It’s three down, one up for LOI season

With the restructuring of the League of Ireland, it has suddenly become easier to fall out of the Premier Division and harder to get into it.

The FAI announced yesterday that, following discussions with the Premier Clubs Alliance (PCA), the 2018 season will see the SSE Airtricity League switch to a 10-team, two-division format.

It has also been confirmed that there will be no promotion-relegation play-off for the coming 2017 season, meaning that three teams will drop down and only one — the First Division champions — will be promoted for the 2018 campaign.

The 10-team format was one of the recommendations of the 2015 Conroy Report on Irish club football, but others to do with the detailed mechanics of the new format have yet to be decided.

These include the report’s proposals that the Premier Division in 2018 be split into a top six/bottom four after three series of games - with the top six to play five more games and the bottom four to play another three, and that the final Europa League place be decided in a play-off.

These and other issues are set to be discussed by the FAI, the PCA and their legal representative, Michael Cush, at a meeting on January 16.

While a majority of Premier Division clubs voted in favour of the move to a 10-team structure — which the Conroy Report argued would produce more big match “occasions” — there had also been some calls for an expanded top flight, as well as opposition to the changes, especially from within the First Division.

Also, it will have been noted that, even with three down and one up, the Conroy Report had envisioned that a play-off between the ninth team in the Premier Division and the winners of a play-off between second and third in the First Division would still have been retained as a feature of the coming season.

The FAI said yesterday that a number of other recommendations from the report are in the process of being implemented, including a focus on facility development, the establishment of a marketing group with club representation, and the launch of a new official SSE Airtricity League website for the 2017 season.

However, it’s the high stakes to be played for in the coming year — and the harsher penalties for failure — which right now will be uppermost in the thoughts of clubs and supporters, as they also digest yesterday’s unveiling of the fixture list for the new season. The pick of the first Friday, February 24, is the meeting of champions Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers at Oriel Park, a game which means an immediate return to his former club for midfielder Ronan Finn, as the Lilywhites set out to try to emulate the Hoops’ famous four-in-a-row title success.

On the same night, last season’s runners-up and current FAI Cup holders Cork City begin their campaign with the long trip to Ballybofey in Donegal to take on Finn Harps.

For their first outing in the top flight, this year’s runaway First Division champions Limerick will host Sligo Rovers at the Markets Field on Saturday, February 25. The first head-to-head between the big two in the SSE Airtricity League will be a Saturday fixture on March 25, when Cork City host Dundalk at Turner’s Cross.

In other League of Ireland news, former Ireland international Keith Andrews is to work with the St Patrick’s Athletic underage sides while completing his Pro Licence course. St Pat’s director of football for underage teams Ger O’Brien said: “Keith has recently started his pro licence and we are delighted we can help him over the duration of his course. It’s fantastic for the club and particularly our underage players and coaches to have someone of the calibre of Keith come in and work with our teams.”

Meanwhile, Athlone Town have confirmed that Colin Fortune will be their first-team manager. Chairman John Hayden said: “Colin took over in an interim capacity last June and did an excellent job with the players. He knows the club inside out, having served as both a player and, in recent years, as a coach of our successful underage teams. It makes perfect sense for all concerned that he be reappointed as manager for the entire 2017 First Division campaign.”

TOMORROW:

Read Cork City manager John Caulfield’s verdict on the new League format

Liam Mackey

Higher stakes and harsher penalties will concentrate thoughts of clubs and fans


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