In 2020 it’s as if ‘vision’ has suddenly become the buzzword for the League of Ireland.
In truth, the debate about the health and well-being —or, more often, otherwise — of the domestic game has been running for decades, going back at least as far as the early 70s when ITV’s ‘The Big Match’ started to make serious inroads into attendances at Milltown, Kilcohan Park, Flower Lodge and all the rest of the holy grounds on a Sunday.
The guts of 50 years on, and with television coverage of football in England now at saturation level, the Irish club game knows all about the harsh realities of living in the shadow of the giant next door, an already punishing battle for hearts and minds exacerbated by also having to contend on home soil with the huge pull of the GAA and the increasing appeal of rugby.
What’s different now is that a year of seismic change at the FAI has created a climate in which the League of Ireland is being seen less as a “difficult child” and more like a bit of a prodigy, albeit one whose huge potential has yet to be realised.
The jury is still very much out on whether that ambition can or will be achieved within the framework of an All-Island League or some other structure, but with all the parties involved in hammering out the life-saving deal for the FAI seemingly as one in their aim of putting the elite domestic game on a new, improved footing, there is at least a welcome if still vague sense of optimism in the air as the new season kicks off.
That the gap between dream and reality remains a troubling one has been underlined by the chaotic build-up to the First Division season, along with an undercurrent of concerns about how certain clubs will cope, especially off the pitch, in another campaign.
But, on the pitch, there is much to excite the faithful as the Premier Division gets the show up and running this Valentine’s night.
Cork City’s fall from grace means champions Dundalk and Cup-winners and League runners-up Shamrock Rovers are clear favourites to establish a ‘New Firm’ at the top of the pile.
Storm Ciara blew away any chance of a dress rehearsal in the President’s Cup but the fixture schedule could hardly have been better designed to deliver an instructive opening round, with last year’s top four paired in head-to-heads.
For the well-oiled machine that is Vinny Perth’s Dundalk — their strong thread of continuity underlined by the new contract signed by Chris Shields — that means a visit from Declan Devine’s revamped Derry City who were fourth last time out, albeit a fourth place which still left the Candystripes a whopping 29 points adrift of top spot.
“Dundalk and Rovers continue to set the standard,” says Devine “but it’s up to us to look to close the gap.” And so say all the rest.
While you could argue that, psychologically at least, Rovers actually began the new season when they finally got that FAI Cup monkey off their back last year, the Hoops now have to wait one more day to get their 2020 title underway.
And, Dundalk aside, their first assignment could hardly be more taxing: a trip across the capital to Dalymount Park for the latest edition of their fierce rivalry with Bohemians, a team who confounded all the odds — and did so in often compelling style — by finishing third last season.
In his first full season in charge, Stephen O’Donnell — who renews acquaintance with big name signing Robbie Benson — will be hoping to see a much-changed St Patrick’s Athletic win the Richmond Park crowd’s approval by getting off to a winning start against Waterford while serial survivalists Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers will contest a North-West derby in Ballybofey.
And then there’s that fascinating coming together on Leeside tonight of two sides with so much to prove in the top-flight this season, as an almost entirely new-look Cork City — with young Arsenal defender Joseph Olowu unveiled as their latest loan signing on the eve of kick-off -and promoted First Division champions Shelbourne renew their own storied rivalry at Turner’s Cross, a game in which Karl Sheppard is set to be just the first of a scattering of ex-Rebels who will be making return visits to Cork in opposition colours this year.
One thing that never changes in the League of Ireland: it always feel better when the feet get to do the talking.