Limerick set standard for First Division contenders
Published 04/03/2016 | 02:30
As far as the bookmakers are concerned, the race for automatic promotion from this year's First Division will be a case of Limerick first and the rest nowhere.
It brings a different kind of pressure for Martin Russell's side after their remarkable battle with relegation from the top flight last year with the euphoria of securing a play-off from a position where they looked to be doomed followed by the deflation of a shock loss to Finn Harps that sent them down.
That was a cruel blow as the move to Markets Field had injected life back to the club and brought in the region of 5,000 fans to the first leg of that Harps decider. Owner Pat O'Sullivan has continued to back Russell and the reason they are clear favourites to go back up is that they are working off a bigger budget than teams with expectations of finishing in the top half of the Premier Division.
Attackers Vinny Faherty, Dean Clarke and Ian Turner did opt to depart but, crucially, the Shannonsiders managed to keep hold of influential midfield pairing Shane Duggan and Paul O'Conor. The real statement of intent was signing Aaron Greene from St Patrick's Athletic. Veteran poacher John O'Flynn is also on board after his association with Cork ended.
They should have the quality to get the job done but their closest pursuers could turn out to be the UCD side which travels south tomorrow evening. Harps also broke their hearts last term and after a lively year that included the high of Europa League progression, Collie O'Neill sought to add more experience.
The headline addition was Jason Byrne, who was honest enough to admit that he accepted the drop down with a view to launching one last push at overtaking Brendan Bradley's all-time League of Ireland goalscoring record of 235 goals. Byrne's career haul stands at 217.
Kieran Marty Waters will support Byrne after his release from Shamrock Rovers. He should thrive in this grade.
The increased demands of Premier Division football means that some good quality performers are viewing the First Division as a viable option if a suitable deal can be agreed. Athlone will be boosted by the presence of ex-Bray playmaker David Cassidy.
Shelbourne and Drogheda will expect to push for the play-offs and Roddy Collins thinks Waterford can improve on last term and their meeting with Drogheda tonight will inform.
Cabinteely are finding their feet in this company, while Cobh Ramblers could be a bit of a surprise package. Rob Lehane, who showed a lot of potential as a squad player at Cork City, should cause defenders a lot of problems.