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League of Ireland resurgence highlights football's strength in Dublin and beyond

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Labelled "the greatest league in the world" by Damien Duff, the League of Ireland is enjoying a boom time not witnessed since the 1960s. With attendances soaring, we examine the surge in popularity.

Action between Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic  at Tallaght Stadium earlier this month
Action between Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic at Tallaght Stadium earlier this month Sportsfile via Getty Images

For decades, the Republic of Ireland's top flight struggled for attention and support. In the capital, Dublin, the city’s big four of Bohemians, Saint Patrick’s Athletic, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne often failed to attract gates of over 2,000. Not any longer. For the first time since the golden era in the 1950s and 1960s when attendances of 30,000 were commonplace, signs saying "sold out" are a regular feature outside football grounds in the Republic of Ireland once again.

Turnstiles are whirring, stands are full and tickets are hard to come by. The upsurge of interest and support has caught some by surprise as the League of Ireland enjoys a rise in attendance levels which has led ex-international Damien Duff to label the country’s top domestic competition as "the greatest league in the world".

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League administrators reported at the end of 2023 that attendances in the Premier Division were up 23 per cent on the previous year, with a rise of eight per cent in the second tier. Aggregate attendances across the League of Ireland – the top two divisions – have risen by 126 per cent since 2016.

Shamrock Rovers’ Tallaght Stadium had a capacity of just 3,000 when it opened in 2009; it can now accommodate 10,000 following the addition of a fourth stand for the 2024 season. The capacity for Bohemians’ Dalymount Park and Richmond Park, home of St Pat’s, is capped at 4,500, so both clubs are aiming to expand, with a €50m rebuild of Dalymount due for completion in 2028. For now, every Bohs and St Pat’s home game is a sell-out, with demand from season-ticket holders so great that few tickets go on general sale.

And then there’s Shelbourne in Dublin’s northside, savouring the extra attention brought by the huge profile of manager Duff. Some 4,755 filed into Tolka Park to watch their home win against champions and city rivals Shamrock Rovers in February, Shelbourne’s biggest gate since 2006. "It speaks volumes about where the league is at, and where Shelbourne Football Club is at," Duff said.

Shelbourne manager Damien Duff is a Republic of Ireland legend
Shelbourne manager Damien Duff is a Republic of Ireland legendSportsfile via Getty Images

It’s not just a Dublin matter: second-tier side Athlone Town reported a rise of 187 per cent in attendances from 2022 to 2023, and Drogheda United doubled their season- ticket sales over the course of two years.

Progress is also evident in attendances for the domestic season’s showpiece, the FAI Cup final. Just 17,038 watched the 2014 decider at the Dublin Arena, venue for this year’s Europa League. For the 2024 decider the gate was 43,881, breaking a record which had stood since 1945. The season curtain raiser, the President’s Cup meeting of the league champions and FAI Cup holders, has witnessed an increase of over 500 per cent since 1,300 paying customers attended the inaugural event in 2014.

The upswing in support has been an incredible phenomenon, which begs the question: Why? Different reasons have been offered. Many have pointed to the impact of Covid-19. The League of Ireland, like almost everywhere, was for a spell played behind closed doors and then with a strict attendance limit. So once Irish sport re-opened, there was a hunger which the League of Ireland satisfied.

"Covid, in a bizarre way, helped us capture a bigger audience," Shamrock Rovers chairman Ciaran Medlar told the Irish Times in 2023. "During Covid, people didn’t travel. They were able to go to local games before they travelled [abroad] again and people liked what they saw."

St Patrick's Athletic supporters in full voice during their match at Shamrock Rovers
St Patrick's Athletic supporters in full voice during their match at Shamrock Rovers Sportsfile via Getty Images

UEFA HatTrick funding has helped the FAI maintain its programmes to grow football across Ireland more generally, such as feeding a demand for top-class, full- sized, all-weather pitches and associated clubhouses. All part of a nationwide drive to improve facilities and increase accessibility.

Clubs have also contributed, with promotional work on social media and more engagement with their local community. Several have won awards for engagement with asylum seekers in Ireland, providing tailored facilities to supporters with disabilities, notably fans with autism, vision and hearing issues.

Shamrock Rovers designated their new stand, opened in 2024, a family-friendly zone. "The big thing for me is seeing families. It’s the kids driving that as they want to go to Tallaght every week; they are the ones making the parents go," says Graham Gartland, a former Rovers player who went on to work behind the scenes at the club. "When I did the community officer role, we were giving free tickets to schools and clubs but still struggled to get people in. Now, it’s likely to sell-out."

Bohemians made headlines and sold plenty of merchandise across the world to an audience previously unaware of the club with replica shirts celebrating their links to international stars like Bob Marley (the reggae icon having played his last outdoor concert at the club’s Dalymount Park home in 1981) and well-known Dublin acts such as Thin Lizzy and Fontaines D.C.

And then there is one factor which directly benefits one club but feeds into the league and helps boost crowds: the profile of Duff. The League of Ireland is no stranger to star names. Dixie Dean, George Best, Jimmy Johnstone, Uwe Seeler and Trevor Brooking all played in the league, as did England World Cup winners Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst.

But Duff, one of the Republic of Ireland’s greatest players, has made a huge imprint. A two-time winner of the English Premier League with Chelsea, Duff finished his playing career with Shamrock Rovers and had coached at academy level, with Rovers and Shelbourne, before he was appointed first-team manger by the latter ahead of the 2022 season. His impact has been instant and widespread, with regular appearances by international media outlets at Duff’s games.

In recent seasons, fans in Ireland have adopted for their domestic competition the hashtag #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld in a self-deprecating way, but Duff has embraced it fully.

"It means more to me than anything. I’ve travelled the world. I’ve played in quite a few leagues in the world. I’ve coached over in Scotland. This is the greatest league in the world."

Damien Duff, Shelbourne manager

Against that backdrop of success, making the breakthrough in Europe remains a target. Irish clubs have so far reached the group stages of UEFA competitions on only four occasions, two each for Dundalk (2016/17, 2020/21) and Shamrock Rovers (2011/12, 2022/23), but the introduction of the Europa Conference League suggests that more will follow. Last season, Shamrock Rovers made it into the new competition’s group stage, where they earned two draws in a tough group, while Bohemians and Dundalk have all progressed through two qualifying rounds.

Shamrock Rovers reached the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage in 2022/23
Shamrock Rovers reached the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage in 2022/23Shamrock Rovers FC

"We want this to become a regular thing for the club," Rovers manager Stephen Bradley said in 2022. "We want to keep building and make the club bigger and stronger. Everyone is working extremely hard to do so: the board, the players, the staff, the fans. I think we’re on the right path, but we need to keep working to make sure that this is a regular occurrence."

One thing is for certain – there will be no shortage of demand for tickets on those European nights.

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