LIAM MACKEY: A league of their own

When Giovanni Trapattoni said, on more than one occasion, that Ireland was a country without a league, it prompted an apoplectic backlash from players, managers and supporters in the domestic game.

You could understand the reasons for their dismay — it was a highly inappropriate and, for a foreign audience certainly, misleading choice of words — but that didn’t mean you had to condone the added spin all too eagerly supplied by his critics, which sought to portray the Italian as being so out of touch with reality that he wasn’t even aware there was senior competitive football being played in the country whose national team he managed.

The truth is that everyone really knew what Trapattoni was getting at: that the Airtricity League isn’t on a par with the elite leagues across Europe from which the continent’s big international guns draw their playing firepower.

And who can legitimately argue with that? But if League of Ireland supporters are sometimes too quick to take offence, they can surely be forgiven on the grounds that such eruptions of sensitivity spring from the right place: from the heart rather than the head. And, face it, you might be a touch sensitive too, if you had to put up with the routine provocation of those who like to hold that the domestic game is some sort of Mickey Mouse version of the real thing – the real thing, of course, being football as experienced almost exclusively via the cathode tube on barstools and in armchairs.

And if a nerve is touched in those circumstances, it’s worth remembering too that it’s the same nerve which fires the deep passion for domestic football which helps give the game its limited but enduring appeal, one that can’t simply be measured by the bottom line of bums on seats or sponsorship deals.

As the 2013 season prepares to close with tomorrow’s FAI Cup final, there is, as ever, much for the faithful to look back on with fondness this year, not least down Inchicore way where that homeliest of clubs, St Patrick’s Athletic, served up some crackingly atmospheric nights of drama and skill on their way to securing the Airtricity League Premier Division title.

If the failure of Shamrock Rovers to hit the expected heights and Dundalk’s unexpected achievement in finishing as runners-up were the twin narratives which competed for the bulk of media attention across the season, it was still entirely fitting that the last word went to a team which often thrillingly fleshed out manager Liam Buckley’s philosophy of how the game should be played, combining style and steel to winning effect.

If that was the campaign’s sustained high point, one of its lower moments was the dismissal of Tommy Dunne at Cork City.

In pure football terms, the bounce the team experienced under his replacement Stuart Ashton can obviously be advanced to justify the move, but it still left a sour taste in more than one mouth that a man who had helped revive the club as it emerged from its darkest hour — and, in two seasons, went on to steer them back to the top-flight as champions — could be dispensed with so swiftly the first time the going got a bit rough.

Even harder to take, as City began to accumulate points after the Dubliner’s departure, was to hear a section of the support gleefully chanting: “Are you watching Tommy Dunne?”

Not the finest hour at Turner’s Cross, I would contend.

Which, by the way, is not to ignore the fact that the club’s actual finest hour in recent years — maybe even more than that unforgettable night against Derry when they won the league — was provided by the fans who banded together to refloat the ship when it threatened to perish on the rocks, just as it was the rank and file footsoldiers who had previously helped ensure that Shamrock Rovers would stay in business.

I do, though, have a pet theory that one potential flaw — perhaps even the only one — in the otherwise admirable concept of the supporters’ run club, is that the board may be too susceptible to the volatile mood of the terrace. Certainly, in the case of Rovers, the belief that Stephen Kenny was dispensed with way too prematurely in Tallaght would seem to have been vindicated by his excellent work with Dundalk.

In any event, I suppose it’s only the way of football all over the world that, rightly or wrongly, the gaffer has to be the fall guy when things don’t go according to plan. But, even so, it’s striking that, next season, a half a dozen or more clubs in the Airtricity Premier Division will be under new management, a startling change from the customary player merry-go-round we tend to find ourselves writing about at this time of year.

But that’s for the future. For now, it’s good luck to Sligo and Drogheda tomorrow — here’s hoping they can give the faithful more reasons to feel proud and, as a bonus, tempt a few of the unbelievers to convert.


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