League of Ireland set for fascinating season

League of Ireland set for fascinating season

After four months in rehab, the ill-man of Irish sport is set to climb from his sickbed to go again.

So what can we expect from this season's League of Ireland? A couple more financial crises? Almost certainly. A sequence of rows between egocentric managers? You bet your life.  The FAI seeking credit for anything that goes right? Well, we wouldn't want it any other way, would we?

Yet amid, the sideshows and subplots, some football will be played. If anyone expects it to be as interesting as last year's spectacle then they will be asking a lot. For those who need reminding, 2014 was the year two famines came to an end, Dundalk claiming their first silverware in 12 years, and their first league title in 19 seasons, just before St Pat's won the FAI Cup for the first time since 1961.

As if these storylines weren't fascinating enough, another one took place down by the Lee, as Cork City emerged from a six-year slump to rise and challenge again, taking the League title race down to the final day, where they lost to Dundalk. Can they go one better this time around?

Nobody knows and no one is prepared to say, remembering how last year Cork were routinely written off and yet they continued to defy the odds. Throw in the fact that this season they have strengthened their panel with the arrival of former Irish international, Liam Miller, and that their team-spirit proved unbreakable in 2014, and clearly they stand a chance.


"It was a motivating factor that no one seemed to rate us last time out," said their manager, John Caulfield. "But within ourselves, we believed. That counted for a lot."  So too did Caulfield's ability to galvanise a support-base around the team. With sold-out signs appearing at the gates of Turners Cross on more than one occasion - something you rarely hear about in League of Ireland circles, it was clear that these were Rebels with a Cause.  "This is the biggest job in the League because we have the biggest support-base," said Caulfield.

Cork City manager John Caulfield. Photo: INPHO. Cork City manager John Caulfield. Photo: INPHO.

Still, while the response of the Cork and Dundalk public to their teams' success was heart-warming, the empty terraces visible almost everywhere else left an air of despondency. "As a League we've a way to go with the marketing," said Caulfield.

He is being polite. Seven years ago, when the FAI were flush with cash and keen to take over the running of the League, there was an energy and excitement about how they were going to push the product. An innovative TV deal was secured with RTE. A former League of Ireland player, Noel Mooney, was appointed full-time marketing manager. The possibilities seemed endless.

Yet no tangible progress was made. Crowds remained low - except at clubs closing in on glory - and Mooney was soon head-hunted by UEFA, as was his talented colleague, Padraig Smith, who has since ended up as CEO of the Colorado Rapids.
Despite the repetitive problems, it remains a fascinating League to observe, the place, remember, where we first saw Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, David Forde, Kevin Doyle, James McClean, and Shane Long. Each year, we sit down and hope to see another Coleman and each year plenty of contestants show up for the audition.

Richie Towell seemed the obvious candidate to become last-year's-big-thing. Yet a winter of discontent saw Towell chased by Blackpool, given a trial with Cardiff, but no club in England could better Dundalk's offer. So he is still in Ireland, which is great on one level, but sad on another.


He still could move across, as could Andy Boyle, his defensive colleague. "Andy is a player I feel could step into the Irish line-up very soon," said Stephen Kenny, Dundalk's manager and a man who also made similar noises about Stephen Ward when he was in charge of Bohs, and Forde and McClean when he was at Derry.

Northern Ireland internationals, Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn, also saw their careers turn around once they fell under Kenny's spell. The Dubliner clearly has the eye to spot talent.  Importantly Kenny has the patience to nurture it too.

Kenny has a job on his hands trying to retain the title, something only two managers, Pat Fenlon and Michael O'Neill, have managed to do in the last 29 years - O'Neill with Shamrock Rovers, Fenlon with both Shelbourne and Bohemians.

Now back in Ireland, after a two-year spell with Hibs in Scotland, Fenlon is aiming to revive Rovers' fortunes as well as proving he doesn't owe his previous successes to the chequebook with
begrudgers unfairly claiming he has won so much because he has been able to outspend, as well as outplay, his rivals.

While true at Shelbourne, when he was managing Bohs, there was a spell when three other clubs - Drogheda, St Patrick’s Athletic, and Cork - spent marginally more. Plus, there is another factor. Having money is one thing. Having the temperament to deal with the pressure that money brings, is quite another.

A player from every Premier Division club pictured at last week's SSE Airtricity League launch at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: INPHO. A player from every Premier Division club pictured at last week's SSE Airtricity League launch at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: INPHO.

Mentally tough, Fenlon never shied away from confronting his critics. He played boards at their own game. "This is what it takes to win," he would say. And then he would deliver success, guiding Shelbourne to three titles and to the final qualifying round of the 2004-05 Champions League, before winning a double with Bohemians.

At Bohs, his budget was eventually cut and the team dropped down the table. Similarly, when he was at Derry, he shopped poorly when his preferred transfer targets declined to move north - providing ammunition to his critics.

By contrast, Kenny - his great rival - was a roaring success at Derry. What he achieved with Dundalk was even more of a miracle. Yet Kenny too, with nine trophies on his CV, has had his share of criticism.  Rovers' fans repeatedly informing him at last year's League Cup final that he choked under pressure. Dundalk won that match 3-2, meaning Fenlon, for the first time since 2006, was a runner-up to Kenny.

Up until now, the roles were largely reversed, Kenny finishing second on three of the occasions Fenlon won the League title, as well as being the victim when his Derry team were beaten on penalties by Fenlon's Bohs' side in the 2008 FAI Cup final.  So this year, their reunion as rivals will be a fascinating sub-plot to the overall narrative.

Who will win it? It's an unwritten rule that the defending champions struggle to secure back-to-back titles. It is also clear that Fenlon needs another year to build the squad he wants. Question marks remain over Cork's ability to score enough goals. For that matter, Dundalk have lost their top scorer from last year - Pat Hoban - to Oxford United.

That leaves Pat's, the 2013 champions as stand-out candidates. They too have their doubters with whispers emerging last year about disharmony within their ranks.

Pat’s still won the Cup and finished third in the League. They, along with Dundalk, Cork and Shamrock Rovers, are capable of ending this year as champions. Will they do it? It's too hard a call which is why the League of Ireland remains such compelling viewing. Sport's sick man is actually in rude health.