Off-season of change sets up a mouthwatering 2019 campaign
The 2018 SSE Airtricity League of Ireland campaign has sadly reached its conclusion and while the small matters of the promotion/relegation final and the destination of this years FAI Cup is still yet to be decided, for the other sixteen league clubs the long off-season is about to set in. League of Ireand close seasons have almost always resembled something of a player and managerial merry-go-round, however in recent years we’ve seen slightly more settled transfer activity both on the pitch and in the dug outs with the likes of Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and Cork City able to offer their key players longer term deals, as opposed to the previously traditional one-year contracts, while the likes of St.Pat’s, Sligo Rovers, Derry City and Bohemians have kept faithful with their management teams.
However, even before Friday nights conclusion to the regular league campaign we have seen managerial departures at Shelbourne, Sligo, Derry and St.Pat’s, with two of those fresh vacancies already filled. At Cork City we are hearing reports of a major budget cut for 2019 with the likes of Kieran Sadlier, Barry McNamee and Josh O’Hanlon all set for the Turners Cross exit door. Throw UCD’s return to the top-flight into an already uncertain mix and what you have is the makings of an incredible exciting and uncertain 2019 League of Ireland campaign and that can only be a good thing for the league.
The only concern among followers of the league for not just next season, but the next two or three editions at least, is a spell of unrivaled Dundalk FC dominance. Having secured a fourth Premier Division title in five seasons off the back of Peak 6’s financial investment in the County Louth club, Stephen Kenny now has the luxury of being able to tie down his top performers to two and three-year deals, something previously unheard of in Irish domestic football.
However, as worrying as a Norwegian league situation may be for followers of the League of Ireland, Dundalk FC have earned the right to be where they are and it is now the job of the divisions other nine clubs to up their game, within their financial means of course, in order to challenge the “Lilywhites” in the coming seasons.
Having suffered some extremely below par campaigns across the last two seasons, followers of previous league winners, Sligo Rovers and St.Patrick’s Athletic are sure to be buoyed by their respective managerial appointments in recent days. Taking up the vacant hot-seat at Sligo Rovers is St.Pat’s legend, Liam Buckley, while taking over the reigns from “Bucko” at the “Saints” is former Bray boss, Hary Kenny.
Buckley to Sligo in particular has the potential to energise the entire league if the St.Pat’s great can recreate the same kind of football that brought so much success to his previous club and with the likes of Barry McNamee linked with the “Bit O’Red” at present you’d be a fool to write off Buckley’s chances of success in Sligo. Meanwhile, Harry Kenny comes to Inchicore with a strong reputation for signing well in the market and playing an attractive brand of football from his roller-coaster experience with a then crisis club in Bray Wanderers. With the Dublin outfit opting to move to day time training next season in an attempt to come into line with the likes of the champions, one would hope and expect a better league showing from Pats in 2019.
While the season gone by was not free from its controversies with the likes of Bray Wanderers and Limerick struggling to pay their players at times, there is a hope that 2019 will be a more stable season with the likes of UCD coming up, a club that has never had any financial headlines given its unique set-up compared to more traditionally operated league clubs, while Bohemians have recovered from some dark times to find themselves in their strongest condition since the collapse in the economy a decade or so ago. Elsewhere, there were positive stadium announcements in recent weeks with both Drogheda United and Finn Harps sharing information on long awaited new grounds, while Derry City will play their first full season at the wonderful new Brandywell in 2019.
Not forgetting the First Division, which threatened to steal the show at times in 2018 given the ultra-competitive nature of the division, 2019 should be equally as compelling thanks to the extended play-off system implemented by the FAI this season. With some incredibly talented managers such as Neale Fenn, Tim Clancy and Stephen Henderson just to name a few operating in the second-tier at present, there is a certain freshness not previously associated with the division many refer to as "the “Graveyard of Irish football”.
While there are clearly some big issues to tackle with the likes of Wexford FC and Athlone Town remaining totally noncompetitive in the division, the continued growth of the FAI’s national underage leagues should give these clubs some sort of hope in bringing young and local players through a defined pathway in the hope of one day representing their local League of Ireland club and that is very important if struggling clubs like these two are to build any sort of community connection and survive in senior football.
Sadly, as much positive spin as we try to put on our wonderful little league, that word of survival is still all to prevalent for a number of our league clubs. A ridiculously long off-season of five months for the likes of Galway United, Longford Town and the two aforementioned strugglers certainly doesn’t help clubs move away from that instinct of survival and attempt to plan in the long-term as opposed to simple day to day survival but with that 2020 switch over date edging ever closer, there is a feeling among many followers of the league that the good times are slowly coming but until then we still have so much to look forward to…….It truly is the greatest league in the world!