Sunday 25 February 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Market forces illustrate potential of Limerick's plan for brighter future

Shamrock Rovers manager Pat Fenlon was impressed by the facilities at Markets Field in Limerick
Shamrock Rovers manager Pat Fenlon was impressed by the facilities at Markets Field in Limerick
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

His side had just succeeded in deflating the mood around Markets Field but, as Pat Fenlon reflected on his first working visit to Limerick's renovated home, he admitted there was a bittersweet aspect to the outcome.

"It would be a disaster if this club went out of the league," said the Shamrock Rovers boss with a nod to the hosts, after a 2-0 success on Friday night which means the Shannonsiders are two points from safety with one game remaining.

Clearly, Fenlon was impressed by the set-up in a ground that only opened for business in June, midway through a campaign where Limerick have come back from the dead in more ways than one.

"Some of the facilities for players in this league are disgraceful, really disgraceful, when it comes to dressing rooms and that sort of stuff," he explained.

"It's been the same since I started playing in 1987 in some of the grounds and that's not good enough. How some of them are allowed to be used for changing facilities in the top league of this country is wrong.

"And then you come here and it's top-notch. When you see that people here in Limerick have put money and effort into it - they've done a tremendous job - it shows it can happen.

"And then you see the potential there's there in the city, and the crowds they've been getting . . ."


The value of those attributes will not be enough to save them if they fail to beat Sligo in The Showgrounds next Friday. Even then, Martin Russell's charges will be reliant on Fenlon's Hoops avoiding defeat at home to Drogheda in Tallaght if they are to get off bottom spot and into a play-off.

Rovers should be able to live up to their part of the bargain, but it will be a big ask for Limerick to pick themselves up again after a pair of bruising defeats in their spiritual abode.

The buzz generated by the fight against the drop has vindicated the belief that there is an interest in League of Ireland football in the city if the overall product is good enough.

Crowds in their rented base at Jackman Park were in the low hundreds and early results took the gloss from their housewarming period at Markets Field - a well-located venue that has regained its football identity after a 31-year absence.

But a breathtaking run of six wins in nine matches, kicked off by a 3-2 triumph over Sligo and a 4-3 thriller against Bohs, stirred the natives to the extent that 2,600 spectators crammed in for the visit of Derry nine days ago. Unfortunately, they showed up for a match which turned out to be a snake rather than a major step up the ladder.

In the neverending debate about the steps that need to be taken to bring in crowds, the simple importance of entertaining football is often overlooked.

Limerick have provided value for money; they've scored 43 goals this term which is more than the six clubs ahead of them in the table.

The fact they've conceded 71 explains their plight. One person's bravery is another's naivety and it was that commitment to playing the ball out from the back that effectively led to both Rovers goals.

Still, morale levels remain high. Chairman Pat O'Sullivan took the microphone at half-time to give a rousing speech detailing his vision for the club which has benefited from his investment since 2009.

"What's happening here is something special," he said, to warm applause, as part of an address which promised an exciting appointment to lead a new academy and the announcement of a corporate structure off the park that will allow Russell to keep his best players.

There are people in Limerick with long memories who've heard tall talk before and will require further evidence of progress before buying into this vision.

Nevertheless, with the help of local funding and the JP McManus Foundation, O'Sullivan made good on his Markets Field promise, even if the process of making it happen ran in tandem with cost-cutting in terms of playing staff and an unsatisfactory pre-season. The cart-before-the-horse approach had a limited shelf-life.

"It's a small price to pay for long term sustainability," asserts the businessman, who earlier this year announced that he would have to reduce his personal contribution to the coffers because it was taking its toll.

That reality hasn't dimmed his ambition for a football club built around the community with a proper local feel.

The problem is that a drop to the First Division would dramatically halt the momentum.

Unsurprisingly, the 30th anniversary of the second tier's introduction passed by with little fanfare; life at that level offers little cause for celebration. Limerick fans should know having spent the best part of two decades in the wilderness and losing a generation of prospective followers.

"The club should never have been in the First Division for 20 years," saidRussell.

"And it can never be allowed to happen again. Our chairman's heart is in it and if he hadn't come on board, I don't know where the club would be."

As a newcomer to the area, Russell confesses that he was unsure what would happen when the club moved back into the old greyhound stadium.

"I'd never played there," he says, "but it's showed us what is possible. It has been a difficult season.

"We all want instant success but sometimes you've got to be a little patient and work towards it."

For the FAI, the relegation picture has provided food for thought. The recent Conroy Report recommended a reduction in the top flight from 12 to 10 and there's a strong football argument for that solution in the sense that it could drive up the Premier Division playing standard.

It needs a regional spread to be a viable national league, however, and the struggles of Sligo and Galway this term have illustrated that changing the structure on football merit has danger attached.

The alternative route is fraught with diplomatic eggshells and, either way, unpopular decisions will have to be made.

A decade ago, Limerick had no right to be a part of the bigger picture discussions.

The past few months have indicated that they can really be an asset. After getting their house in order, now is not the time to take a step back.

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