Waterford renew rivalry with much-changed foe
It is the sliding-doors moment of recent Irish football history.
As the winter of 2012 drew in, Dundalk and Waterford United met in a two-legged fixture with a place in the Premier Division at stake.
Dundalk had avoided relegation only because of Monaghan United's departure from the league. Waterford were aiming for a top-flight return with the help of a teenage tyro named Seánie Maguire from neighbouring Kilkenny.
Over two legs, the Lilywhites survived, with a brace from Michael Rafter in the decider at the RSC kicking off a night of celebration for a team that didn't really deserve it after a poor campaign.
Waterford queried Rafter's registration in a doomed appeal, an episode that sparked memories of a much more fraught play-off in 1997 when the Louth men escaped the drop courtesy of the questionable signing of an 'amateur' striker Jeff McNamara from Linfield 24 hours before the first leg.
For Blues fans, that 2012 reverse was hard to swallow, and the pain increased as the club lurched into crisis mode while Dundalk's new hierarchy - galvanised by their near miss - went and hired Stephen Kenny and the rest is history.
Waterford United, as they were then, were sliding towards the point of no return. Apathy was the response when they launched a series of appeals in 2015 and 2016 for increased attendances at First Division level to help them survive the campaign.
Crowds in the region of 300 suggested the club had lost its public, even though the area has a strong history and tradition in the sport at all levels.
Change was required, and it came in the form of a takeover led by businessman and ex-Irish U-21 international Lee Power.
A rebrand to Waterford FC was a starting point with Pat Fenlon brought in as director of football and old favourite Alan Reynolds brought back in as manager.
Investment in the squad secured promotion at the first attempt with crowds streaming back.
The Premier Division newcomers make their league return to Oriel tonight as joint leaders with defending champions Cork City and three points clear of their hosts.
Ironically enough, it was Dundalk's European success in 2016 that partially encouraged Power to take on an Irish project.
The Swindon owner is expanding his empire and Fenlon - who left his Waterford-specific brief last month - will be a part of the process.
Certainly, the Waterford project has been a resounding success to this point.
Last Monday, 2,200 people attended the Blues' home win over Bohemians, which is fairly impressive considering that midweek rounds can be a hard sell.
Kenny respects the work of Reynolds, although he hasn't been taken aback by the fact they have registered four wins from five starts - a defeat in Cork was the exception - given that they recruited heavily over the winter to strengthen their full-time set-up.
"You can't say that's a surprise," he said. "They've a lot of experience in the team, so we've just got to get ourselves ready for that."
The Munster contingent in the Premier Division has been boosted to three by Waterford's arrival but the other pair meet in a derby at Markets Field tonight with Limerick looking to bounce back from a heavy defeat in Derry by welcoming Cork to town.
Cork's perfect start to the season was brought to a halt in Dundalk this night last week but they responded well to take full points from the showdown with Shamrock Rovers on Monday.
Graham Cummins' performances in February earned him the first SSE Airtricity/SWAI Player of the Month award of the season, an impressive feat seeing as he managed to pick up a red card in the opener at St Patrick's Athletic.
However, he had already managed to score in that match and bagged four in the space of 120 minutes to scoop the gong.
He has found it easy to adjust to life back at home after six years over the water that featured spells at Preston, Rochdale, Exeter and, latterly, St Johnstone.
"I think it's easy to settle back in," said the 30-year-old local lad who is back for a second spell at City.
"Some lads come back from England who have never played League of Ireland and it might be difficult for them.
"But I know what the league is about, I know what the club is about and I know what the area is about - although it actually shocked me how more advanced the club was than I thought it would be.
"I think Cork is more professional than many clubs I played with when I was in the UK - and that's no disrespect to them. I just think Cork said, 'This is the way things need to be run'. Every detail is looked after."
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