Sunday 25 February 2018

Henderson welcomes League's new format

Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson has welcomed changes to the League of Ireland structure for 2018 with a return of the promotion/relegation play-off offering increased hope to teams in the First Division.

Henderson believes that attendances will improve and second-tier clubs will find it easier to attract sponsorship with the prospect of their season remaining interesting until the very end.

The Cobh boss was critical of the FAI for removing the play-off option for the 2017 season as part of the Premier Division being cut from 12 teams to 10.

Three top-flight sides went down with just one coming up from the First Division and with big-spending Waterford always likely to take that spot, it was a demoralising year for the other sides.

In 2018, the bottom side in the Premier Division will go down with the First Division champions coming up. Second from bottom in the top flight will enter a play-off - which will displease some Premier Division clubs who argued that position should be safe - and they will meet the winners of an elongated process.

The sides that finish third and fourth in the First Division will meet in a two-legged play-off and the victors will the enter another 180-minute tie with that division's runners-up - the prize for that contest will be the showdown with the Premier Division side.

It means that two sides would have the unprecedented opportunity to play six play-off games to win a Premier Division place but Henderson - who had called for a two up and two down system with a play-off for third from bottom and third in the First Division - welcomes the move.

He thinks that the opportunity for four sides to go up will help to build a buzz in a division that struggles for attendances and publicity.

"The positivity of that is that there's 40pc of teams have the opportunity to go up or go into a play-off system," said Henderson. "The play-off should never have been removed, they are popular in Ireland and draw good attendances.

"Two years ago, when we got into the play-offs by winning our last five games, our crowds went up and it made it easier for us to get match-day sponsors because the games mattered. When the play-offs were taken away, everything was a harder sell."

Threat

The Premier Division representatives who wanted a scenario where only one side could go down would argue that the greater threat of relegation makes it harder for clubs to stabilise and plan long term.

But Henderson feels that viewpoint is self-serving and thinks that the tension that hung over this season's giant relegation scrap increased attendances and interest.

"I feel there has to be a competitive nature to both leagues with the stakes high in every game," he continued. "In football, you have to be able to deal with pressure, and you need a format that challenges teams to go out and win games. You need to be tested mentally and physically in every match and that will help our teams in Europe too.

"The attendances in the Premier Division were up last season because every game had a meaning. I am sure now that First Division attendances next year will go up overall because of the interest at the end of the season.

To facilitate the First Division play-off process - and also satisfy the part-time and amateur clubs at that level - the regular season campaign will consist of just 27 matches and three rounds of fixtures compared to the 36-game top flight.

There will be no midweek fixtures in the First Division and it will start a week later than the Premier Division which will kick off on February 16 - the 2017 campaign began on February 24.

Five midweek rounds of games are part of the Premier plan with a mid-season break in June retained and next year's FAI Cup final still pencilled in for the first Sunday in November.

The President's Cup meeting of arch rivals Dundalk and Cork City is pencilled in for Oriel Park on Sunday, February 11. Fixture lists for both divisions will be released on Tuesday, December 19.

It could be the last campaign played under the sole stewardship of the FAI with talks ongoing over the governance of the league from 2019. A partnership between Abbotstown and the clubs in the form of a new company is being explored as an option.

Irish Independent

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