Thursday 27 July 2017

'Limerick can be the new Dundalk' - Martin Russell sets the bar high

Limerick FC manager Martin Russell. Photo: Sportsfile
Limerick FC manager Martin Russell. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As seasons go, there have been few as bizarre as Limerick's Premier Division campaign last year but fast forward six months since their agonising relegation and there is a real sense that lessons have been learned both on and off the pitch.

Limerick went a staggering 21 games without a win last season before a late rally fell just short in the play-off against Finn Harps.

Ten wins from their 10 league games played thus far tells its own story, while an impressive 43 goals scored goes a long way to illustrating the exciting brand of football that is being played under Martin Russell.

Last year's dramatic defeat in Ballybofey condemned Limerick to life in the First Division and after they had just returned to their spiritual Markets Field home, it was seen as a major blow not only to the club but also to the city as a whole.

While it was certainly an improvement on Jackman Park, Limerick never really settled at their temporary base at Thomond Park but a quick look at the attendances this season will tell you that the hunger for football has returned to the people of the Treaty City.

Naturally, the club's relegation saw them lose key players like Vinny Faherty, Ian Turner and Dean Clarke but by and large they have managed to maintain the majority of their squad, which is a testament to the vision that Russell and chairman Pat O'Sullivan have for the club.

Tony Ward, a regular face in this newspaper, was recently named as Limerick's honorary president as O'Sullivan continues to develop the club that he has worked tirelessly for since taking over in 2009.

There have been plenty of ups-and-downs in those seven years since and although no one in the club wants to be playing in the First Division, there is an underlying feeling that it may well benefit Limerick in the long run.

"There's no real secret," Russell modestly suggests of his side's 13-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

"Looking at the disappointment last season and the same applies to all clubs, it doesn't stop, it's an ongoing process. You have to keep building your club to the best standard you can.

Dundalk's Dane Massey celebrates with the trophy after the game
Dundalk's Dane Massey celebrates with the trophy after the game

"Our aim was to maximise what we had and get back up. Then when we come back up the Premier Division, be ready to do even better again.

"That was the plan and that is still the plan. As a manager, you always look to be well-resourced and I can't complain this year.

"I probably had a little bit of it last year when maybe we weren't strong enough from the outset but this year I'm happy with the player pool I have."

The 5,000-capacity stadium at the redeveloped Markets Field has handed Limerick back their identity and barring an almost unthinkable collapse, they will be back amongst the country's best teams next season.

For a player like Shane Tracy who grew up watching Limerick on the terraces, these are exciting times and, as he explains, the fact that this is the first full season since their return 'home', the excitement in the city is driving the success on the pitch.

"I remember playing up in Jackman Park, we wouldn't have had Limerick football without it and people shouldn't really forget that," Tracy insists.

"I remember lads around Limerick saying, 'Oh look if ye get back to the Markets Field, we'll come support you'. And I'd be saying, 'Why is that? Why don't you come support us anyway?'

"It was the same out in Thomond Park. People were saying it was too far out. I used to laugh it off thinking, 'What difference will a stadium make' but I was proven wrong.

"The support since we've come back here and started winning a couple of games has been tremendous.

"Confidence comes with winning games and obviously we're doing plenty of that at the moment. But the thing Martin always says to us is, just approach your football in the right way. If we get it right, we've shown we can hurt teams."

Russell has spent enough time in the league both as a player and as a manager to know that this is only the beginning of a long road for Limerick but it's a road that he firmly believes can lead to bigger and better things.

"You can see it in the crowds that are turning up, there's a positivity about the place. The club is heading in the right direction," Russell maintains.

"The difference in the top level as well in getting European football and the injection funds that makes is huge. Limerick haven't been there for a long time.

"To get to that level is going to take a lot of work but once it gets there, then I think the club has as much potential as anyone.

"Compare it to what Dundalk have done. Why can't Limerick do the same?

"All these places that have a big catchment area like Limerick have business people that they maybe could tap into but it's important that when these people are tapped into, they bring as much as they can.

"We always said it, there's business to be done on the field but you have to have it off the field as well. The players believe in the growth of the club and that things can happen here. They want to make it happen and that's been showing in the performances.

"Going forward, there's no reason why Limerick can't be a real force in the country."

The foundations have been laid. It's now up to the club to ensure that they fulfil their lofty ambitions.

Irish Independent

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