Merger not the answer to city's gate woes
Dublin sides agree hard work is needed to boost poor gates
The 'House Full' and 'Sold Out' signs have already been hung up outside Oriel Park and Turner's Cross this season, and may be needed again with a healthy crowd expected in Cork to see the table-toppers tonight.
That's not the case in the capital where it has been, and still is, a struggle to get punters through the door, and an official attendance of 2,600 for last Friday's Dublin derby between Bohemians and St Patrick's Athletic is not something to celebrate, especially as across the city, only 2,510 paid in to see Shamrock Rovers.
The town of Grimsby, with a population smaller than that of Tallaght, attracted more supporters to their 5-1 loss to Doncaster in England's fourth tier than the entire League of Ireland programme in Dublin (three games) last weekend (see panel).
At official level there is little concern, and two years ago the FAI prefaced the new LOI season by trumpeting the claim (not backed up by verified figures) that gates at LOI games were up by 8% on the previous season, though no such claim was made at the start of this season.
Gates in Cork and Dundalk are healthy but in Dublin, it's grim. "We should really have at least 4,000 people at a game, instead of the 2,500 we had for the Bohs-Pats game last week," says Ger O'Brien, currently player/coach with St Pat's and an LOI veteran.
"And I don't know if we will get crowds of over 10,000 for LOI games in the near future. We had 50,000 at the Ireland-Wales game there, maybe another 10,000 people looking for tickets so there is an appetite. But you have people who'd go to the pub to watch Derby-QPR instead of going to Dalymount or Tolka."
If the LOI was starting afresh today, it's unlikely that a 20-team league would have six teams from one city. And yet, any talk of merging Dublin's LOI outfits into two teams - one northside, one southside - is generally laughed off.
"I'd hope there would never be a merger. I have played for three of the big four in Dublin, they all have a great history and I'd hate to see that lost." says Ger O'Brien, who played for Rovers, Bohs and St Pat's.
"If any of the Dublin clubs were merged or folded, I would just see the supporters setting up a team with that name and trying to play their way up the leagues, instead of supporting a new entity."
Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley, who also played for St Pat's, is also not a fan of the idea. "I have heard that for years, that Rovers and Pats should merge, but we have to focus on ourselves at Rovers," he says. "We need to build our own fan base, back to where it was when we were winning leagues, and it will come, but it will take time and hard work."
What's encouraging is that clubs, or at least some people at those clubs, realise there is a problem, the penny has dropped that winning trophies won't get people through the gates and the Dublin clubs.
"Our support at Pats, even when we were winning the league in 2013, was only around 1,500 on average. And yet we sold 11,000 tickets for the Cup final a year later. You have to work hard to win supporters and we are trying to do that with our link-ups with clubs," says Ger O'Brien, whose club recently announced a tie-in with Belvedere, adding to a relationship with Crumlin United.
Shamrock Rovers this week launched a tie-in with the TAP project at Trinity College, and Bohemians, with their craft beers, poetry readings, ska nights and LGBT-friendly approach, are keen to tap into new markets, where hipsters and members of the trans-gender community are as welcome as LOI die-hards.
"We need to give people a match-day experience, not just a match," says Bradley. "It has to be more, it has to be family-friendly, with food, beers, face-painting, clean toilets. People have to want to come to your game, and we need to work to make that happen."