The College Patronised
University College Dublin AFC has returned to the Premier Division following last year’s promotion via playoffs. Many things haven’t changed since the Students’ last spell in the top flight. Competing against top opposition littered with talent from the good and great of the league is a different task tactically for Andy Myler as his side is resigned to being underdogs in every tie, and also the patronising comments questioning their status as a club at this level.
Many of these comments followed the College’s 7-1 defeat at the hands of table-toppers Derry City at the Ryan McBride Brandywell on Friday. Despite this being UCD’s first trouncing of the season after a dozen games, the predictable comments doubting their belonging in the league were voiced on social media. It is not uncommon for league leaders to win heavily against sides battling relegation, especially when it’s top versus bottom, in any league across Europe with Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Celtic all recording 7-0 victories during their respective 2021/22 league campaigns. But when it happens to the Students, the inevitable existential questions are asked about whether it’s right for a college team to be in the League of Ireland.
However, there is a fair criticism of UCD which is often highlighted, the perpetual question surrounding attendances at their games. Extratime.ie recently did a deep dive into the League of Ireland’s attendances so far this season. The article shows how there has been a 12% increase across the Premier Division from the last pre-COVID season, 2019. Shamrock Rovers top the pile with sellouts against fierce rivals Bohemians and Saint Patrick’s Athletic. Most wouldn’t need to view the Extratime.ie article to tell you where the College ranks in terms of attendances (Hint: it’s the same as their position in the league table!). The average of 933 actually flatters UCD when you bear in mind that their biggest attendance of 1’708 was largely made up of away fans when Bohs made the trip to the Bowl. UCD hold the record for the lowest attendance of the campaign thus far when less than half a thousand watched their home match against Derry, no coincidence that this game involved one of the longest travel distances for away fans.
There are thirty thousand students in the college yet so few attend the most professional sports team’s matches. The football club are adamant that they have made efforts to encourage students to come along to games and support the team. Director of Football Diarmuid McNally previously told the College Tribune “We’ve done promotions, offered free tickets, free access to the clubhouse, free beer, made loads of attempts at it over the years to try and engage college support, But it’s been really, really difficult.” Although I don’t doubt their efforts in the past, in my time as a student I have never seen any visibility or promotion of the games on or around campus outside of social media, something simple like flyers on walls around campus could be a start.
So why is it, why can’t UCD attract fans to watch the highest level of domestic football? Is it because all 30’000 students at Belfield hate football and the Dublin 4 area is a rugby stronghold that view ‘soccer’ as a gentleman’s game played by hooligans? Although there could be some merit in the second point, I would refute the claim that there isn’t an appetite for the beautiful game in UCD, walk around campus and you won’t struggle to find replica football jerseys or overhear a conversation about the weekend’s fixtures. I would instead argue that UCD finds itself in a Catch 22 situation.
Counter-culture to modern football
It is no secret that the majority of football fans in this country support teams in England or Scotland, namely Celtic, with the Premier League on our doorstep the allure of the best league in the world is irresistible to most sports fans. Only a fool would say the quality in the domestic league is anywhere close to that on the other side of the Irish Sea. However, the League of Ireland offers something different to football fans, a sort of counter-culture to the growing commercialisation and sanitization of elite football. Many Premier League clubs have become unaffordable for their traditional working-class base whilst appealing to the day-tripping tourist who the club simply views as a customer. The eye-watering sums of money, sports washing, VAR, and breakaway leagues among many others have left many fans longing for the days before the behemoth of the Premier League was formed in 1992.
Something which can fill this vacuum is the League of Ireland. Cheap ticket prices, old school stadiums, and crucially authentic atmospheres act as a foil to England’s elite. The chanting, the banners and the community spirit all form this atmosphere. Whilst flares can be seen as a proxy for the difference in the fan experience at Premier League and League of Ireland clubs, now effectively non-existent in England’s top flight but you would struggle to find a big derby in Ireland where pyro isn’t involved. Of course, there are health and safety concerns around flares, but that edginess around League of Ireland games does appeal to fans, as somewhat of a throwback to yesteryear. The quality on the pitch would be down on the list of the regular match-going fans on the reasons they attend matches.
This matchday experience is not possible for the prospective UCD match goers as there aren’t sufficient numbers of fans to create this atmosphere, this then disincentives new fans, hence the Catch 22.
Another potential reason why the College fails to attract students to attend games in the Bowl is the opposition. In the United States, college sports are some of the best-attended events in the country where you could find over 100’000 spectators at a college American football match. One of the many reasons why students of these sports colleges take such pride in their teams is the bragging rights and prestige they earn by defeating their fellow colleges. If UCD were playing against Trinity or DCU in the League of Ireland, students may feel real jeopardy on the line to not lose to their Dublin rivals. Is the same true if the College loses to Finn Harps?
Callum Buchan – Sports Editor