It’s pretty safe to say that there’s virtually nothing Martin Russell doesn’t know about the promotion/relegation rollercoaster.
In July 2014, he left his post as assistant to Liam Buckley at St Patrick’s Athletic to replace Stuart Taylor as manager at Limerick, and succeeded in guiding his new club to mid-table safety in the Premier Division.
But just the following year Limerick went down in the most dramatic circumstances, their 2-1 aggregate play-off defeat to Finn Harps a shock ending to a campaign in which it seemed that, right up until the final act of the final night, the ’Super Blues’ were going to pull off a great escape from relegation.
Happily for the Shannonsiders, there was to be no such 11th hour nail-biting last time out, Limerick securing their latest return to the top flight in runaway fashion, taking the First Division title with a whopping 23 points to spare over runners-up Drogheda United.
Now, on the eve of the 2017 season, Russell feels entitled to express quiet confidence that Limerick won’t be repeating the yo-yo manoeuvres this time around, even if the job of staying in the top tier has become appreciably harder with three teams set to be relegated ahead of a reversion to two divisions of ten in 2018.
“I’d like to think at this moment in time we’re better equipped for the Premier Division and that’s down to a number of factors,” says the 49-year-old Dubliner.
“From day one when I got the job at Limerick, I knew there were bridges to cross and developments to be made to put the club – particularly on the field, in terms of my focus – on the right road to becoming a force in the top level.
“As with most managers, resources and budgets dictate a lot, and the year we got relegated - particularly at the start of the season when we lost ground – we probably didn’t have the right budget.
"But we increased it, we got players in and went on a run, only to fall short in the play-off game.
“But last season, we were the best resourced team in the First Division. Hence getting promoted. And now we’re at a level where I think we can pitch ourselves at a decent place in the Premier Division and look to aspire to something good there.”
In retrospect, it was crucial that the club didn’t succumb to panic when, having gone into the second leg of the 2015 play-off with a goal advantage, a 2-0 away defeat to Harps – with the home side’s decisive second coming just three minutes from the end of extra time - condemned them to heart-breaking relegation on a tumultuous night in November.
Instead, businessman and chairman Pat O’Sullivan – who had effectively bailed out the then cash-strapped club when he came on board in 2009 – held firm to his big ambitions for Limerick off the field while continuing to back his manager on it.
Recalls Russell: “I remember saying to Pat after the game up in Ballybofey that, to me, it was one step back but it didn’t mean we wouldn’t take steps forward in the coming years. So it was a case of keeping doing what we were trying to do to make the club as strong as possible.
“What they were trying to do with developing Bruff (the club’s academy and training base) for example, getting sponsors on board, working closer with the Chamber of Commerce – all that business off the field was being developed.
“And, for me, the return to the Markets Field was a real rebirth for football in Limerick, not just because it was the club’s spiritual home but because it was a top quality pitch that allowed you to play a certain type of football.”
All those factors, coupled with the playing quality he felt he had at his disposal, meant that, going into the 2016 season, Russell was confident that Limerick would come back up at the first time of asking.
“I knew starting the campaign that we had a good squad, that we had the ammunition, and that it was going to be difficult for teams to come and get anything at the Markets Field,” he reflects.
“And, equally, that we were equipped to go away and cause teams problems at that level. With the players we had, we were well resourced to do well. And I remember people saying last year that we didn’t shy away from being famous. I expected the group to play to a certain level and I had the belief that we would go up.”
That they did so in such emphatic fashion – while also reaching the EA Sports Cup final where they were runners-up to St Patrick’s Athletic – has, in turn, raised expectations for the new season. But while Russell is the first to acknowledge that the challenge now before them is a much tougher one, he retains the belief that his players will be able to step up to the plate.
“Of course the Premier Division is a different level to the First Division,” he says, “but a lot of the players we have would be familiar with it, they know what it takes. Paul O’Connor’s been at Sligo, Shane Duggan’s been at Cork and this year (goalkeeper) Brendan Clarke’s come on board.
“You want experience, good character and leading by example from your more senior players. Duggan definitely did that in the First Division and I think he should be now approaching his prime. He’s homegrown too, which is important as well, and we’re looking for a big season from him.
“So there’s a fair few of the senior lads who wouldn’t be under any illusion that it’s going to be a step up. Last year would have helped some of the younger lads gain experience and grow in confidence too but we know that it’s a new ball game.”
At Limerick and, before that, at UCD, Martin Russell developed a widely admired reputation for a philosophy of football which demands that his teams get the ball down and play in a creative, expansive way.
But having had it so very much their own way for much of last season, does the manager now envisage having to temper that approach in the top flight?
“By and large, I want us to play like that,” he says.
“When people come to the Markets Field, I want them to see a team trying to play as well as it can in footballing terms - not just stifling teams but being attack-minded, trying to create chances, trying to score goals.
“But, of course, defending is part of getting results, and you don’t want to be leaving yourself open against the top teams. So, yeah, we’ll want to play attacking football but if we’re losing games because we’re conceding bad goals, then we’ll have to work on that too. Look at Dundalk – they’ve proved that they have the balance right better than anybody else. And we’ll be trying to work towards that.”
The three-in-a-row champions, he believes, can also be an inspiration in the sense that their stunning trajectory as a club saw them come from close to rock bottom to making waves in Europe in the space of a few years.
For Russell, that’s a transformation which Limerick should be seeking to emulate over the longer haul.
“It’s something I’ve said to people: why not? Dundalk have shown the way, Rovers have touched on it before, other clubs have had good results in Europe, so it can be done.
"Does Limerick, as a club and as a city, have as much potential as Dundalk?
"I think we do. Dundalk worked hard to achieve what they have achieved. Limerick have been working hard, on and off the pitch, and I think there’s more to come.
“Getting a European spot would be a big game-changer for Limerick and then you take it from there. But it’s all about the steps you take to make it happen.”
And, first step first, a new era in the Premier Division for Limerick begins with the visit of Sligo Rovers tonight for the opening game of the 2017 season.
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