Having been faced with dire financial problems & falling attendances, the League of Ireland is now entertaining & competitive enough to suggest a bright future
Whether won in March or November, three points are only ever three points. For St. Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers though, every week three points look more and more important, while three points for lowly Drogheda United would still see them short of double figures for the season.
Six teams currently sit within ten points of each other at the right end of a ten team Airtricity Premier League but only now have Shamrock Rovers finally slumped back from top spot. Not only did Rovers’ 2-0 away defeat to Sligo Rovers see them over taken by the currently irresistible St. Pat’s – unbeaten in fourteen games including ten wins in that period – the result also sees Sligo move into the title picture.
At the bottom, Drogheda United have left Galway United adrift at the bottom but are still in perilous trouble themselves. Barring some small miracle, Drogheda and UCD, who have themselves lost seven of their last eight, will contest the promotion relegation playoff system that will see one or the other relegated to the second tier. The best will in the world couldn’t save the Galway though. Currently with only five points from their twenty games, the club is already planning for life in the First Division having lost fourteen on the trot. Even if they are relegated, the future may be bright for the Drogs though. They are on the way to becoming a supporter-owned club through their Claret & Blue scheme. 200 shares are being sold at €1,000 each to provide a new stability, building blocks for the 2011-2012 season. Swings and roundabouts, or something like that.
Two defeats in a row have seen Bray Wanderers slip away from their foray towards the top. The Seagulls’ home and away wins against relative giants Shamrock Rovers have been a highlight for many neutral observers, being symptomatic of the new competitiveness of the league. Despite these huge victories, most Bray supporters will simply be delighted that their young and improving side has been absent from the lower reaches of the table.
Alongside Bray in mid-table are Derry City, Bohemians and Dundalk. Bray and Dundalk may be happily looking back at a relegation battle that they have managed to avoid, but Derry and Bohs will still be looking up towards a title race that they still feel they have a say in. Both teams will look back in regret at points dropped in games where their quality should have earned them more but, despite stuttering form, neither will give up. This season has shown that any club can go away and take points from anyone else, and a few wins on the trot could lift any of the mid-table sides back into contention.
Every week there is a surprise performance or two, a couple of results that keep everything chaotic. This has been the key to the success of Monday Night Soccer, the League of Ireland’s answer to Match of the Day. While it may not be a massive ratings boost for the state broadcaster, RTÉ, MNS has at least led to a much-needed modicum of critical debate around the Irish club game.
While the show may not boast the names of internationally respected misanthropes/pundits Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady, a mix of older and younger faces give their insights into Bohemians’ lack of goals and UCD’s unique colander defence.
Previously, “serious” discourse on the League of Ireland was limited to the thoughts of whoever was then out of work on the managerial carousel, all scribbled across the inside sports pages of whichever tabloid would pay them. Now the voices of former Milwall striker Richard Sadlier, Damien Richardson and Eoin Hand – who, respectively, played for Portsmouth and Gillingham during the seventies – are joined by a myriad of others including other former professionals and more established managerial names like Brian Kerr and Roddy Collins. Monday Night Soccer is giving people something to engage with, something that hadn’t happened with the show’s previous form on rival channel TV3. That show - Eircom League Weekly - died with the transition of league naming rights from telecommunications company Eircom to renewable energy provider Airtricity.
The combination of a highly competitive Premier League with some genuine media attempts to simultaneously raise the profile of the domestic game while adding considered criticism has rejuvenated public interest. Only a few seasons ago the collective had little interest in domestic football outside select areas like Tallaght and Inchicore in Dublin, the areas in which Shamrock Rovers and St. Pat’s are based. That isn’t to say that the streets are now flooded with Galway United, Bohemians or Dundalk jerseys, but it does mean that people are aware of the league. The masses of Irish Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal supporters are now far more likely to visit the grounds of their local side on a Friday night, or at least follow them in the papers or on television. They might even be able to name a few players.
The financial and organizational troubles that have bitten at the League of Ireland over the past number of years have not gone away, but they’re more distant now. At this moment, seven of the ten teams that contest the top flight could seriously claim that they still have designs on this year’s title. Even the teams at the bottom will look forward to an exciting playoff system of promotion and relegation. The real success though, is that your average punter might be able to tell you all about it, especially in work on a Tuesday morning.