A whole new ball game at Thomond

John O’Sullivan was standing guard beside the First Division trophy as the launch of the Airtricity League 2013 season drew to a close in the Aviva Stadium yesterday.

Fingering the silverware, he smiled and confessed that the last time he’d touched the cup had been when he drank champagne from it on the night Cork City won the First Division title with a last-gasp victory over Shelbourne at Tolka Park in October 2011.

O’Sullivan was chairman of City then, one of the founding members of the FORAS supporters’ group which had rescued the club when it had been on the verge of extinction. But now, after a season working with Athlone Town, he’s freshly installed as the chief executive of Limerick FC, who themselves are finally back in the top flight after an absence of 19 years.

And, of course, football logic had to dictate it’s Cork and Limerick who will meet tomorrow week (March 10) at Thomond Park in the new season’s first round of fixtures, though John insisted there’ll be no question of him suffering conflicting emotions on the big day.

“No, no, I’ll be wearing a Limerick suit and a Limerick hat,” he said.

“It’s great for the club, being a Munster derby, but good for me personally as well, because a lot friends and a lot of people I’ve worked with in the past will be around. I had a great chat with [Cork City manager] Tommy Dunne there today. He’s trying to get information out of me but I’m not giving anything away.”

The special circumstances of the fixture – a first top flight Limerick-Cork game in many years but also the Shannonsiders’ debut at their salubrious temporary home of Thomond Park – made it a persuasive choice to be RTÉ’s curtain-raising live broadcast of the season. But, rather more controversially, it also means that, while the league officially kicks off next Friday night, the two Munster clubs will have to wait until Sunday at 5.15pm when they’ll find themselves vying for hearts and minds with Manchester United v Chelsea in the FA Cup on the box.

Limerick’s preference would have been to play the match on Saturday evening when, O’Sullivan reckons, they might have expected to draw a crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000 to the home of Munster rugby. Now, they’re anticipating somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000 on the Sunday while planning and hoping for more.

“But we’re still expecting lots of colour and noise,” said O’Sullivan.

“We have a team that will play entertaining football and if we can’t get people out for a Munster derby after 19 years out of the Premier Division we’ll have to question if we’re doing things right.”

Airtricity League Director Fran Gavin confirmed yesterday RTÉ requested the date and kick-off time but says both clubs were included in the discussions and that “there wasn’t a huge issue in it”. He also insisted the gate will still be significant – anything from 5,000 to 10,000 was his perhaps overly optimistic guess – and suggested that, in any event, people need to consider the bigger picture.

“It’s important that we have a live game on that weekend,” he said.

“Yes, clubs like to have their games on at what they would see as their prime-time locally – like Sligo on a Saturday – but we have to meet the demand for television. Clubs do want to be live on television too because commercially it’s good for them and good for their sponsors. ”

For new Limerick boss Stuart Taylor, the most important thing is that his players don’t become distracted by the trappings of the occasion.

“It’s unusual for the first game of the season to be a derby,” he conceded, “but it’s great hype for the season’s start. Playing at Thomond will be inspiring for us and then it’s up to us to make it intimidating for the opposition. There’s a great buzz about the town, everyone is desperate for the season to start and to see the boys playing in the Premier League. The stakes are never too high for any game. All these attractions are for the supporters, for the club. The players are only dealing with one thing and that’s the football game.”

His counterpart in Cork, Tommy Dunne, offered an early candidate for understatement of the season when observing, with a grin, that “Thomond – with all due respects to Jackman Park – will be a step up”.

And for him too, the big game can’t come quick enough now. “It’s fantastic for the League,” he enthused, “it’s going to be a great spectacle. I think it’s going to be a typical derby. It’ll be blood and thunder, neither team will want to lose and I think it will capture everybody’s imagination.”

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