Nigel Hegarty writes on:
Match Fixing, Crazy Chairmen Statements, Financial Irregularities, Six Team Relegation Battle – Just Another League of Ireland Season.
The run in, the league season, the unwanted fate. Controversy aplenty, financial help little. Match fixing, refereeing decisions questioned, the joy of the title win. Just another league season in Ireland really.
The question on everyone's lips at the start of the season was simply "Can they do four in a row?". Dundalk had just come off the back of an historic season, both for the club, and for the League of Ireland in general.
League of Ireland clubs have found themselves battling with European 'giants' in the past, Athlone Town with AC Milan, Waterford with Manchester United, Cork City with Bayern Munich, just to name a few, but none had ever gone into a modern European group stage and actually claimed any points. Shamrock Rovers were the pace-setters so to speak, becoming the first Irish club side to reach the Europa League group stage, although they failed to register a single point in 2011-12 European season.
Dundalk made a bit of history on two counts on last seasons European adventure. Coming within a whisker of Champions League group stage qualification only to be defeated by Polish side Legia Warsaw in front of 36,000 people in Lansdowne Road, they entered the Europa League group stage, and almost qualified out of it too. They beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in Dublin and drew with AZ Alkmaar in Holland. They gained a reported €6.3million in profit out of their adventures. To put that into perspective, they'd have to win the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division 525 times to make that much money with the winners of the domestic league taking home a paltry €120,000 for their efforts over 9 months.
So, to say they were expected to walk to another league title this year would be putting it lightly. They were dealt a hammer blow with the loss of three key players, namely Daryl Horgan & Andy Browne to Preston North End and Ronan Finn to Shamrock Rovers. They suffered a poor start to the season and were on the back foot from there on.
Cork City, on the other hand, went quietly about their business in the off season and hammered their way out of the starting blocks in February, going on a run of 24 wins and one draw before Sligo Rovers halted their stroll to the league title in August. The loss of Seani Maguire and Kevin O'Connor (both also to Preston North End) rather coincidentally preceded their dip in form. Maguire bagged himself 20 league goals before departing to the English Championship in July and O'Connor was lauded as one of the top wing backs in the league.
In the midst however of Cork's incredible start and Dundalk's poor run of form, the first big controversy of the season arrived in typical League of Ireland fashion. The highly ambitious owners at Bray Wanderers decided to go with the "if you build it they will come" mantra, so they went out and spent huge money to attract former league winning players like Conor Kenna, Aaron Greene and Gary McCabe as well as handing a handsome contract out to Dylan Connolly to fend off interest from several bigger clubs. This sort of reckless spending was to bite them in the rear end once the inevitable fall out over lack of crowds and clashes with the financial backers over value for money reared it's head. An average attendance of only 1,013 people, largely propped up by free tickets and two bumper attendances, for a club a quick run on the Dart from Dublin City centre, is very poor indeed and was highlighted by then Chairman Denis O'Connor in a scathing press release issued at half time in a match back in June when he asked "what's the point of continuing?".
This wasn't to be the end of controversy for the seaside club, nor for the league however. In May, allegation of match-fixing were made against midlands club Athlone Town, in the midst of an ongoing battle between board members and disillusioned supporters of the club going on for a number of seasons. Several eyebrows were raised when Athlone brought in unknown foreign management this season in the form of Ricardo Monsanto and his team of Portuguese coaches, signing players from Romania, Latvia and Uruguay, seemingly moving to Ireland to play for expenses in the First Division in front of an average attendance of less than 200 people.
Latvian goalkeeper Igor Labuts, who has a history of being associated with match fixing, was filmed conceding a rather comical goal against Longford Town which arose suspicion when the footage went viral in May. A subsequent UEFA and FAI investigation saw Labuts and his team mate Dragos Srifjan banned from all football activities by the FAI for 12 months, with club mate Jason Lyons handed down a rather lenient 7 game ban for betting on games he was involved in, although not banned for match-fixing.
Before we thought we had seen the last of it, and back to Bray Wanderers, the FAI and An Garda Siochana are currently investigating five matches involving the Seagulls for potential match fixing allegations. What a season!
So, what of the up's and downs of the actual league season? Relegation favourites at the outset, Drogheda United and Finn Harps have had contrasting fortunes through the season. With a hugely controversial plan to relegate three teams and only promote one from the First Division enacted upon by the FAI, clubs were going to breathe hard for the season at the bottom end of the table, battling a difficult battle from the very first kick off in February. Drogheda are consigned to playing First Division football already, confirmed at the weekend with a loss to Derry City while Finn Harps cling on for dear life yet, embroiled in a fascinating battle for the drop with Limerick, St Patricks Athletic, Sligo Rovers and Galway United all in danger. With four games left to play, the Harps currently sit second from bottom in 11th place with 30 points, but only a mere 5 points away from Limerick in 7th place. A win over Dundalk on Saturday afternoon could see the Ballybofey club rise to 9th place above Galway and Sligo Rovers and with Drogheda United and Bohemians their final two games of the season, there's a small sense of optimism on the banks of the Finn.
One more win should realistically see Limerick safe for 2018, while St Patricks Athetic will surely be the favourites of the remaining sides to see themselves in safety. After that, it's anyone's guess, with Shane Keegan at Galway and Gerard Lyttle at Sligo both seeing a slight upturn in form in their respective sides of recent.
Further up the table, Cork City's fortunes have waned but still look certain to clinch the title, while Dundalk have second place wrapped up. Whoever gets the final guaranteed European place is anyone's guess though. Shamrock Rovers currently occupy 3rd place, but only one point ahead of Derry City in fourth with Bray Wanderers lurking behind in 5th, albeit 5 points off Rovers. Bohemians in 6th aren't mathematically out of the running, but with 7 points to catch up in four games, It's a tall ask for Keith Longs side who have had a magnificent season on a tight budget.
Of course, if one of Dundalk or Cork win the FAI Cup, the fourth place is also good enough for Europe, so Shamrock Rovers could potentially rest a little easier having a cup semi-final replay to come against Dundalk.
The First Division this season was seen as somewhat of a foregone conclusion before the league started. Big spending Waterford FC, backed by Swindon Town owner Lee Power, gathered together an almost Premier Division standard team, bringing in Estonian international Sander Puri from Sligo, Patrick McClean from Derry, David McDaid from Cliftonville, Mark O'Sullivan and Kenny Browne from Cork, and later in the season Paul Keegan returning from English league football, they were set to be challenged only by Longford Town. Things didn't quite go to plan so smoothly.
Longford Town suffered a horrendous season and currently occupy 6th place of 8 in the First Division with only Wexford FC and Athlone Town below them. Cobh Ramblers sprung the greatest surprise and have run Waterford FC all the way up to September before eventually succumbing to a loss at an ever-improving Cabinteely to hand the title to Waterford with only two games to play. Following last weeks win at home to Longford, Waterford were handed their trophy in a packed RSC as they celebrate a return to the Premier Division for the first time since 2007 when relegated by Finn Harps via play-off. Cobh will have to settle for second place under the management of Stephen Henderson at St Colman's Park ahead of UCD, Cabinteely and Shelbourne.
A season of madness again shows no signs of slowing down, even with only four games to play in the Premier Division. The run in is set to be a fascinating watch for the neutral, and one of gut-wrenching horror and pure unbridled joy in equal measures for those battling against the drop. Who goes down now though, is anyone's guess.
➽Nigel Hegarty is a writer from Letterkenny in County Donegal, with an unhealthy obsession for anything related to Finn Harps FC and has a dream to one day see them lift a league title in Finn Park. Darts and music comes a close second in terms of obsessions outside the home.