Subscriber OnlySoccer

Breaking a 78-year record: Today’s FAI Cup final attendance will showcase the growing popularity of League of Ireland clubs

The crowd of 41,238 that attended the 1945 final will be surpassed when Bohemians play St Patrick’s Athletic on Sunday

The 1945 FAI Cup final was held in April, just three weeks before the end of the second World War in Europe.

In neutral Ireland petrol was still rationed and the trains ran sporadically, but that did not matter much to the supporters of the teams contesting the final in Dalymount Park. For Bohemians fans, it was a home game while Shamrock Rovers were only over the Liffey in Ringsend then.

A crowd of 41,238 attended, a record which has stood for 78 years. A few commentators at the time noted the dangers of overcrowding and warned that Dalymount Park, then the home of Irish football, would need to be refurbished once the war ended as bigger crowds could be expected.

Instead, the advent of television and the shiny bauble of the English leagues proved to be a near extinction event for Irish clubs from the 1960s onwards as crowds and interest dwindled.


That record attendance should finally be broken when Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic contest this year’s decider at the Aviva Stadium. The two teams met in the 2021 FAI Cup final, which attracted a crowd of 37,126 – the largest in the television era and the biggest since the final was moved to the Aviva in 2010.

In the two seasons since that final, the support of both clubs has shown unprecedented growth. Bohs’ attendances are up by a third this season on last season despite only finishing sixth, St Pat’s are up by 20 per cent and the club has tripled its season ticket sales. Both have doubled their pre-pandemic attendances, as have many other League of Ireland clubs.

They have almost identical average attendances – 4,243 for Bohs and 4,232, for St Pat’s – despite having ramshackle stadiums that are long past needing refurbishment. Bohs have a €40 million plan, funded by Dublin City Council and the Government, to completely redevelop Dalymount Park.

St Pat’s are planning to redevelop Richmond Park having had plans to build a new stadium in Inchicore knocked back by the council.

The increased interest in the League of Ireland, once notoriously described by the FAI chief John Delaney as the “difficult child” of Irish football, has been attributed to many factors. A post-Covid bounce has been one, though that has faded, but the impact has lingered.

Disillusionment with the soullessness of football at the highest level, as exemplified by the now thwarted deal by Europe’s biggest clubs to have a breakaway Super League, is another, but mostly it has been driven by the clubs themselves.

League of Ireland clubs have appointed full-time community officers in recent years. Previously, clubs were hardly seen outside match days; now they have integrated themselves into the community and the response has been immediate.

Bohs chief executive Daniel Lambert said “the idea of following a team in Ireland” appeals to a lot more people than it did five years ago.

“There is huge demand beyond the sell-out we have had,” he said. “We do a phenomenal amount of community work. We have four full-time staff working on the Bohs’ climate team and Pat’s do a lot of community work. That rubs off.”

Bohs has established itself as a club with a political edge, supporting causes such as refugees, Palestine, gay rights, climate change and prisoner welfare. It has seven funded social programmes and its activism has been good for the club’s profile and also for business. They have a merchandising arm which is the envy of other League of Ireland clubs.

Lambert stresses the importance of Irish clubs standing for something and having a sense of belonging. Otherwise, attendances will depend on results which vary from season to season. In Bohs case, they have not won a trophy for 13 years.

The club has 2,500 members, who will pay €400 a year for a package including a season ticket, and a waiting list of a further 2,000, according to membership secretary Dave Rothwell.

“There’s massive demand if we get the new stadium up and running. People are buying into the values as opposed to results,” he says.

Rothwell says platforms such as TikTok and YouTube have been another driver of interest, with young people in particular posting reactions after matches.

On the southside of the city, St Patrick’s Athletic has a waiting list for season ticket renewals having sold almost 2,000 last year. Before the pandemic, it was typically selling about 600 annually.

The club’s sales and operating manager, Karl Stafford, believes many people who came to the cup final two years ago and witnessed a domestic game for the first time were so impressed by the spectacle that they started to attend matches more regularly.

The club has renewed its supporter base by reaching out to local schools. Most League of Ireland clubs now have underage teams from under-13 to under-19 level, which provide another potential fan base.

“There are classes singing Pat’s songs. That’s good for them and a good social outlet too,” says St Pat’s community officer Niall Cully.

The club’s historian Dermot Looney, a lifelong fan, says the club has reaped where it has sown by reaching into the communities around Inchicore in a way it had not previously.

“Everybody points to people coming back after Covid and rightly so, but it’s only a part of it,” he says. “The clubs have committed to their communities. Pat’s during Covid ran food banks out of Richmond Park. Pat’s have also made an effort with local boys and girls clubs.

“There is something less formal too. There is a huge group of teenagers going to games and a huge re-engagement with fans who used to go and are now going more often. The club has big plans for Richmond Park. They can’t wait for that to get done.”

St Pat’s won the 2021 final on penalties after a 1-1 draw, but domestic football was the big winner. It is likely to be so again on Sunday.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times