. Perhaps free admission for under 12s if they’re accompanied by a full-price paying adult might be a simple start, while reduced rates for teenagers may even benefit society as well as the local football club.
It’s too late for me - neither incentive was on offer when I was a lad growing up in Armagh - but since I opted for pastures new the city has become infested by eastern Europeans, and I express that in the most tolerant of ways, being an expatriate myself. The Polish, Latvians and Lithuanians are probably used to being exploited, so what harm in exploiting them a little further? Earlier this year, English semi-professional side Bath City made headlines for their unique offer of 80% discount on admission fees for Poland nationals in a bid to bulk up home support.
The eastern Europeans in Northern Ireland are so bored they cruise around the likes of Armagh, packed like sardines in their hatchbacks, searching for something to do of a weekend. By taking inspiration from Bath’s offer, Northern Irish football clubs can give them something to do and, who knows, the publicity it could bring may even attract the locals back to the terraces.
Shamrock Rovers have the blueprint; it’s up to the rest on both sides of the border to replicate it. If they can do so, we may find more prominent former Premier League stars than Kevin Pressman turning out in the Irish top flights in years to come.
Jamie Casey is a sports reporter for Sky Sports and a columnist for Bwin Betting. You can follow his work via his Twitter @caseyja