Limerick hold a slender lead over Finn Harps going into the second leg thanks to Shaun Kelly’s strike at the Markets Field on Monday night. But tonight’s game will very much have a cup final feel about it with anything possible. Limerick’s self-styled ‘Great Escape’ is still on but if that route is finally blocked off by Harps then it will be back to the drawing board in the wasteland that is the First Division. That’s a place the club and its fans don’t want to see again.
The memories of a barren period for the club, played out before low crowds at Hogan Park, along with spells playing at Jackman Park and a season-long stay at Pike Rovers’ ground, are not ones that Limerick football people look back at with fondness. Money was usually in short supply with the club sometimes hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons – on one occasion at Hogan Park brush handles were used when the corner flags couldn’t be located. Every year seemed to bring rumours of potential new investors with big plans but it wasn’t until the arrival of current chairman Pat O’Sullivan that fans genuinely felt the good times could return.
The club’s media officer Keith Wallace says that relegation would be a big blow to the club. “The ‘Great Escape’ promotion has really caught the imagination of fans,” he says. “There is a buzz around the club but relegation would be a disaster. The buzz with staying up would also be there for the off season and would help with season ticket sales.
“If we were to be relegated then we’d be facing 14 home games in the First Division; we’d have two home games against teams like Cobh, UCD and Cabinteely. No disrespect to those clubs but it’s a lot different to playing home games against Dundalk, St Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers.”
Wallace points out that if the unthinkable happened there is no certainty that Limerick could bounce back immediately. “There’s no guarantee that we would win it. Drogheda are down there now and you have the likes of Shelbourne, UCD and Waterford who will all be strong.”
A drop down a division will have an impact on finances, which will in turn have an effect on the type of squad manager Martin Russell can build for 2016.
There would also be a drop in media coverage, especially on a national level.
Having spent nearly 20 years in the lower tier of Irish football, O’Sullivan brought stability to the club and Limerick were finally promoted for the 2013 season. He had promised he would do his best to return the club to the Markets Field Stadium and finally succeeded in June of this year. So it is somewhat ironic that this relegation battle should come at the culmination of what should have been a season of celebration.
The club had hoped to be in the ground for the start of the campaign but delays put this back to June, by which time they had picked up just five points from a possible 42. It’s quite possible that all the hype and excitement of the move, along with the protracted nature of it plus the general uncertainty, had an effect on events on the pitch.
Drogs spoiled the party on opening night in Garryowen with a 2-1 win and Limerick would nick just one more point over the next two months before that elusive first win was secured, against Sligo Rovers, on the first day of August. Limerick have been on a roll ever since. There is a buzz around the club at the moment with over 4,000 fans packing into the ground on Monday night for the play-off final first leg. The club is predicting that as many as 300 fans will travel to Donegal tonight — three buses are fully booked with many more fans travelling independently.
The recent Conroy Report commissioned by the FAI suggested that League of Ireland games should have more of a sense of occasion and importance around them. There’s no doubt that the play-offs this season have had just those ingredients. Limerick will hope to do the business on the pitch tonight to ensure that they can hold a big occasion, in front of big crowds, every second Saturday evening in the Markets Field next year.