Friday 18 January 2019

There are plenty of redemption stories in the league that takes a licking but keeps on ticking

Cork City captain Conor McCormack lifts the trophy following his side's victory during the President's Cup match between Dundalk and Cork City. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cork City captain Conor McCormack lifts the trophy following his side's victory during the President's Cup match between Dundalk and Cork City. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The beginning of another League of Ireland season makes me think of Jack Twist's words in Brokeback Mountain, "I wish I could quit you." God knows I've tried, I've even made public declarations of apostasy. But, as Gram Parsons sang in 'Hickory Wind', "It makes me feel better each time it begins. Callin' me home." You can't change your nature I suppose.

So right now I am excited about and interested in all kinds of stuff that the majority of Irish people who regard themselves as football fans will have no meas on whatsoever. Like that fight for the title between Cork City and Dundalk which should provide one of the best sporting contests of the year, not least because an undoubted note of personal animus has crept in to the proceedings.

Dundalk's insistence after their FAI Cup final defeat by Cork that the best team had lost summed up how hard it was for them to accept that after three years of hot pursuit, John Caulfield's team had finally caught and passed Stephen Kenny's. This season they'll probably divide the main honours between them, the destination of the title depending on the relative performances of two strikers bidding to recapture past glories.

Pat Hoban was the League's best striker and joint top scorer when he left Dundalk for Oxford United four years ago. It didn't work out for him there, nor at Mansfield Town, so he's returned to Oriel Park. Cork will welcome back Graham Cummins who scored goals by the new time for them in the First Division before signing for Preston in 2012. His time away has been far from discreditable and included three seasons in the Scottish Premier with St Johnstone, but now he too is back.

You'd imagine their experiences abroad would have made both better strikers and they should be among the goals, as should Hoban's fellow westerner and striking partner, the electrifying Ronan Murray, signed by Kenny from relegated Galway United. Cummins' main support should come from Karl Sheppard and midfielder Kieran Sadlier who shone in the 4-2 President's Cup win last week which hinted Cork might be maintaining their edge from last season. There won't be much between them.

Logically it should be a fifth successive season of big two dominance, yet there are some interesting new arrivals elsewhere with the potential to propel teams to surprising heights. There is, however, the eternal caveat that when you see a player with an impressive pedigree enter the League you're inclined to say, "I wonder what's gone wrong for them," rather than, "Great to see us attracting a higher standard of footballer." It's a bit like the feeling you get when seeing some old Hollywood legend turning up in a '70s European horror movie. Memories of the stints put in by the likes of Kerrea Gilbert and Mark Kelly dent your optimism.

Still, it's hard not to feel intrigued by the arrival of someone like Adam Morgan, a one-time whizz kid striker who played in the Europa League for Liverpool when barely 18 but has slid precipitously down the pyramid and comes to Sligo Rovers having spent two years in non-league football. Should Morgan fulfil his potential he'd obviously make a huge impact - but will he?

Then there's Stanley Aborah, a first team debutant for Ajax at the age of 17, who 14 years later finds himself at Waterford United where he'll team up in midfield with Faysel Kasmi, who's played more than 50 games in the Belgian top flight and is only 22. Dundalk have a Hungarian striker, Kristian Adorjan, who four years ago was at Liverpool and scoring goals in the Eredivisie while on loan to Groningen. Five years ago, John Cofie was at Manchester United. Since leaving Old Trafford the striker has been at nine different clubs and scored five goals. Will Derry City be the place where he turns it around?

There are Irishmen seeking redemption too. Five years ago Joey O'Brien was a regular for a West Ham side that finished in the top half of the Premier League. Once, O'Brien seemed a safe bet for a long international career but injuries stymied him and now, after a year and a half out of football but still just 31, he finds himself with Shamrock Rovers. He, and the other exotic new arrivals, may not quite be drinking in the last chance saloon, but the saloons certainly aren't growing any more salubrious with the passage of time.

Redemption stories seem peculiarly fitting to the League of Ireland, a league which takes a licking yet keeps on ticking. This weekend the love story begins again. This thing gets hold of you at the wrong time and the wrong place and you just can't resist.

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