COVID-19 restrictions have seen crowd numbers drastically reduced in the League of Ireland. Nathan Davies analyses the results of the 2020 campaign to see just how much of an impact fans have on Irish football.
On the 7th of March 2020, Sligo Rovers kicked off against Shamrock Rovers in front of a crowd of 2,342 supporters – it turned out to be the last match played in the league for almost five months.
Following government recommendation, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) suspended all football matches nationwide just five days after that Sligo game. When the league finally returned on the 31st of July, the landscape of Irish football had changed dramatically. Stadiums were empty. The roars of support were gone, and with them went much of the spirit of the game for many fans.
Under the government’s “Living with Covid” plan, an outdoor event could be watched by a limit of 200 people. In practice, most of the 200-person allowance was taken up by players, staff and matchday officials. This left only a few dozen fans able to attend. This was a far cry from the thousands that attended stadiums around the country before March.
Fans are considered integral to football. Often referred to as “the 12th man”, they bring an atmosphere to the game that pushes their team to do better. Figures from the League of Ireland seem to support this; a team playing in front of their own fans is likely to win 45% of the time, draw 24% of the time and lose just 31% of games.
With the number of fans attending matches now limited or gone entirely, we looked at the League of Ireland results post-lockdown and compared them to previous seasons to see exactly how empty stadiums are affecting matches.
The results may come as a surprise.
Since the return of football in Ireland in July, the win percentage of home teams sits at 44% – just a 1% difference from the previous season, and the same percentage as both 2017 and 2018. This would suggest that the lack of fans has had little impact on the likelihood of a home victory.
A similar metric of Points Per Game (PPG) reveals the same result:
The above graph shows that there has been little change in the success rate of the home team in the past 5 seasons, despite the lack of fans since the restart in 2020.
When factoring in wins and draws, the success of home teams this season is identical to last season. With home advantage remaining despite no crowds, questions are raised about what causes it. Many stars in the game have placed the blame on the effects of travelling long distances for the away team. However, in a country as small as Ireland, this might not be quite as relevant.
Research published in the England-based Journal of Sports Sciences suggests that the phenomenon of home advantage in football may be down to the home team feeling more comfortable in the familiarity of their own stadium.
While home advantage may not be impacted, one aspect of the game has been affected by the lack of crowds: goals.
Results since the restart have seen some of the lowest number of goals per game in League of Ireland history.
The average goals per game scored after the restart have been lower than the few matches that were played before March. The goals-to-game ratio this season has been one of the lowest seen in the League of Ireland since its formation in 1985.
The season has been marred by a surprisingly high number of scoreless draws and few high scoring results. While the results do not appear to be affected by the lack of crowds, it does seem that the number of goals scored along the way has diminished.