From Stephen Kenny’s legacy, Cork City’s purse strings, restless Rovers and Waterford’s renaissance to growing attendances, broadcasting changes and Niall Quinn’s plans —chews on 12 hot topics ahead of the new League of Ireland campaign.
WAITING FOR DECO
The will-he-won’t-he Declan Rice drama finally came to end on St Valentine’s Eve, the West Ham star spurning his Irish suitors for the waiting arms of Gareth Southgate.
There’s so many questions with this one — Could O’Neill have done more? Or Mick McCarthy and Robbie Keane? What if Rice’s grandparents had not left Douglas in Cork?
Could a nostalgic trip to the ancestral homestead followed by a slap-up munch in KC’s with a free pass on the queue for a chips, cheese, and garlic have sealed the deal?
If Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that second and third generations who identify as Irish in the UK must still be entitled to declare for Ireland.
But perhaps the Rice switch reaffirms why the new U13 National League could be of paramount importance, as it’s here where the next generations of Boys in Green must be fostered.
This is where the future begins. But clubs need help paying for running teams at U13, U15, U17, and U19 level, too.
WAITING FOR THE OTHER DECO
I’m not just RTÉ’s Gah man, RTÉ head of TV sport Declan McBennett declared in a recent Irish Times interview, when it was put to him he has more interest in pushing GAA coverage than the foreign game.
League of Ireland fans won’t have been convinced after the decision to slash the screen time of the weekly Soccer Republic show, despite plans for extended coverage for live games.
There will still be 18 live games on the national broadcaster, starting in Dundalk tonight.
eirSport will broadcast 15 live games, with an impressive broadcast team of Conor Morris, Con Murphy, and former Bohs keeper Shane Supple unveiled this week.
PROBLEM CHILD? BLAME THE PARENTS
The league has been dubbed the FAI’s problem child, but as is so often the case, maybe we can blame the parents.
Before a ball has been kicked, the FAI managed to score an own-goal announcing a new all-Ireland play-off between the winners of the Airtricity Premier Divsion and the NI Premiership — without confirmation from their friends in the North.
Meanwhile the SSE Airtricity First Division remains a waste ground, clubs stuck in limbo.
Cobh boss Stephen Henderson vented his fury online this week: “A decade after the ‘Louis Copeland wouldn’t put his cheap suits in the front window’ acclamation, the First Division remains held in contempt. Absolutely fooking galling for those who work their arses off at these clubs.”
A decade after the “louis Copeland wouldn’t put his cheap suits in the front window” acclamation, the first division remains held in contempt. Absolutely fooking galling for those who work their arses off at these clubs.— 🇮🇪Stephen Henderson☘️ (@stevehendo07) February 13, 2019
League director Fran Gavin also confirmed this week that two Premier Division sides would be entered in Scotland’s Irn-Bru Cup, but the scheduling difficulties which forced Bohs to quit this season’s competition after progressing through two rounds shows this link-up needs to be handled with care too.
Also, this week it was announced League of Ireland prize money is unchanged in 2019 — not a surprise but hardly a ringing endorsement of faith in the league.
Less a problem child and more a dysfunctional family.
THE NUMBERS GAME
According to figures compiled by extratime.ie, 441,466 fans turned up for 315 matches across the Premier and First Divisions in 2018.
That figure was up 10,762 on the previous season and 97,221 on 2016.
Can this upward curve be maintained this season?
STEPHEN KENNY — THE GREATEST?
It seems strange to start a new season asking whether the Ireland U21 boss is the best League of Ireland manager there’s been, but this season will tell a lot about Kenny’s place in the pantheon.
A smooth transition and a season of success at Oriel Park will soon have Dundalk fans proclaiming their new king.
If Dundalk fail to prosper, Kenny’s stock only rises further.
WILL MARMITE SPREAD THE LOVE?
Vinny Perth describes himself as ‘Marmite’ — you either love or hate him — and in the past has shown he’s no shrinking violet.
Perth and Cork boss John Caulfield had a tete-a-tete on the night the Lilywhites won at Turner’s Cross to sink the final nail in City’s title challenge last year.
He excelled as a No 2 under Stephen Kenny, but how will he fare in the hot-seat at Oriel Park?
The Lilywhites have kept hold of their double-winning squad from 2018 and made impressive signings, such as Sean Murray, Jordan Flores, and Daniel Kelly.
Dundalk have brought in a steady and experienced hand in John Gill to work alongside Perth, and the signs from the President’s Cup win over Cork were that the league’s top dogs will be harder to stop than ever.
SEASON OF REDEMPTION AT THE CROSS?
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
That quote is from Caulfield. Not Cork City boss John, but Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher In The Rye.
But one can easily imagine Johnny C uttering it this past 12 months too. City came up short to Dundalk in the league and cup last year, while the club’s European adventure turned particularly sour.
Now the challenge facing him at Leeside is bigger than ever before and, after the phony war of the President’s Cup, the real stuff starts now.
With a reduced playing budget, and having lost top scorer Kieran Sadlier, Caulfield has a huge challenge on his hands to keep City pushing for honours, again doing a serious rebuilding job.
The fan ownership model is the pride of Leeside, but Cork must live within their means, and Caulfield has taken envious looks at the budgets of his rivals.
“Ultimately, would you like to be in a position where you’re business-owned like Dundalk and you can keep all your players and pay wages that are much, much higher than other clubs? Maybe you would, but that’s not us,” he said last month.
Maybe Holden Caulfield put it best: “Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”
Bookies have pushed Cork out to third favourites behind Rovers to win honours, but Caulfield always enjoys upsetting the odds.
TURNING HOOPS DREAMS INTO REALITIES
There’s only so many times you call a club a sleeping giant and the natives are restless. Stephen Bradley has been afforded generous time and money on the Hoops project in Tallaght.
The club has been able to sell on Gavin Bazunu to Manchester City for €400,000, while Graham Burke was shaped into an Ireland international by Bradley and brought in a reputed €350,000.
Also, while European football has been consistently achieved, silverware hasn’t been forthcoming.
Painful derby defeats to bitter rivals Bohemians last season didn’t lighten the mood in Tallaght either.
This is the year it has to happen for Bradley at the Hoops and they couldn’t face a much tougher start than away to Waterford.
THE BLUES ARE BACK
These are good times in the south-east, with average crowds up by more than 700 last season.
Alan Reynolds’ side will compete in Europe for the first time in 33 years this season.
Under the patronage of owner Lee Power, the club looked to be mounting a title challenge in the first half of last season, but it petered out.
This season, they have recruited heavily. Reynolds will hope he now has a squad to mount a title challenge and deal with the pressures of a European campaign.
Keith Long’s Bohemians played some of the best football in the SSE Airtricity League last season, but the Gypsies have had to rebuild, as they have lost key asset, though Long is capable of defying the doubters again.
Meanwhile, in Inchicore, the Saints could rise again under Harry Kenny, who has been backed by his board on the transfer front and, while UCD will be favourites to go down, Collie O’Neill will have other ideas.
BEYOND THE PALE
What will come out of the northwest this year? Declan Devine has made Barry McNamee captain, as he looks to get Derry City back into Europe, while the wily Liam Buckley’s tenure at Sligo will be one to watch. The trip to Ballybofey to face Ollie Horgan’s Finn Harps must be one of the league’s most daunting.
QUINNER ON A WINNER?
Niall Quinn has plans for the League of Ireland, but league director Fran Gavin suggested the former Sunderland chief must put some meat on the bone before those plans can be seriously considered, but from Highbury to the Stadium of Light, Quinn has always been able to get his head around lost causes on and off the pitch.
Don’t expect the big man — and the investors he’ll have — to give up easily.