The League of Ireland returned to action last month and has reported some impressive attendance figures. However, while these numbers are showing a slight upward trend, attendance at Ireland’s national league has never recovered to the heights of the 1950s and 1960s. The decline coincides with the arrival of English football on television screens, the growth of European competition and the birth of Match of the Day.
Viewership of yesterday’s Premier League game between Liverpool and Manchester United eclipses the weekly demand for all domestic league matches. In general, Irish football fans “import” the game.
In some respects, Great Britain is doing the same. Not with football of course, but horse racing. The Cheltenham Festival – the most prestigious and valuable national hunt event of the calendar year – will start next week. 28 races are held over four days.
In times past, English trained horses dominated the Festival with few winners from outside. For example, in 1989, there was not a single Irish trained winner. Excluding 2001, when there was no Festival (due to foot and mouth disease), this is the last time this has occurred.
Times have changed. The Prestbury Cup - celebrating the annual challenge between Great Britain and Ireland for Festival winners – is now dominated by Ireland. The “away side” won 18-10 in 2022. And the trend is very much upwards.
The Cheltenham Specials offered by bookmaker Paddy Power also demonstrate the power of the Irish hand. They estimate that there is almost a 60% chance that Irish trained horses will win 2 races in every 3. Two Irish trainers are odds-on to saddle 5 and 10 winners respectively.
British racing is now importing much of its appeal from Ireland, in the same way Irish football fans import the game from Britain. The difference is that horses can travel to run where they wish; football clubs cannot play where they wish. Wimbledon and Dublin learned that lesson in the late 1990s.