Our divided tribal loyalties

The Basque woman five seats down from me was in awe.                
Is there a better game on the planet than a championship
battle between two top hurling teams? 

The stadium was packed. Over 50,000 souls had taken over the place and turned it red.

It was only a ‘friendly’, but the supporters of the ‘home’ team cheered every pass and move with a gusto which was totally out of kilter with the importance of the occasion.

"Why does everyone in Ireland support Liverpool?” she asked me at half-time. “Do you not support your own teams?”

In the city of Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, and St Patrick’s Athletic, she was shocked to see so many Dubliners come out to support a team from the old colonial power.

In the Basque Country, they have grown up on tales of the Irish fight for independence from the British Empire. Now she was shocked to be in Ireland and to find that all the locals were roaring on a British team.

Her team is a total anomaly in modern professional football. They have a Basque-only recruitment policy, even today, and have finished in the top seven of La Liga for each of the past four years despite this restriction.

In Dublin, she was shocked to see that so many people had paid a minimum of €60 a head to support a team from the other side of the Irish Sea, in a contest which would have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of their season.

She wondered why Irish people didn’t support their own local clubs and how much stronger the League of Ireland would be if they weren’t so obsessed by the world-famous players who line out each weekend in the English Premier League.

Thousands of Irish fans turned up on Saturday to support
Liverpool FC in a friendly game against Athletic Bilbao
I didn’t know where to begin.

My own association with Liverpool FC dates back well over 40 years, before the days when my own city even had a team in the national league.

I ‘picked’ Liverpool as a five year old and my brother chose Arsenal, because younger siblings were not allowed follow in the footsteps of their siblings in 1970s Ireland. He has long since forgotten his boyhood preference for the North London club.

He has completely lost interest, and I'm losing mine, when the players no longer seem to have anything in common with the fans, no loyalty, no passion. And match day tickets are now beyond the budget of many Scousers.

As a squatter in 1980s London, I was lucky enough to see the best Liverpool team in history play on numerous occasions. They were probably the best team on the planet at the time and had a good sprinkling of Irish players, including Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan.

When, 15 years later, a childhood friend moved to Merseyside, trips to Anfield became regular occurrences. Memorably, between 2001 and 2007, a group of us followed Liverpool FC all around Europe. We had legendary nights in exotic cities which would never have been possible for fans of Galway United FC.

The average home attendance at Eamonn Deacy Park, the home of Galway United, is about 1,400 this season. There are thousands of soccer ‘fans’ in my city and county who have never seen their local team, even though United are producing some sparkling football as they battle against relegation in 2017.

Every Saturday or Sunday during the winter months, a group of them sit in a pub roaring on Chelsea FC. I've heard one of them say he'd rather be tortured than pop down the road to watch live football at Galway United FC.

When people ask me why I support Liverpool, I talk about the Hillsborough disaster, the close friendships I made following the team all around Europe, and the city’s long-established links with Ireland. But, ultimately, Liverpool FC are not “my” team. How could they be? I’m not from Merseyside and I don’t live there.

There was a magical atmosphere at the All-Ireland semi-final
between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park
I felt a bit guilty about taking up a ticket when the opportunity arose to purchase one 24 hours before the game on Saturday.

But, as I was in Dublin for the weekend anyway, I still felt a desire to attend, to check out the new players who currently line out for my boyhood club.

Liverpool beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1, but the whole experience left me cold. I felt duped to have spent €60 for a game which had no meaning and slightly embarrassed as I tried to explain to the Basque fans why so many Irish people have such an affinity with a club from another land.

Especially while our own clubs are struggling to survive, including Bray Wanderers, who almost went out of business a few weeks ago.

It was hard to care too much about a game featuring players whose pay-packets mean they are totally out of touch with working-class fans, who can no longer afford to attend league games.

Watching 50,000 mostly Irish fans roar on an English club made me squirm a little, as though this was a triumph of hype and marketing over the reality of our lives on the Emerald Isle.

Of course, this is not just an Irish - or post-colonial - thing. I have met taxi-drivers in Bangkok and fishermen from Norway who describe themselves as passionate Liverpool fans. I have met fans from Hong Kong and Malaysia who have spent small fortunes to attend Liverpool games.

I could see that some parents were delighted to give their youngsters a first ever taste of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the Liverpool anthem which is now famous all across the globe. Dare I say it, though, the game was boring and definitely not worth the €60 admission fee.

I couldn’t help wondering why so many Dubs had turned up to support a team from England on an evening when their own GAA team was in action in front of 80,000 fans just up the road at Croke Park. I felt slightly embarrassed after talking to the Basque woman and slipped away before the end.

Less than 24 hours later, I found myself among my own Tribe.            
Celebrating Galway's victory minutes after the
All-Ireland semi-final in Dublin

Galway were playing Tipperary in front of 68,000 people and the skill levels, the passion, and the speed of the game seemed to belong to another world.

My ticket for a superb seat in the Upper Hogan Stand boasted a fantastic view and actually cost €15 less than my stub for a poor seat in the Aviva Stadium the night before.

As the crowd roared around me, I had to pinch myself to remind myself that these were amateurs, playing for the pride of the county, not professional athletes who kiss a club badge one month before moving on to join deadly rivals the next.

There was a huge tension in the air as two groups of young men battled bravely for a place in the All-Ireland final.

When Joe Canning produced a wonder strike in the very last minute, to decide the issue by the narrowest of margins, we all lost the run of ourselves, hugging strangers and jumping up and down with our fists in the air.

When it all died down, three different Tipp fans approached me to shake hands in the top of the Hogan Stand and wish us well for the final.

Gone was the poisonous atmosphere which marked games between our two counties in the late 1980s and 1990s, and I couldn’t help thinking that fans of Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man United could never sit beside each other in stadia and share our love of a beautiful game.

Neither would they ever imagine being so gracious in defeat as the wonderful Tipp fans I had the pleasure of meeting on Sunday.

The Liverpool game almost put me to sleep, while the hurling match demonstrated so much about what is brilliant about being Irish … touches of genius, passion, skill, and just enough lunacy to keep us all enthralled right to the end.

On a high after the hurling semi-final
Instead of being so obsessed by global superstars, we should learn to appreciate the wonders and home grown heroes who live and work among us.

Such as the two teachers from a Loughrea school who are now preparing for one of the biggest sporting occasions in Ireland. It’s hard to imagine the excitement among the town’s youngsters as they prepare to return to school to see home grown heroes Johnny Coen and David Burke come September.

And it might be easier to explain the pure joy of hurling, surely one of the best games on the planet,  to a Basque woman than to explain why so many Irish people are in thrall to Sky Sports and the major English soccer clubs.


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find his Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

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