The very eve of a new season is counted among the best of times in football, a blessed period before a ball is kicked in anger when all teams, great and small, appear to be on an equal footing and all are entitled to dream big – or at least until reality bites, as it inevitably does, and sometimes within moments of the first whistle.
But it wasn’t just the fact that hope always springs eternal which injected a palpable buzz of anticipation at the launch of the 2017 SSE Airtricity League season in the Aviva Stadium last Tuesday. Last year’s annus mirabilis has undoubtedly raised the bar for the domestic game, prompting the tantalising question: how do you folly dat?
As an achievement, three titles in a row would have been enough to mark Dundalk out as standard bearers but it was the way their remarkable European exploits captured the imagination of the wider public which gave the League of Ireland an unprecedented boost in profile and credibility.
An additional and welcome knock-on effect was how their team’s exploits on foreign fields helped earn Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Gary Rogers call-ups to the Ireland squad. And for those who might have feared that this was only a token gesture on the part of a diplomatic Irish management, the comments at Tuesday’s launch from Roy Keane – a man who definitely doesn’t do PR - carried the authentic ring of truth.
“It should be an inspiration,” he said. “If you’re a player playing in the League of Ireland and you see what’s happened to the couple of lads who’ve been involved, the first thing you should ask yourself is, ‘why can’t that be me?’”
Keane was speaking beneath a promotional image for the new season showing James McClean, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Doyle looming over a line-up of current League of Ireland players, the accompanying slogan reading: “Where the next generation of legends are born.”
A good line, though I had to allow myself a private chuckle at the memory of suggesting something very similar to an FAI person a few years ago, only to be told that there was no way they were going to use the League of Ireland to “promote the Premier League.”
The reality, of course, is that for a generation of football fans in this country raised on saturation coverage of top-flight football in England and Europe, the League of Ireland has everything to gain from a little glamour by association. And with Daryl Horgan now surely odds-on to debut in an Irish shirt next month, most likely in the friendly against Iceland, that would only reinforce the impression – one already conveyed by the presence of eight former League of Ireland players in the Euro 2016 squad – that the gap between the domestic and international stages is no longer the yawning gulf it might once have been.
That too ought to be a help in winning new hearts and minds for Ireland’s club game as the 2017 season kicks off next Friday, with Dundalk looking to claim four in a row, cup holders Cork City desperate to eclipse their arch rivals in the league, Derry City being tipped by many to challenge for the title after finishing third last time and Shamrock Rovers, showing ambition on and off the pitch, clearly intent on returning the club to pre-eminence. And that’s just last season’s top four.
So everything to play for, yes, but a lot to lose too.
If the traditional pre-season mood of expectation was also tinged with something like fear and loathing at the Aviva this week, that was perfectly understandable in light of the controversial restructuring of the league which means that, ahead of a reversion to two tiers of ten in 2018, there will be no promotion-relegation play-offs at the end of this season, with three teams dropping down and only one going up. Some official enlightenment on the process by which this came to pass would have been welcome on Tuesday but the FAI’s Director of Competitions Fran Gavin simply refused point-blank to discuss it in any detail with the media present.
What we do know is that while the vote might have been for ten and ten, Premier Division clubs certainly didn’t speak with one voice on the matter. But at least they had a voice, unlike their First Division counterparts.
Veteran manager Pete Mahon, who took Drogheda United up via the play-offs last season, says he feels sorry for the clubs they’ve left behind in the second tier.
“If you look at it this year, there are four really outstanding teams, maybe five,” he told me. “There’s obviously Waterford and Longford and then maybe UCD, Shels and Cobh. It’s going to be a real dogfight there and I feel sorry for them because I don’t think it’s what they expected.
“But it’s hit us all. Realistically, we’re probably one of the favourites to go down so that’s going to be a motivational tool for us. It’s going to be difficult, of course it is, but if we managed to finish fourth or fifth that would be a great season for us. And if we managed to get a run in the cups I’d be really happy with that.”
A suitably upbeat note to close on then, in keeping with the traditional pre-season mood. But life is rarely anything other than precarious in Irish football so even as some dream of the best of times, others will be fearing the worst of times, as the most high stakes league in years prepares for lift-off.