Kevin O'NeillComment

LIMERICK FC: A LONG, STRANGE TRIP

Kevin O'NeillComment

Recent times haven't been kind to Limerick FC. But as Kevin O'Neill reports, they're slowly turning things around.

Limerick is a southern Irish city steeped in rugby tradition and history, and thanks to some negative media attention over recent years, is closely associated with a raging culture of gangland crime. But its football club - with seven major honours to its name, and a heady tradition of its own - is gradually threatening a comeback.

As the third largest city in the Republic of Ireland, with an urban population of almost 100,000, one could reasonably expect Limerick FC to be among the country's leading clubs. But apart from a somewhat surprise League Cup triumph in 2002, achieved while playing in Ireland's First Division (2nd tier), the club has endured much turbulence, many name changes, and a dearth of success, since its last major trophy (the FAI Cup) in 1982.

That cup win came on the back of a couple of decades of fine success, with Limerick clinching a famous first ever League of Ireland crown in 1960, and reaching three FAI Cup finals between 1966 and 1971. Furthermore, former Republic of Ireland manager Eoin Hand had returned from England to steer the club to another league title in 1979, and FAI Cup three years later. On the occasion of the cup final win in 1982, legendary goalkeeper Kevin Fitzpatrick was making his final appearance for the club after a 22-year association with the Blues.

In between, Limerick had also sampled much European fare, most notably against the mighty Real Madrid in the 1980 European Cup. The club moved the game to Dublin and Lansdowne Road, understandably predicting a bumper crowd, but the attendance fell well short of expectations, while the Spanish aristocrats struggled to a 2-1 victory. As well as Madrid, Limerick have played five other European ties, against AZ Alkmaar, CSKA Sofia, Torino and Young Boys of Berne. 

Since its foundation in 1937, the club has operated under several guises, including that of Limerick Utd, Limerick City and Limerick 37, and while the likes of Sam Allardyce and Billy Hamilton have managed the club, they've sadly functioned at First Division level since 1994.  Yes, you read correctly. 

Big Sam, famed for his fine work at Bolton Wanderers since, and now West Ham United manager, was once the boss at Limerick. It was 1991 and Limerick had just been relegated to the second tier for the first time in its history. When Allardyce arrived at the club, Limerick were rooted to the bottom of the league table, but quickly Allardyce turned it around. 

Asked about his spell at Limerick some years ago, the current Upton Park supremo admitted to not knowing where Limerick was when contacted about the possibility of taking over there:

"It was a case of any job is better than no job. I needed to feed my family. It wasn't a great route to go down at the time, but experience of life is the best education for anybody," Allardyce has been quoted as saying. Before arriving in Limerick, Allardyce had been assistant manager to Brian Talbot at West Brom, and then had a spell as youth development officer at Sunderland.  

Limerick had a local priest for its chairman at the time, Father Joe Young, and the pair used to roam the streets of Limerick at weekends in a bid to raise enough money to pay the part-time players. Allardyce has also admitted to stopping off at local nightclubs to see what players were inside, partying instead of preparing for a game. His assistant at Limerick was Billy Kinnane, and Allardyce would fly into the country on Thursday evenings, and stay over in Kinnane's house. 

Kinnane said: "He would go to the Brazen Head nightclub in Limerick to drag players out. The money he earned was only a pittance. It went on the few pints he had after a game. He was here to gain experience and it was a tremendous learning curve."

Living a slightly nomadic existence, within the city boundaries, has also handicapped the club since leaving its spiritual home, Market's Field, for Rathbane in 1984. Throw in the popularity of junior football (basically, non-league level) in the city, plus the fact its located in the heart of Munster, a traditional rugby stronghold, and you can see how Limerick have been playing against the breeze in recent times.

A large percentage of local football supporters stray towards the junior game, while Limerick just can't seem to generate the levels of support one might expect in such a large city. Clubs like Fairview Rangers and Pike Rovers are hugely popular in the city, with Pike the current FAI Junior Cup holders. 

However, things started to change when local businessman, Pat O'Sullivan, came on board in 2009, firstly to make a significant financial commitment, which more or less kept the club functioning, before becoming owner of the club in February 2010. Since then, the clouds have lifted. First Division mediocrity was no longer acceptable, and the chief objective was to return Limerick to the top-flight, and possibly former glories.

Plans to re-locate back to Market's Field have been widely applauded, and the club hopes to play there at some stage next season (the 2012 Irish season will run from March to November). The move back to Market's Field came about in unforgettable fashion.

Another wealthy Limerick man, JP McManus, best known as a hugely successful racehorse owner, and partly for his former association with Manchester Utd, was at the heart of it.  McManus, 50, along with business associate John Magnier, had built up a shareholding of just over 28 per cent in  Manchester Utd FC, before they sold on to American businessman Malcolm Glazer in 2005.

Earlier this year, the JP McManus Foundation confirmed it had purchased the Market's Field venue - most recently used for greyhound racing - with a view to making it available to the club. The purchase cost in the region of €1.5 million.

It was the third time McManus had dipped into his enormous pockets to assist the city's sporting endeavours. He had already provided almost €10 million towards the redevelopment of the city's Gaelic Grounds and refurbishment of Thomond Park, where Munster play their well-attended home matches.

McManus' gesture came as a gargantuan fillip to the club, who, thanks largely to O'Sullivan's reportedly deep pockets, had already established themselves as big-spenders over the past couple of seasons. With former Arsenal FA Youth Cup winner, Pat Scully, at the helm, they invested heavily in the playing squad for the 2011 season. 

Scully can split opinion. Often regarded as somewhat arrogant, Scully is not one to pretend to get along with rival managers for the sake of it. His record, as a manager, has been quite impressive though. He took the now defunct Kilkenny City to the brink of promotion to the Premier Division, before leaving to take over at Shamrock Rovers.

Many people know about Shamrock Rovers' impressive history, glut of trophies, and recent European sojourns. But when Scully took over at the club, they had just been relegated to Ireland's second tier. Impressively, Scully completely reshaped the side, and took Rovers back to the top-flight at the first attempt. You could argue he set the wheels in motion for the club's more recent success.

Limerick already had a hugely impressive squad when they acquired the services of former Hartlepool Utd pair Denis Behan and Joe Gamble midway through the season. Both players had experienced extensive success while at Cork City, and Gamble had been capped at international level. They could easily have slotted into any Premier Division side, but instead opted to join Limerick's revolution, perhaps most understandable in Limerick native Behan's case. but their additions further added to a growing reputation as heavy spenders.

As we all know though, a more or less open chequebook doesn't always guarantee total success. While Limerick won 20 of their 30 league matches in the 2011 season - the same number as eventual First Division winners Cork City - they only managed a fourth-placed finish. Not only did they miss out on automatic promotion, but also on a promotion-relegation play-off for the team that finished third. They missed out on the play-off by a single point to Monaghan United, who under the management of former Carlisle United boss, Roddy Collins, have since beaten Galway United in the play-off. 

There were mitigating circumstances though, not an uncommon thread in Irish domestic football. In September, promotion rivals Monaghan were held to a scoreless draw against strugglers Finn Harps, but it later emerged that Harps had fielded an ineligible player. The three points were awarded to Monaghan, taking them above Limerick in the league table, and when the Shannonsiders appeal failed, they never again got back above Monaghan in the race for third place.

In an end of season statement, issued by the chairman, it was clear the incident still rankled.

"We are obviously disappointed the senior team missed out on a deserved promotion play-off spot, not on the number of points won on the field, but due to an administrative issue with the eligibility of a Finn Harps player. I would hope that it will be an area of the rules that the FAI Rules Committee will rectify in the future to ensure no other team suffers in the manner which Limerick FC have," read part of the statement.

There have been some really bright aspects to Limerick's year, with the emergence of midfielder Jeffrey Judge as one to watch a major plus-point. Judge constantly impresses, whether deployed in central midfield, or on the right flank. With a seemingly endless reservoir of energy, Judge can tackle, pass well, and also has a keen eye for goal - attributes that have had observers purring about his potential since he broke into the side in 2010. 

The only major negative to Judge's fledgling career to date was a very public disagreement he had with a team-mate following a defeat to Longford Town during the 2010 season. The other player involved in the unsavoury incident is no longer at the club, but Judge continues to thrive with his home town club.

With the overall standard of the First Division due to drop significantly next season, following the promotion of big-guns Cork and Shelbourne, the smart money will be on Limerick regaining Premier status sooner rather than later. They've already been linked with a number of potentially astute signings, while those who didn't meet expectations last season, will no doubt be dispensed with very quickly. 

They're already most people's favourites to win the division in 2012, and if they keep hold of the majority of last season's squad, Limerick followers can soon start dreaming of repeating past glories at their beloved Market's Field home.

Kevin can be found on Twitter @kevinoneill11

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