Monday 22 October 2018

Familiar foes ready to renew rivalries as League of Ireland prepares for big kick off

Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley (L) and Bohemians manager Keith Long won’t have to wait long before renewing their rivalry. Photo: Sportsfile
Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley (L) and Bohemians manager Keith Long won’t have to wait long before renewing their rivalry. Photo: Sportsfile
Players battle the dreadful conditions during the President’s Cup match between Dundalk and Cork City at Oriel Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This is the time of the year that a community has been waiting for. The evenings lengthen as a winter of bare Friday nights officially ends.

In Six Nations land, it's a blank weekend. For the ardent League of Ireland follower, it's the first complete one since October.

The resumption of SSE Airtricity League business tends to bring the same questions year on year. An old video from the RTE archives did the rounds last week, and it focused on club's struggles to make ends meet and really capture the attention of a wider audience. That is the perennial battle.

Once again, the authorities are trying something different this term although, in reality, it's actually a plan they have tried before.

Last year's relegation battle royale reduced the Premier Division from 12 to 10 clubs. The First Division, which kicks off next weekend as part of a shorter campaign, has been bumped up from 8 to 10.

The argument in favour of a smaller top flight is that it will lift the base standard, and one favourable contrast from the last 10-team effort - the 2011 campaign - is the greater regional spread. Four out of the top five in 2010 were Dublin clubs, including the now defunct Sporting Fingal. That did enhance the feeling of repetition that comes with four rounds of fixtures.

Cork were building from the ashes at that point, Derry were on the way back too. Dundalk were a shadow of the club they are today. It's a healthier league now with those bases represented.

A rejuvenated Waterford join the party this term. Sligo Rovers have made some interesting additions as they bid to recover from a choppy couple of years. Limerick's progress has stalled and concerns now exist about their direction with owner Pat O'Sullivan making worrying noises, but the top flight is enhanced by Shannonside representation.

It's impossible to be enthusiastic about Bray's presence with future plans tied up in a property deal that will face political opposition and the feeling lingers that swapping the Seagulls with Galway - who were relegated on the final day in 2017 - would have presented the authorities with the ideal top ten. Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and St Patrick's Athletic fly the flag for Dublin.

Rovers are the only club that realistically looks capable of breaking the dominance of Cork and Dundalk, with yesterday's President's Cup protagonists filling the first two places for the past four seasons.

This era of bloated European prizemoney has dramatically increased the gap between the haves and havenots. Last week, Fran Gavin smiled when the possibility of redistributing a portion of those UEFA funds was raised. He's not wrong to conclude that top clubs just won't entertain it.

But with domestic prizemoney so poor, Europe is the lottery ticket. The FAI rewards for 2018 will be announced tomorrow and even a small increase would make little difference. Last year, third place was worth €35,000 to Shamrock Rovers, with €25,000 for fourth-placed Derry City and €21,000 for fifth-placed Bohemians.

However, Rovers are guaranteed an extra €215,000 for qualifying for Europe, and Derry were also assured of that prize when Cork and Dundalk's progress to the FAI Cup final meant the extra European place went down the league table.

The figures are extraordinary and help explain why Cork, Dundalk and Rovers are now operating full-time professional outfits. In truth, Bohemians and Bray are the only resolutely part-time operations with Limerick's status scaled back. Pre-season emphasised the disadvantage they face.

Dundalk and Rovers were able to travel to sunnier climes and play overseas opposition, while Cork spent last week in England where one of their fixtures was against a young Manchester City side.

The Leesiders are defending champions and double winners, although they still feel their efforts in 2017 weren't given due respect because of Sean Maguire's dominant role in the first half of the campaign.


Certainly, their period in the ascendancy is good news for the FAI because of attendances figures. The officials do not release the full figures, but the painstaking work of Gareth Penrose in is invaluable.

A total of 430,704 attended the 310 games across both divisions with 16.9pc of that made up by Turners Cross customers (72,942). The six highest attendances were all Cork games. In fact, 13 out of the top 20 were on Leeside with four hosted by Rovers, two by Dundalk, and a Bohs-Rovers derby at Dalymount completing that list.

While the average Premier Division crowd increased from 1,400 to 1,900, a major contributing factor was Cork's 4,500 figure. Another good year down south will be good for the optics.

They should be capable of it, even if the void left by Maguire has not quite been filled and Stephen Dooley is another loss from the front three that helped them win 21 out of their first 22 games. Kieran Sadlier is ready to step up while Barry McNamee and Graham Cummins can chip in too.

Dundalk's Stephen Kenny knows all about reinventing a team, although his lesson from another Cork defeat is that old reliables Brian Gartland, Sean Gannon and Stephen O'Donnell remain vital. Caulfield says it will not be a two horse race, but it's the percentage call.

The pack will need to keep their punters energised if it goes that way, at a time where clubs are seeking a greater say in the running of the league.

An exciting weekend beckons. The challenge, as ever, is to make the feeling last.

Irish Independent

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