Will the real Limerick FC please stand up? The question takes on added urgency with the visit of Cork City to the Markets Field tonight, a game which, on paper at least, would have been regarded before the season kicked off as potentially the toughest fixture the home side would face in the opening phase of the 2018 season.
But even though they are only five matches into the new campaign, Limerick have already experienced such a wild rollercoaster ride that supporters would be forgiven if they approach this evening’s visit of the champions hoping for the best, of course, but also fearing the worst.
The turbulence actually preceded a ball being kicked in anger, with the 11th hour departure of manager Neil McDonald and the loss of quality players like Chiedozie Ogbene to Brentford, Bastien Hery to Waterford, and Barry Cotter to Ipswich, prompting the bookies to install Limerick as relegation favourites.
Even as they prepared to announce a new manager, chairman Pat O’Sullivan posted a video on the club’s website in which he said the burden of continuing to bankroll Limerick FC was not feasible in the long term and revealed that he was in discussions to sell some, or all, of his share in the club.
O’Sullivan said: “I personally had been funding the development and day-to-day cost of running this club and trying to keep it at a level as competitive as possible in a very competitive top half of the table. I have been saying for quite some time that this was not possible for me in the long term. We have reached a point now where we have to firmly address this particular issue because some clubs have become much stronger and, given the structures of our league, significant finances are required of any club that wants to stay in competition with the top of the table.”
When contacted by the Examiner, O’Sullivan politely declined to give an update this week, saying: “I made a statement at the time and said what I want to say and I really don’t want to go further than that.”
He was keen to draw attention to his most recent video post — concerning the launch of the first senior women’s team in the club’s history and his views on the importance of respect and equal rights for women athletes — and, returning to the SSE Airtricity League, happy to look forward to the renewal of old acquaintance with Cork City tonight.
“Cork, as always, will be very welcome,” he said. “Let’s hope we have a good game and a good occasion.”
With just over a month to go before the 2018 season kicked off, ex-player and former U19 coach Tommy Barrett was unveiled as the man chosen to replace Neil McDonald, the new gaffer’s lack of senior managerial experience serving only to reinforce the popular perception that the Shannonsiders would find the going tough in 2018.
Encouragingly, Limerick were able to add a mix of experience, youth, and quality to their panel for the new season, including former Cork City players Mark O’Sullivan, Danny Morrissey, and Connor Ellis, Eoin Wearen from Bohemians, Barry Maguire from Dutch side SV TEC, and the Dennehy brothers, Billy and Darren.
It was the Darren Dannehy who got the Tommy Barrett era off to the best possible start with the headed goal which gave Limerick a morale-boosting 1-0 win away to Sligo Rovers in their first game of the new SSE Airtricity Premier League season.
Understandably, that positive start meant Barrett was well within his rights to have a pop at the pre-season doom-mongers after the game.
“I pay no attention to that sort of talk whatsoever,” he said. “I know we can beat anyone in this league on any day and we saw that tonight. You cannot write anyone off in this league. It’s going to be competitive this year and we’re a match for anyone.”
A week later, Limerick made it four points from six with a 1-1 draw at home to Bohemians, but then in a taste of what Storm Emma was about to bring, they were almost buried beneath an avalanche of goals as Dundalk ran out 8-0 winners at a wintry Oriel Park.
To their credit, Limerick got straight back to winning ways next time out, a late Danny Morrissey goal proving enough to dispense with a Bray Wanderers side who had themselves been hit for six, by Shamrock Rovers, in their previous game.
Last Monday, the wheel took another spin for the worse, as Limerick went back to leaking goals, their visit to the new-look Brandywell ending in a 5-0 drubbing by Derry City, though — in what was almost a microcosm of their season to date — the visitors had been very much in the game right up to half-time and, at the end of 90 minutes, the table still showed the Shannonsiders, on seven points, remaining one ahead of the Candystripes.
All of which seemingly logic-defying fluctuation in form brings us back to where we came in: As the champions prepare to arrive in town, which Limerick will show up? And, also, how many fans?
Reflecting the team’s oscillating fortunes on the pitch, attendances at their first two home games plunged from 2,225 for the visit of Bohs to just 948 for the game against Bray Wanderers, though a Munster derby against the reigning league and cup holders should send the graph back up at the Markets Field tonight. Whether the players can also rise to the occasion remains to be seen, with Barrett not shy about admitting that his team faces an exceptionally tough test.
“Cork are the best team in the country, aren’t they, so from our point of view the minimum requirement is hard work and application and to try and win as many as duels as we can,” he says.
“Cork can play good football but they can also play direct and be physical. Of all the teams, they can grind out results or beat teams by three or four so they’re really difficult opposition for us. It’s important for our mentality to be right and for us to get a reaction, like, in fairness, we had against Bray after Dundalk although, with respect to Bray, they’re obviously not as good a team as Cork.
“In the Dundalk game we had a few lads sick and a few injuries, but you still shouldn’t lose 8-0. It was just a very poor performance. We thought we’d got over that with the Bray result and, to an extent we did, because we played quite well for an hour against Derry. Their first goal was a very good goal but it was a funny game because I think we were on top — and I know it sounds a bit mad saying this when people look at the result and see 5-0 — and I think if we had scored the next goal we probably would have won the game. But they scored, got their tails up, and the floodgates seemed to open.
“It was obviously very disappointing how we fell apart but we have a very good bunch of lads, they work hard every day in training. Obviously we haven’t got the strongest squad in the world outside our starting eleven but we’re not going to make excuses.”
Former City striker Mark O’Sullivan remains out for Limerick with a broken hand and, with Eoin Wearen coming off injured in the last game, following Barry Maguire the week before, it looks like the manager has issues to address in the middle of the park and upfront.
The goal for Limerick tonight will be to draw on the strengths of their more positive performances so far and show that, contrary to what many might be predicting, they can emerge from a game against Cork City with something rather more rewarding than another big hit to their goals-against account.
“I think we will need to keep things as tight as possible, that’s what we’ve done in the games we’ve done well in,” says Barrett. “We’ll need to be as solid as we can and we will need to be prepared to fight and scrap.”
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