Story of new season will shape the script for the next chapter
Published 01/03/2016 | 02:30
In the League of Ireland, there is always a crossroads approaching.
The countdown to the new season which kicks off this Friday has illustrated that point. Last week, Airtricity League chief Fran Gavin said that clubs should know by the end of this year what the plan will be for 2017. That will be the product of talks between the FAI and representatives of the country's top sides about the terms of their relationship and the structure of the game.
It always feels like we've been here before.
There is a large school of thought which argues that debates about the way forward should go deeper than arguing the merits of a 10-team, 12-team or 16-team Premier Division. It matters little to the section of the public that needs to be impressed into caring.
Still, what's clear is that the manner in which the 2016 race pans out should provoke questions about what is best for the next phase of the journey. The packaging of the product must reflect the reality of the nationwide situation
This year, the big story is likely to be Dundalk's attempt to become just the fourth side to win three leagues in a row. Cork United (1941-43), Waterford (1968-70) and Shamrock Rovers (1984-86) pulled off the hat-trick, with the last named going one better by completing the famous four in a row.
Stephen Kenny's side won plenty of admirers in their charge to the double last term, although the jury remains out on where they stand relative to the other back-to-back winners this century - Pat Fenlon's Shelbourne and Bohemians sides and Michael O'Neill's Shamrock Rovers crop that made the Europa League group phase.
If the Lilywhites can hold off Cork, Fenlon's Rovers and a much-changed St Patrick's Athletic to claim the crown again then their legacy will be strengthened. It will be fascinating to watch it play out.
The league cannot always be judged by its strongest team, however, and analysing the health of the domestic game should take into consideration the picture further down the ladder.
At some stage this year, the line will be trotted out that the League of Ireland is one of the most competitive in Europe because so many clubs have lifted the title in recent memory - the last 11 seasons have provided league joy to eight different sides.
Of course, the asterisk here is that financial instability has contributed to the changing of the guard. That contingent includes current First Division members Shelbourne and Drogheda, while Cork City had to reboot and start again before making a comeback.
There are signs, however, that the top dogs of today have a chance of staying the course once they continue to pick up the substantial prizemoney on offer from UEFA for European qualification, although ongoing strife surrounding Dundalk's Oriel Park home casts a shadow over their ability to plan long term.
But the crash of the mid-2000s was driven by irrational spending with the notional aim of making it back from European exploits. The current rewards mean that making it through a qualifying round in Europe can have a massive impact on the coffers, whereas the old spending levels relied on further progression.
This summer, Dundalk, Cork, Shamrock Rovers and St Pat's will fly the flag on foreign soil again having filled the top four positions in the league for a second successive year.
The gap between fourth (Shamrock Rovers) and fifth (Sligo Rovers) in 2014 was a whopping 19 points. An extraordinary attempt from fifth-placed Bohemians in 2015 left them just five points off fourth-placed St Pat's but it was a further 14 points back to sixth-placed Longford Town.
In short, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots appears to be widening. And, while consistent performances from the leading quartet are obviously preferable to a dramatic collapse and an enforced changing of the guard, there is a danger of the peloton overstretching in an attempt to get closer.
If the final 2016 league table resembles 2015 and 2014 it will ask tough questions of the teams knocking around in mid-table that face a challenge to get punters through the gate when their season lacks suspense.
Granted, a relegation fight that at one stage involved every finisher below Bohemians did add drama to last season. Galway United manager Tommy Dunne admitted that it was exciting for outside observers, even if that word wouldn't quite describe the mood in the respective dressing-rooms.
The Tribesmen are an interesting case study as they look to consolidate their position as a Premier Division entity. A 'boring' year of mid-table security would help that cause, but that existence has a shelf-life too.
"Now the question for us is if we could make things more exciting by getting up the other end of the table," says Dunne.
The likelihood is that it will come at a cost - Bray's winter shopping would suggest they are having a crack at it -and the plan to change the distribution of prize funds with a view to boosting sides in the lower half of the table in an attempt to level the playing field. Alas, the sums involved are not going to be game-changing.
In an ideal scenario, all the regional powers would be competitive but the loss of a revitalised Limerick - favourites to bounce back at the first try - demonstrated that a 12-team top flight can still be unforgiving. Changing to a 16-team version would ensure the representation of all bases, and yet that could dilute quality and hold back the leading lights that require high-intensity fixtures on a regular basis if they are to progress.
The independently commissioned Conroy Report floated two leagues of 10 with a mid-season split and the expansion of the promotion/relegation play-offs which could lead to three sides exiting the Premier Division if results went against them. It also proposed that the final Europa League qualifier was determined by an end-of-season play-off process that would give hope to sides outside the top four.
Whatever about the merit of those proposals - it's doubtful that the relegation angle will be embraced - it identified the problem of seasons petering away for the clubs after the summer unless they can upset the odds in the cup.
For the decision-makers, it presents a dilemma.
This year's title race has the potential to be a thriller, but it's the stamina of the stragglers that could present tougher queries about the future direction.