European money likely to widen the gap in another spell of Dundalk dominance
If Dundalk avoid defeat in Cork tonight, the League of Ireland title race is over. Even if they lose, Stephen Kenny's side will still be long odds-on to claim a fourth league in five seasons and this could turn out to be the most significant of the lot.
After three years as runners-up, Cork's double win last term was cast as the changing of the guard.
History might record it as a blip in an era of Dundalk domination. And the worry for the chasing pack is that it might only be getting started.
These are changing times in Irish football. The 2000s were a tale of boom and bust; the league trophy was shared around as teams overspent to reach the summit and then collapsed just as quickly. Cork City (2005), Shelbourne (2006), Drogheda (2007) and Bohemians (2008 & '09) all came crashing to earth.
Europe was the dream, but the rewards available for modest progress were minute compared to their expenses and, most notably, their huge wage bills.
The climate has changed in recent years and Dundalk and Cork came to the fore at just the right time. Kenny and John Caulfield started off in their current positions with medium-sized budgets, and it was the quality of their work that created the 2014 title race.
Regular European qualification has allowed them to consolidate their position and pull further clear of the pack.
UEFA politics is having a major impact on the smaller leagues around Europe, and it's not necessarily a healthy one.
With the influence of the super clubs forcing UEFA to reserve more places in the Champions League for qualifiers from the elite leagues, the governing body have steadily increased the prizemoney available for the early qualifying rounds as a sop to the smaller nations.
The big jump came in 2015 with a minimum of €550,000 available for any club participating in the Champions League. For the Europa League, the corresponding figure rose to €200,000. Considering the League of Ireland winners collect €100,000 for their troubles, it's quite a disparity.
Now, it's risen to a minimum of €800,000 for Champions League participation, with €240,000 for Europa League qualifiers.
Dundalk's €6.5m run in 2016 was extraordinary, and it has skewed the table somewhat, but a four-year study of the money accrued by our clubs since UEFA bloated the pay structure tells a tale.
Dundalk have collected more than €8m. Cork have scooped more than €2m. Shamrock Rovers - who have consistently made the Europa League without setting the world alight - have just crossed the €1m mark.
It's income that non-qualifiers can only dream about; it has created inequality.
Of course, it's not all profit as there are costs, with travel the main expense - and in the 2000s the bills ate into the prizemoney but the margins are more favourable now.
For example, Cork's European costs in 2016 and 2017 were €166,000 (three trips, including Belfast) and €162,000 (two trips) respectively - which did take a chunk out of the €630,000 and €440,000 they earned. But clubs do look to the gates from the home matches as a bonus that can offset the overseas bills.
The problem for Cork is that it's understood they increased their budget this year with the knowledge that their minimum UEFA income would jump to €800,000.
They now look destined to revert to runners-up again, which means they may have to cut their cloth accordingly to cope with the €560,000 drop. The fan-owned club will be prudent as they know the consequences of rash gambles.
Dundalk's situation is different. They have new American owners who have yet to really dip into their pockets as the takeover only went through before the start of this season.
Half of their 2016 jackpot was eaten up by bonuses and other costs but it still left a healthy profit of more than €3m and a delayed dividend helped the 2017 books too.
Losing the league to Cork was a blow, but Kenny did not have to make cutbacks as a consequence.
Winning the title back will mean they can plan ahead with Champions League cash as security.
Yet the reality is that they could afford to finish runners-up again and press ahead with a similar budget, whereas Cork do not have that luxury.
The Leesiders desperately needed to retain the title this year to keep pace with Dundalk, and they look to have failed in that mission.
Rovers have made money from player sales and Waterford are trying to push into the European equation, but they are playing catch-up.
Dundalk are in a position of strength and have new investors that haven't even shown their hand yet. That is expected to change this winter.
It's believed that Dundalk's European defeat to Cypriot side Larnaca in the summer has increased their enthusiasm to improve things.
As the biggest fish in a small pond, propped up by UEFA cash, they are going to be hard to peg back.
European money won by LOI clubs 2015-18
2015: Dundalk €550,000, Shamrock Rovers €410,000, UCD €410,000, Cork City €200,000, St Pat's €200,000
2016: Dundalk €6.5m, Cork City €630,000, St Pat's €410,000, Shamrock Rovers €200,000
2017: Dundalk €550,000, Cork City €440,000, Shamrock Rovers €440,000, Derry City €215,000
2018: Cork City €800,000, Dundalk €500,000, Shamrock Rovers €240,000, Derry City €240,000
Totals: Dundalk €8.1m; Cork City €2.07m; Shamrock Rovers €1.29m; St Patrick's Athletic €610,000; Derry City €455,000; UCD €410,000