Saturday 18 November 2017

Dundalk and Cork City to battle it out for the title but panic looms at the bottom

Dundalk have a squad packed with attacking talent to target a league four-in-a-row. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Dundalk have a squad packed with attacking talent to target a league four-in-a-row. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Ten years after the FAI took over the running of the League of Ireland, another campaign begins with a debate over structures and direction.

Where will we be a decade from now? It's difficult to be confident that the league can escape a cycle comparable with a hamster aimlessly spinning around on a wheel.

There seems to be a sense of history repeating and, given that most of the power brokers from 2007 remain, it would take a leap of faith to declare a bright new dawn is imminent.

The winter has not been encouraging, with the contentious switch to a 10-team league - and the unconvincing explanation for how the decision was reached - breeding discontent.

We also had the laughable 'international brand report', which was a dispiriting, tragicomic exercise.

Even the positive initiatives pose their own questions: one must wonder why it's taken this long to hire someone with the sole responsibility for marketing the league. This treadmill really needs to move beyond walking pace.

Exciting

But the irony here, as Drogheda manager Pete Mahon alluded to last week, is that the upcoming Premier Division season could be the most exciting in some time.

Three teams will go down automatically and the shortage of obvious candidates means that up to half the division could enter the final weeks of the campaign fighting for their lives.

The First Division clubs out of the running for the one automatic promotion place could have nothing to play for by the summer, but every top-flight club should have a focus.

Meanwhile, the race for the title should deliver the latest instalment of a rivalry that should be at the centre of any marketing drive.

Earlier in the 21st century, the turbulence experienced by overspending league winners meant the crown would swiftly change hands while teams fell apart. It's a different era now, with Dundalk and Cork ready for round four of a duel that offered novelty value in 2014, but has quickly become the established order.

They were so far ahead of the others last year that it would be a surprise if an improving Derry or renovated Shamrock Rovers were capable of breaking into the top two.

European funds have strengthened their position, and Dundalk's jaw-dropping achievements offered a tantalising glimpse of what is possible if you hit on the right formula and keep a team together for a couple of seasons.

However, their mission to pick up a fourth title in a row has been complicated by the cruel reality of losing key men Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle for free to Preston. Ronan Finn's exit to Rovers was an unexpected blow.

Dundalk were second-best in Friday's President's Cup loss to Cork, with Stephen Kenny unhappy with his side's balance and discipline.

Cork have strengthened and, crucially, kept hold of Sean Maguire, so the case for them finally going one better this year is a strong one.

The major coup for Dundalk was holding on to Kenny and they have made it to the brink of equalling the Shamrock Rovers heroics of the '80s by displaying an ability to react to high-profile departures.

Richie Towell stepped up to fill the goalscoring void left by Pat Hoban departing; Horgan advanced to another level when Towell left. With each change, Kenny has slightly altered the approach to suit his main weapon.

He made it clear on Friday that he expects 2017 to be Patrick McEleney's year. He is keen to employ the Derryman in the No 10 role and feels the 23-year-old could have more natural ability than any player he has worked with. That's high praise considering the amount of internationals that have flourished under his tutelage.

"He could be the most talented of them all," he said. "All the strikers want him in that position because when he plays, they score goals.

"He's unique. There hasn't been a player like that for 15 years in the league, talent-wise," he continued, referencing a young Paddy McCourt as the benchmark. "In that central position he can be devastating."

It's Dundalk's ability to evolve that made them so successful in Europe and, while Cork have closed the gap and advertised their strength in a shorter-lived continental run, the Lilywhites might still just be a step ahead.

The way forward involves other teams aspiring to their level instead of the leading duo falling back into the pack. That why it's no bad thing if they end up duking it out again.

But, in their sphere, the price of failure contrasts dramatically with the penalty at the other end of the table.

Irish Independent

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