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27th Mar 2019

Richie Sadlier and Damien Duff represent two completely different types of Irish football fan, only one of them is right

Rudi Kinsella

Damien Duff Richie Sadlier

One day the Irish national team will win a game, and we’ll wake up the following morning, discuss the match, and that will be that. But for now, things more important than the football being played need to be addressed.

In a night that saw the Republic of Ireland win 1-0 in a difficult game against Georgia, while playing far better football to that we have grown used to, the main talking point is not Conor Hourihane’s gorgeous free-kick in the 33rd minute, not Darren Randolph’s amazing point blank save, and not David McGoldrick’s man of the match performance.

Instead, the entire country was captivated by tennis balls thrown on to the pitch in protest by the Irish fans.

Ronnie Whelan in commentary seemed to think that they were protesting the football on the pitch, which they obviously weren’t, while the players on the pitch seemed completely unphased by the whole thing.

But whether it was out of sheer stupidity, or blissful ignorance, both commentators on RTÉ on Tuesday night went out of their way to condemn those protesting.

This has been a great half of football. What’s the problem? George Hamilton said “What happens in boardrooms is not what happens on the green bays of a football pitch.” Ronnie Whelan went as far as to call it “ridiculous”.

Nobody (outside of the RTÉ studio) on earth thought this was a protest about the actual football that was being played on the pitch.

It was about the FAI, and if Ronnie Whelan claims he was unaware of this, then he shouldn’t be commentating on a match to an audience of hundreds of thousands.

Most importantly, the players didn’t seem to mind. They helped the stewards sweep the balls off the pitch, Seamus Coleman waved his arms in an attempt to get the crowd pumped it again, it worked, the crowed roared, and within a matter of seconds, we had scored the only goal of the game.

Manager Mick McCarthy laughed about it at the time, and said afterwards that he was trying to head the tennis balls back into the crowd so that he could win a bet.

But the highlight of the game came during an entertaining half-time segment during RTÉ’s coverage,where Damien Duff and Richie Sadlier debated the two sides of the protest.

Sadlier praised the fans for doing what they felt they had to, while Duff represented the opposite side. He called it “ridiculous”, and said that the football pitch is not the place to be doing such a thing.

“Do it somewhere else”, Duff said about the protest. Where exactly did he mean? The boardroom? Is he suggesting a gang of football fans pelt the FAI HQ with tennis balls? How exactly would that go down?

As Richie Sadlier pointed out in the post-match analysis, certain types of banners have been taken from fans for years. Fans have been silenced for so long, and what happened on Tuesday night was a culmination of years of frustration. Justified frustration. The fans are not to blame for this, we all know who is.

In the most recent episode of JOE’s Football Spin, Dion Fanning spoke about how fans were well within their rights to protest during the match, saying: “I think that not only was it understandable that Irish fans protested yesterday. I think it was essential.”

“When we’re dealing with a story… starting with The Sunday Times having to successfully overturn an attempt to get an injuction on a Saturday night to prevent their story being published. When you are dealing with all those factors, a public protest is essential. When you are calling for transparency and answers, it is essential that the Irish football public make their feelings known.

“This is why it’s such a good day for Irish football.”

It’s important to remember that the main critic of this behaviour was Damien Duff – a pundit who tends to remain fairly calm while working in the RTÉ studio. But the one time he does get somewhat animated is when he’s having a go at Irish fans for being fed up with the FAI? Not good enough, even for an Irish football legend.

To an extent it’s understandable that a former player would have an issue with fans pelting items on to a field of play during a game. There could be health and safety concerns, among other things. But at this stage, everyone should have the cop on to understand that the purpose of the protest is to try and improve Irish football in the long run.

Perhaps it makes sense that Duff doesn’t understand the frustrations that the Irish fans have felt for so long. Being one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers, you’d imagine that he didn’t have many bad experiences with the FAI.

Sure, he would have lost a lot of games, but he represents the last of a golden era. A time when Irish football was filled with fond memories. He was treated well during his time in the squad, you’d imagine.

Have we produced a world class player since Duff? Nope. It’s almost hard to believe that we wouldn’t have stumbled across one by chance, never mind when we have paid professionals who’s job it is to actively look for the next Keane or Duff.

And while Duff voices his displeasure with the Irish fans, Sadlier represents a large section of the Irish supporters who have watched our country’s football team struggle, while our neighbours have excelled. He, like us, has seen Wales and England produce better far better players and far better football than we have in the past 10 years.

He’s seen an embarrassing youth set up in a country where hundreds of thousands play the sport, yet a tiny percent go anywhere with it, and the ones that do aren’t spotted until it’s too late. He’s seen a depleted league, dead on its feet for years now, and seen the people who have sat and watched as it got worse and worse get paid more and more.

And like the Irish fans last night, he’s clearly had enough.