Belfast Telegraph

Why you should give Irish League a chance this season, in the words of the stars themselves

The attendances at Irish League matches have gone up 27% over the last decade while the Premiership averaged over three goals per game last season.
The attendances at Irish League matches have gone up 27% over the last decade while the Premiership averaged over three goals per game last season.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

So you've never been to an Irish League game?

The new Danske Bank Premiership season gets under way this weekend and is set to welcome another increase in supporter numbers through the turnstiles.

Why should you become one of them? We've got some of the key men to explain.

Point number one.

"There is some talent in the league that people don't realise, throughout all the teams," says Cliftonville coach Declan O'Hara.

He's right, you know. Recent seasons have seen the likes of Gavin Whyte, Mark Sykes and Paul Smyth move across to English football and become regulars in the professional game. Whyte even attracted a £2m fee from Cardiff City this summer, so impressive was his first season at Oxford United in League One.

But all the talent hasn't left. In fact, there are some exciting new arrivals.

Northern Ireland Under 21 international Shayne Lavery has joined Linfield along with Bastien Hery, a midfielder full of French flair that was taking the League of Ireland by storm. Then there are former Arsenal midfielder Mark Randall (Larne) and ex PSV winger Elvio van Overbeek (Glentoran), who have both flown in over the summer.

"I watched Larne against Coleraine on TV in the Irish Cup last year and it's one of the best games I've sat and watched in the house in a long, long time," continued O'Hara, discussing the thrilling quarter-final that ended 5-3 to the Bannsiders after extra-time.

"Then there was Cliftonville's performance against Barry Town in Europe over the summer. We played some stuff that night.

"Times of kicking the ball up the pitch and only playing in the final third are all over. Teams now, all across the board, want to get on the ball and play it out from the back. It's enjoyable and it's a good family day out as well."

The Northern Ireland footballing public are agreeing in ever-greater numbers, with the average attendance up 27% in the last decade, now averaging over 1,000 supporters per game.

While, obviously, that's not anywhere close to the fan numbers that the full-time game attracts in England and Scotland, Glenavon's Robbie Norton reckons that's exactly where the Irish League's strength lies.

"There are so many things that are great about the Irish League but I love that, if we've just had a big win and the fans are buzzing, we get out and have a chat with them afterwards," he says. "There are just so many friendships and relationships that are built in the Irish League.

"When you go over to England, there is less interaction between the players and the supporters. It feels like a real family, community thing here. I love that whole side of it."

But you, the casual fan, just wants goals. Fair's fair, can't argue with that. So how does the Irish League stack up?

"It's an exciting league with lots of goals, lots of red cards, lots of yellow cards," laughs Dungannon Swifts skipper Seanan Clucas.

In last season's top division, there were 712 goals scored. Across 231 matches, that's an average of over three goals per game.

That's higher than the English Premier League's 2.82 goals per game and much better than the Scottish Premiership's 2.54 goals per game figure.

 And then you can add in those 48 red cards - two of which were for Clucas himself, explaining that slightly embarrassed giggle.

"You just have to look at last season, the goals that were scored," continued Clucas. "It's improving every year and it's getting tougher and tougher for us players. It's very competitive, very physical.

"Then there's how the teams have competed in Europe over the summer and the quality of the football that is being played."

It has, indeed, been an astounding summer of European results for Irish League teams.

Reigning champions Linfield could yet make it to the Europa League group stages and then there's Crusaders, who last week held the lead over Premier League superstars Wolves - who cares if it only lasted a minute?

Ballymena United and Cliftonville both dazzled their way through a round of the Europa League as well.

Newly promoted Larne bring not only the millions of owner Kenny Bruce but also a 1,200 average home crowd and then when you add in Glentoran's recent takeover, the league is looking more unpredictable than ever before.

"You just never know what you're going to get with it," admits Larne striker David McDaid. "We're playing Warrenpoint this weekend and you never know what's going to happen.

"I wouldn't even know how to explain the magic of the Irish League either. It's the feeling I get playing football and the feeling other people get watching it. It's just something completely different."

It's all for £11 on the gate as well. Forget your high-priced Premier League hospitality tickets.

"The quality that that money can get you for 90 minutes of excitement, it's unbelievable," says Warrenpoint Town manager Stephen McDonnell, who took the reins at the County Down club aged just 26. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer only thinks he's baby-faced.

"There's a lot of quality now. I grew up watching a lot of League of Ireland football and I've seen how that has really built over the last few years. I can feel it starting to bubble here now as well. It's well worth it. Goals, tackles, end to end football. Get out and spend your £11."

So that's the Irish League; big names, future internationals, bags of goals, unpredictability and all with a community feel.

"It's not perfect," sums up Coleraine boss Oran Kearney. "We haven't got the perfect pitch or the perfect stands. Our ground is very old-fashioned but it generates a hell of an atmosphere. With that, it's worth the experience."

Still not convinced?

"You're missing out," smiles McDaid.

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