From the armchair to the stand- On the importance of local football

Roll out of bed around 11. Catch the end of Soccer AM. Submit awful Super 6 predictions. Watch Gillette Soccer Saturday. Watch Match of the Day. Repeat.

I have just described what for me and countless others is the perfect lazy Saturday. The perfect routine for a day when you’ve got nothing to do. Of course there’s a million things that should be done but they can all wait because the football’s on. There’s just too much good football programming on a Saturday that it would be rude not to sit there and consume it all. Right?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a Manchester United fan, something I share with 90% of Northern Ireland’s male population. I’m not sure why or how I became one. and perhaps like religion it’s something that you’re better not looking at too much. God is dead and supporting English football teams has replaced him. In primary school everyone supports someone, to declare yourself a supporter of no one is to socially ostracise yourself. Most support United or Liverpool, with the odd hipster claiming to support someone like Derby County. Notable by their absence was any team from Northern Ireland.

It’s understandable why English clubs take prominence over our own. The Premier League is a global entertainment brand with stars and money that the Irish Premiership cannot compete with. Growing up, local football was not on my radar at all. I had no desire to engage with it, learn about it, let alone going to watch a match in the flesh. I might catch an odd glimpse of a report at the back of the paper or a goal on the tail end of the news but that was about it. Why would I want to bother myself with “inferior” football when I have the best players in the world a button press away? When faced with the choice of watching Ronaldo from the comfort of my sofa or foundering watching part time players in a cold stand, the choice was obvious.

Over time, the Irish Premiership finally began to register with me. In the 2017-18 season when Coleraine came so close to winning the league I started to think that maybe I was missing out on something. Yes the Premier League keeps me entertained but perhaps I should make the radical decision to watch my own league.

My first Irish Premiership game only came in September 2019. Coleraine v Dungannon and like a true media elitist I enjoyed it from the confines of the press box. This was my first press experience and I couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed about how poor my knowledge was. My research on Google didn’t match the years of collective knowledge from the other journos squeezed into the matchbox room. Whilst watching the match from my privileged position it hit me how few football matches I’d been at. Here I was with a league on my doorstep that I had ignored for far too long. I felt like an intruder as fans spoke of players I didn’t know and matches I hadn’t seen. New as this experience was, it felt like what football should be. I was out of my regular Saturday routine and was all the happier for it. This was tangible, the players and managers were being interviewed and I was standing by with a severe case of impostor syndrome.

As the weeks rolled on I found myself at more Irish Premiership matches and getting increasingly comfortable in my surroundings. Ballymena Showgrounds, Inver Park, the Brandywell, each ground and each match bringing with it a unique atmosphere. Tweeting with freezing fingers and getting soaked to the skin at Institute v Larne is a match I’m still traumatised by. Fans endure these conditions week in and week out, something I needed to tell myself for a sense of perspective. On a particularly wet day at Inver Park I heard a Larne fan rhetorically ask himself, “what am I even doing here?” Not to speak for the man, but I think I know why. It’s for the authentic football experience that lounging on the sofa can’t provide. Long car journeys to God knows where in the faint hope of 3 points is what keeps fans going the world over. It may seem irrational but football isn’t about reason and logic.

Watching the Premier League can be like watching a superhero movie. You feel like you’ve seen it before and you can pretty much guess how it’s going to end. The viewing experience is grounded in fantasy rather than reality. Football becomes something that is observed from a far rather than experienced first hand. Marvelling at the magic of Messi and co has its obvious value but it shouldn’t come at the expense of our local league. The Northern Irish stars who have graced the Premier League all had grassroots football in their own turf. In recent years we’ve seen Bobby Burns and Mark Sykes move from Glenavon to Britain and even Australia. Our local talents would not have developed to this degree without the experience they gained from local football. Young players often speak of how beneficial competitive men’s football at any level is compared to the more sterile reserve football in England.

The Irish Premiership has a lot to offer in terms of quality, exciting contests and the experience of being with dedicated fans who are committed to their club. I’m not calling on everyone to abandon the sacred Saturday Sky routine but to give the Irish Premiership a chance and keep the local game alive.

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