The League of Ireland returned on Friday night and it was all a bit different but we were just glad it was back.
For fans of the league it is usually all about getting to see their team live, the camaraderie of being part of their club’s vocal support and the routine of rounding out the week going to games with friends and family.
Well there was a certain camaraderie on Friday as League of Ireland fans from across the country tuned in together to the WatchLOI stream, with the league returning effectively behind closed doors after the COVID-19 enforced break.
With the grounds limited to allowing in only 200 people – including the teams, officials, support staff, media etc - the LOI supporter on Friday became the much derided fan who just watches their team on TV – you could even have gone further and been a barstooler for the night if you headed to the pub to watch the game and spend €9 on a substantial meal over your allotted 105 minute time.
There did appear to be some teething problems with the WatchLOI stream for the 5.45pm kick off for the Derry City v Sligo Rovers game as the fake noise initially drowned out the commentary in the opening few minutes, along with some stream buffering.
However, by mid-way through the first half the technology seemed to settle down as did Sligo who put in an impressive performance in a 2-0 win to stop the rot of their four defeats so far this season.
Adrian Eames did a decent job as the sole commentator for this game and there were plenty of replays and close up shots – a far cry from the dreaded ‘trackchamp’ remote control single camera coverage fans have been able to view via betting sites in recent years.
The second game of the evening was another entertaining affair – this one between the Champions Dundalk and visitors St. Pat’s.
TV footage of League of Ireland matches from around the grounds can often not look great at the best of times and there is a fear that the empty stadiums will be a turn off for the more casual fan watching in.
However that wasn’t the case on Friday as the beautiful August Bank Holiday sunshine lit up both the Brandywell and Oriel Park. It was quite the contrast for fixtures that were originally to have been played in mid-March.
There is something not right about playing in front of no fans and there was added poignancy in Oriel Park with the match being played the day after the funeral of Harry Taaffe. His significant contribution to the club was noted in a corner of the stadium where he was groundsman with the banner that read ‘Legends live forever – RIP Harry.’
A flag in tribute to Harry Taaffe at Oriel Park. pic.twitter.com/8XQm7ofsvU— Michael P Ryan (@ryanmilestone) July 31, 2020
This match was also shown on RTÉ with George Hamilton and Pat Fenlon in the commentary booth in Oriel.
The COVID-19 related requirements around match day were clear to see on the TV.
Dundalk used the changing room in their pitch side training centre leaving Pat’s to the changing rooms below the main stand – a stand that had tape setting out where the limited attendees (including Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny) could sit. The substitutes – with five substitutions allowed in the game – also sat up in the stands.
Gone were the pre-match team handshakes and there were plenty of masks being worn by those not on the pitch. And prior to kick off, the teams ‘took the knee’ in support of Black Lives Matter.
In the game the Saints put in a decent performance pressing Dundalk throughout. The Lilywhites over the years have had a knack on the odd occasion when they aren’t on their game to get the win and when the exploited some poor Pat’s defending to take a 1-0 lead the expectation was they would likely push on.
However the team managed by former Dundalk stalwart Stephen O’Donnell quickly replied. It was another former Lilywhite in Robbie Benson who hit back and the match remained 1-1 at the finish.
There were plenty of winners on the first night back. Despite the initial teething problems the WatchLOI stream, commentary and replays worked well and the season long pass is excellent value at €55 for all the Premier Division games (bar the ones shown on eir).
Sligo got their season going with a win and it is fair to say that Shamrock Rovers felt like winners with Dundalk dropping two points.
Most importantly I think fans of the league felt like winners as football from our greatest league in the world returned to bring some sort of normalcy to our lives when ‘the whole world is in a terrible state o' chassis.’