THE League of Ireland returns on Friday after an off-season like no other. In time, we will find out the true significance.
On December 18, Jonathan O'Brien, out-going Sinn Féin TD, delivered a line in a Dáil debate on Irish football's broader problems that summed up years of frustration.
"We were not the problem child," said the former Cork City chairman, referencing a famous line by ex-FAI CEO John Delaney about the senior league. "The FAI were the absentee fathers. They were the absentee fathers who didn't give an absolute bollocks about the League of Ireland and continue to not care about the League of Ireland."
Ministers Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin were unprepared for the focus on the league, and admitted as much afterwards, with statements about the possible impact of the FAI's plight on the game here prompting follow-up meetings and a level of direct engagement between politicians and league stakeholders that didn't previously happen without a middle man.
That set the wheels in motion for an FAI rescue package with increased state support for the league as a stipulation, and a brief for the new Abbotstown hierarchy that involves making the League of Ireland front and centre of whatever happens from here. Niall Quinn, the interim deputy CEO, has emerged as the face of that mission. After talking the talk, he now has to walk the walk.
2020 is a hugely significant year. The title sponsors, SSE Airtricity, are stepping away at the end of it. It's the final term of the Participation Agreement that functions as a code of engagement between clubs and the authorities. Kieran Lucid and his team are pushing for the establishment of an All-Island League. There are a number of key decisions which have to be made by people that are still learning the true lie of the land.
In theory, the newly established National League Executive Committee (NLEC) would be taking the lead but that is made up of representatives of clubs that are likely to have strong views on particular issues, most notably the admission of Shamrock Rovers II to the First Division which has infuriated the other clubs there.
Then we've had the Limerick FC saga, a spectacular waste of time that has further clouded the First Division mess, grounded encouraging plans to set up a new underage club with a clean slate and confirmed the view that the club offers nothing to the league in its current guise. And the sooner all parties involved recognise that, the sooner everybody else can get on with their lives.
Meanwhile, the financial realities faced by those clubs that have actually had a successful decade is evidenced by a deal between Preston and Cork City which was necessary to give the Leesiders some breathing room.
The cost of doing so is reaching a settlement on sell-on clauses for Alan Browne and Seán Maguire, a short-term boost that may turn out to be bad value in the longer term. City bartered well to get a 15pc sell-on clause when they parted company with Maguire. Mistakes made in the years that followed have cost them the chance to fully realise its potential.
These are perennial problems. New investment from Dermot Desmond at Shamrock Rovers and the continued backing of Dundalk's American owners have allowed the leading lights to cement their position, and the prospect of European monies facilitates spending that others are unable to match.
Dundalk can afford to run at a loss while dominating, a common trend in leagues around Europe and in the leagues below the Premier League across the water. The reality for the chasing pack in Ireland is that building debts comes with the knowledge that only a top four finishing position delivers any kind of substantial revenue boost and even then European entry money can be eaten up by costs.
An increased prize fund, better facilities, smarter marketing and commercial strategies, and the exploration of creative TV and streaming deals are a must but those words are familiar because they've been typed at the start of every recent season. There's nothing new in calling for it. What's different now is that fresh faces are being posed the question.
Reasons for optimism exist. The bruising FAI debacle has led to the growing recognition that a stronger league is vitally important for the game here. Brexit's impact on the movement of teenagers should be the catalyst for an increased focus on youth development. Indeed, it's placed pressure on finding an urgent solution to what has largely been a theoretical debate.
There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the campaign ahead. The top clubs prefer an attractive brand of football that has allowed creative talents to thrive, and there is a correlation between the excitement around the Irish kids making their mark over the water and what's on offer here. League of Ireland players are holding their own in the U17, U19 and U21 panels.
In Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, there is a rivalry with potential, while Bohemians, St Patrick's Athletic and Derry all have the ingredients to be better this year even though the top two remain too far ahead. There is a danger of an east coast focus and Munster clubs Waterford and Cork have taken a knock. That volatility will remain while the league struggles to find direction.
But there will be a buzz around the grounds tonight and in Dalymount tomorrow afternoon.
In many ways, the first weekend of the campaign is always a window to what is possible. There is a curious population out there that can be tapped into, yet the strategy has to be more nuanced than preaching that it should be supported.
What's required is the joined-up thinking to create a confident product that proves it's worth it. Growing the league has to be viewed as more than an annoying chore on the to-do list. It's the most important job in Irish football right now. Everyone involved has a responsibility to play their part.
FINAL TABLE PREDICTION: 1 Dundalk, 2 Shamrock Rovers, 3 St Patrick’s Athletic, 4 Bohemians, 5 Derry City, 6 Sligo Rovers, 7 Waterford FC, 8 Cork, 9 Shelbourne, 10 Finn Harps
NIALL Quinn says the FAI are still unsure of how Brexit rules will affect football in Ireland, but the interim CEO would welcome a situation where youngsters are unable to leave home until they turn 18.
League of Ireland
Cork City have confirmed that a deal to sell back the sell-on clauses to Championship side Preston for Ireland internationals Sean Maguire and Alan Browne was needed to help the club stay in top-flight football for the coming season.