Over the weekend I watched two live domestic (Irish) football games on television. On Friday night Waterford played Cork City in the 2023 promotion-relegation playoff, while on Sunday evening St Pats and Bohemian met in the 2023 FAI Cup Final. Both were highly enjoyable.
It was during the Friday night game that one of the younger residents in our house said, “I prefer watching this game. There is no VAR!” I couldn’t have agreed more. And how refreshing I thought. A preference for live League of Ireland football over the English Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, etc. It made me think "Are we travelling full circle?"
It is almost 60 years since Match of the Day was broadcast for the first time. On the 22nd of August 1964, highlights of a game between Liverpool and Arsenal were screened by the BBC. The images were broadcast not only throughout the UK, but also into Ireland.
The domestic league here, which many would agree was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s began to witness a notable decrease in attendance demand. By the 1980s, the League of Ireland was at breaking point and is a story of crisis after crisis, from both the perspective of the clubs and those running the game. Written in the mid-2000s Who Stole Our Game provides a wonderful description of this.
Despite expanding economic growth here during the 1990s and 2000s, the domestic game continued to struggle financially and several clubs either ceased trading or had to reform under new names and ownership structures. All the while the Premier League and Champions League went from strength to strength. Technology – the live broadcasting of matches – had played a major role in, what seemed to be, the terminal decline of the League of Ireland.
Is this now changing?
Since the introduction of VAR, attendances in the League have begun to rise. The excellent Extratime.com reports that during the 2022 season, attendance demand was up 56% on 2017 figures. This season, official league data reported a 23% increase in attendance demand on the 2022 season. Ticket sales are on the up.
This increase in demand was amplified at the weekend when the FAI Cup Final – broadcast live on free-to-air television – sold out the Aviva Stadium. It was the first time this game had resulted in a sell-out of the Aviva Stadium, with nearly 44,000 fans in attendance. It was also a record attendance for the final and only the second time ever the game attracted more than 40,000 fans – the last time being way back in 1945.
One of the best things about the game was that it was a VAR-free zone. No checking of penalties, or goals or foul play. Just trust in the referee. Goals could be celebrated. Late tackles were not dwelt on for minutes after being made, and then requiring the use of off field monitors, but dealt with by the match officials.
At the same time, Chelsea and Man City were locked in battle in the Premier League. The game ended 4-4. At one point, the VAR was checking to see if it should disallow an Earling Haaland goal as the ball caught up with his raised elbow as he slid over the goal line. He made no attempt to use his hand to manipulate the ball. Thankfully for Man City fans, Haaland had the presence of mind to raise his arm so that the ball missed it as it crossed the line. Had he not, no doubt VAR would have ruled it a technical handball and disallowed the goal. One had to see it to believe it.
Technology, in the form of broadcasting, killed off the domestic game in Ireland as it was known from the late 1960s. I believe technology, this time in the form of VAR, could do the same to leagues that use it, as it removes so much enjoyment from watching the game. How apt it would be if technological change in England leads to the resurgence of the League of Ireland. We would have travelled full circle.
The domestic league has a chance to resist VAR and create a competitive advantage that other leagues have inexplicably given up. I hope Irish football remains a VAR-free zone.