Look back in wonder

SO all we need from the FAI Cup decider tomorrow is a 4-3 thriller, featuring at least two candidates for goal of the season, one save to rival Banks against Pele and, just to keep the fantasy football dream intact, a hat-trick. Or two.

Failing that, we will settle for a display of good, attacking football, a couple of goals, and enough end-to-end action to impress the television audience and keep a big crowd glowing on an early winter’s afternoon at Lansdowne Road.

That, at least, would be a match in keeping with the dramatic highs of the year, as the curtain comes down on a memorable domestic football season.

It’s strange now to cast one’s mind back to the start of the league campaign and recall that, ten months ago, Shelbourne were being universally tipped to make it three-in-row titles, while last year’s runners-up, Cork City, were regarded as a club in crisis following the sensational sacking of Pat Dolan and the late call-up of Damien Richardson. For Derry City, meanwhile, most observers would have raised the bar no higher than a mid-table finish at best.

So much for the expert view. As things turned out, the ‘Shelski’ revolution spluttered rather than sparked, and by the time they got fully into their stride - and showed they were still one of the best teams in the country - it was simply too late for Pat Fenlon’s men to make up the ground on Cork and Derry.

In any other season, Stephen Kenny would have walked away with all the top management gongs, in recognition of his enormous achievement in helping to turn Derry City from strugglers into title contenders. But this was a season in which Cork City showed that a commitment to classic, attacking football could reap the ultimate rewards. As in all these things, luck has played its part - especially in the Cup - but it’s hardly a coincidence that the most outstanding footballing side of the season finds itself on the brink of the double going into the last game of the year. Rightly, the bulk of the credit goes to the players, but as the man whose philosophy of progressive football was firmly imprinted on the team, Damien Richardson is fully deserving of the brace of best manager awards which have come his way at season’s end.

An encouraging inaugural Setanta Cup, European action, enhanced prize money in the league, and increased television coverage - the latter especially rewarding when the action came from atmospheric venues like Turner’s Cross and The Brandywell - all helped to create a positive picture of Irish football.

But the reality just beneath the surface was rather different, as a damning Genesis report made clear, with its stark portrait of an almost bankrupt league in which too many clubs were living beyond their means. The harsh truth is that, for some, the eircom League is a matter of hand to mouth survival - back in mid-season I recall a director of one club telling me how, unknown even to his nearest and dearest, he had taken out a personal loan to ensure the club would stay afloat at least until an expected small windfall materialised a few weeks later.

Emblematic of such deep-rooted problems was the plight of Shamrock Rovers, which was simultaneously the most depressing and encouraging story of the year. Depressing because one of the great names of Irish football came within a whisker of extinction and encouraging because the efforts of the 400 Club to pull Rovers back from the brink spoke volumes for the commitment of true fans. In the end, the new board couldn’t save Rovers from relegation but the fact that they appear to have saved them from oblivion means that, in future years, people may well look back on 2005 as a year worthy of celebration in the history of Ireland’s most famous football club.

At the top end, the various European adventures of recent times have done much to enhance the profile of the league. Next year will see Cork lead the Irish charge in Europe but, as Shelbourne discovered this season, the holy grail of a place in the group phase of the Champions’ League remains an exceedingly tall order.

As ever, there is much talk in Irish football about branding, sponsorship, marketing, product and all the rest. Clearly, progress is needed on all sorts of fronts - from finances to venues - but, ultimately, it all begins and ends with what happens on the pitch. There can be no greater advertisement for the eircom League than vibrant football played by quality players, and we have seen enough of both this year to make it a season to remember.

So hats off in particular to the likes of Cork, Derry and Shels, to Waterford for their stirring return from a near-death experience, and to Sligo Rovers, another one-club town whose promotion should ensure an extra injection in the top flight of the kind of passion and excitement which we have seen brewing for the last couple of weeks in Cork and Drogheda.

There were also outstanding individual performers throughout the season, like Michael Devine, Owen Heary, Peter Hutton, Danny Murphy, George O’ Callaghan, Joe Gamble, Roy O’Donovan, Wes Hoolahan, Mark Farren and Jason Byrne.

And, a personal favourite, the magical Pat McCourt, who ended the season as a league runner-up with Derry but who provided my highlight of the year as far back as May with two outstanding individual goals in Shamrock Rovers 3-2 win over Bray Wanderers.

The second, in particular, was like a throwback to the golden age, as the long-haired McCourt danced his way past a couple of defenders before slotting the ball to the corner of the net with sublime confidence and composure.

On the sad day that’s in it, I can think of no higher compliment than to say that George Best would definitely have approved.

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