Tuesday 19 March 2019

Shels in the spotlight as First Division sides seek to emerge from the shadows

Great Scott: Scott Brown celebrates among the Celtic supporters after his late winner took all three points against Kilmarnock. Photo: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire.
Great Scott: Scott Brown celebrates among the Celtic supporters after his late winner took all three points against Kilmarnock. Photo: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire.
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"Just to let you know, there will be a First Division this year"

The tweet from Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson was pointed, coming as it did in the hours after he left the League of Ireland season launch at the Aviva.

He clearly felt that representatives of Irish football's second tier had been in sight - but out of mind - when it came to the fanfare surrounding the kickoff

Their new season actually begins this weekend, a product of the shorter 27-game season compared to the 36-round Premier campaign.

This contrast is primarily budget based, a reflection of where a league composed mainly of part-time and amateur players is at.

In terms of exposure, the First Division suffers. No national media outlet is in a position to preach about that. Yet the attendances and the level of play have not always demanded coverage either; the two issues go hand in hand.

Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson was unhappy with the coverage given to the First Division at last week’s League of Ireland launch. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson was unhappy with the coverage given to the First Division at last week’s League of Ireland launch. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There are good stories bubbling beneath the surface this year which should command attention.

The First Division can function as a rehabilitation centre for clubs that have fallen on hard times. It's worth noting that Dundalk, Cork, Shamrock Rovers and Waterford - the four clubs that will compete in Europe this year - have all spent time there during the 21st century.

Shelbourne began the 2000s as a dominant team but chasing the dream cost them dearly and they have spent the guts of the past dozen years out of the top division - they came up in 2011 but went back down in 2013.

New investment and a new energy has given Shels fresh direction, and they turned to 31-year-old Bohemians defender Ian Morris as their new manager. He has assembled a squad packed with Premier Division experience - ex-Dundalk striker Ciaran Kilduff was the standout recruit - and the brief is simple; they've got to get out of this place.

The return of playoffs means that even if Shels do dominate - and that is by no means guaranteed - three other teams will get a chance to battle for a showdown with the ninth-placed Premier team. Finn Harps emerged successful from their clash with Limerick last term, generating momentum from that process.

Limerick still have rebuilding work to do whereas the Bray side that went down automatically had started to regroup before that season ended and have re-engaged with their community. They've signed well too.

Neale Fenn's Longford have impressed over the winter, Drogheda boss Tim Clancy has turned heads in spite of budgetary constraints while Galway are another club trying to figure out where it's going.

In the First Division, they all are.

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