I have developed a long-standing ritual on Friday afternoons. At 2:45 pm, I open a browser on my computer at work (don't tell the boss!) and go to the Extratime.ie updates for the League of Ireland. While I'm interested in what's going on right across the league, there's one team in particular I'm looking for. And even as I keep one eye on the corner of my screen as I finish up at work for the week, my mind drifts back to another time in my life.
After living in Canada for 15 years there's just one thing outside of family and friends that I still miss about home. That's Friday night football down at the Carlisle Grounds watching Bray Wanderers. How can you possibly miss standing in a chilly shed shivering with a few hundred people watching a game of dubious quality in the bucketing rain and wind blowing in off the Irish Sea, you might ask?
But in today's hyper connected world, where we can all watch the English Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga live anywhere on a device of choice, following your local club, even if it is in the soggiest and bone chilling of surroundings is an increasingly precious experience.
There is something almost primal about sharing your love of your club with a tightly knit community of fellow supporters. Little in life matches it for creating a true sense of belonging, of a shared connection to something. Naturally absence makes the heart grow fonder. Looking back, those floodlit Friday evenings of yore seem like halcyon days.
My trips home are usually limited to the Christmas holidays, but a brief unscheduled trip back home last year afforded me the chance to attend a match for the first time since I left. This was a bottom of the table clash, and Bray were in abysmal form. A long season of fighting a desperate campaign to survive in the Premier Division loomed. How on earth would a game against Sligo Rovers at the Carlisle measure up to the modest but vastly more glamourous Major League Soccer fare that I have grown accustomed to in Toronto in the intervening years?
In the event the game confirmed what I'd started to suspect from years of watching highlights of the league on YouTube: Players are more technically adept now; the tempo of play is faster and overall it's more entertaining than before. There are several players throughout the Premier Division who would not look out of place at in in the MLS. The memories of those games in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I held on to for so long quickly faded.
Don't just take my word for it. In the last 10 years we have seen Irish clubs make the group stages of the Europa League twice, Shamrock Rovers in 2011 and Dundalk in 2016. Those weren't isolated successes. From my North American vantage point I have followed several clubs go on runs in the qualifying rounds. Back in 2009 St. Patrick's Athletic came from 3-0 down in the second leg of their Europa League tie against Russia's Krylya Sovetov to sensationally knock the Russians out, on Russian soil.
The following year Shamrock Rovers beat Bnei Yehuda in the stifling heat of Tel Aviv to book a clash with Juventus. La Vecchia Signora failed to overwhelm the Hoops in either leg of that tie. Rovers came out of the experience with their pride very much intact. The experience surely counted the following year and gave the side from Tallaght the confidence to pull off a near-miraculous away victory against Partizan Belgrade, which put them into the Europa League group stages.
Contrast that with the late 70s and 80's, when Irish clubs went almost 10 straight years without scoring a goal in European competitions between them.
Not for nothing have several players been called up to the national team squad over the last couple of years. Something that was almost unheard of in the past is starting to become a more regular - or at least occasional – occurrence.
What makes these recent successes truly remarkable is that they have occurred since the free-spending days of the Celtic Tiger. A number of clubs had moved to a full-time professional set up and domestic success followed quickly. Some of the clubs went on runs in Europe, most notably Shelbourne in 2004, but that was fueled by unsustainable spending on players and we all know how that ended.
Today, the professional approach is again in evidence at clubs around the league, but it's backed for the most part by sounder finances. More focus is placed on coaching and developing young players. Spectator facilities are far better in many places. Tallaght Stadium has led the way in this regard, while gradual improvements can be seen in other grounds.
Progress is slow, and while attendances are increasing generally, they are still probably lower than they might be. Potential patrons have numerous calls on their time and attention. Clubs need to work ferociously hard to market their product and get people through the turnstiles.
In Canada, teams at every level in every sport market themselves relentlessly, even when they are top of their division or conference and are easily filling their arenas. There is no room for complacency and considerable time and resources are devoted to these activities. I think there is an important lesson in that for clubs back home.
Time – and distance – can help with developing an objective picture of how our league has progressed. From my vantage point I can see that even despite several setbacks, the long-term trend is one of gradual progress. But the world is changing, and standards are advancing elsewhere too. It will take a lot of work just to keep pace.
The shed at the Carlisle is now gone, though based on the evidence of my last visit the place is as cold and blustery as ever. Bray are now back in the First Division where they spent much of the 1990s, though the quality of football has improved since then. The place seems to be populated with the same few hundred people shivering in the coastal winds. Some things will never change. And I'll never stop missing it.