League of Ireland buzz is back, and we’re getting that Friday feeling again

There’s a sense of hope around the league this year – and also a sense of new direction

Finally, Fridays get their League of Ireland buzz back.

And it feels like something is a little different this time. There’s a bit more hope around the league this year, I feel.

The usual preview pieces and interviews and storylines are written. Season tickets are selling fast and the pitches are impeccably cut, lined and marked, ready for the big kick-off.

Players will welcome the rolling of the match balls as the pre-season slog gets left behind. There’s a great air of anticipation about the place, a new energy.

The only dark clouds that have hung over this week's build-up are those borne by Storm Eunice, and whilst no one will welcome rain and snow, it's refreshing that the turbulent conditions are weather- and football-related.

Season ticket sales are reportedly strong as many clubs start investing in their stadia to improve the supporter experience, and if the atmosphere in grounds at the end of last season was anything to go by, many of Friday night’s games should be sold out.

Add the recent launch of the FAI’s strategic plan, where there is a pillar wholly dedicated to framing the future, which means there is an onus on people to deliver.

Developing facilities is a standout area as well, with over half the respondents to an FAI survey emphasising the importance of infrastructure and the need to collaborate more with government and local authorities.

The nationwide facilities audit is an important piece of work but it must be seen through a different lens. Asking the right questions now of the people we foresee using them will create facilities that embody the inclusive football culture that the strategy aims to create.

Ladies’ toilet

As a football coach in the League of Ireland up until last season, my choices were to go outside to use the ladies’ toilet used by supporters, which is not always ideal in away grounds when stakes are high, or use the one beside the urinals that everyone uses.

Just asking, if female teams are using the facilities, is there space for male staff? If male teams are using the facilities, is there space for female staff?

The facilities audit has the potential to be one of the most important pieces of work ever done in Irish football and the follow-through on delivery will be a game-changer. But for now, the facilities will be packed to the rafters on Friday night as the Premier and First divisions kick off.

An additional bonus is the fact that we start this season with a vision for the next one.

The Premier Division looks to be a fascinating prospect, with some great personalities leading teams and some exciting players playing in them

Plans for a men’s third tier for 2023 and for a women’s second tier by 2025 is exactly the type of forward thinking that’s needed. It creates scope for discussion, planning, delivery and, most importantly, accountability.

The biggest thing that has been missing for this league was a vision and now it has somewhere to go. This also allows the shorter-term business of winning matches and competing to take centre stage.

The Premier Division looks to be a fascinating prospect, with some great personalities leading teams and some exciting players playing in them. Everyone goes into matchday one with that slightly nervous energy wondering if pre-season was enough. You never know where you are until about 20 minutes into that first game.

A win in the first up is huge, because it just puts rubber on the road. A draw is not the end of the world, but losing the first game can be a real drag on energy and the pressure is felt straight away.

Relentless

Defeat in the first game also means you have to win the second. And so the cycle begins. From there it’s relentless. One game into the next, trying to generate momentum.

Both men's divisions will be highly competitive this year. Shamrock Rovers will be gunning for three-in-a-row, but for newly promoted UCD, facing the champions on day one is as daunting as it gets.

St Patrick's Athletic, under new boss Tim Clancy, look as if the last few years of development are starting to stand to them whilst the Damien Duff factor at Shelbourne is hugely engaging, and this one at Tolka Park will grace the TV screens for those who prefer to observe from home.

Derry City could be the dark horse this year. Some shrewd recruitment from Ruaidhrí Higgins means the Brandywell is going to be a tough place to visit. Over the last few years, you could go there and expect to get points; it was not always that way, and it certainly won't be that way this year. Dundalk, under Stephen O'Donnell, will be an interesting prospect after a very turbulent year and, as subplots go, Friday night's opener between these two clubs will be fascinating. There will be no love lost, that's for sure.

The first division looks like it could be more competitive than last year. Waterford, Galway United, Cork City and Bray Wanderers look strong. Treaty United too. It's impossible to call.

To all those who are in for this instalment, good luck for the season. Let’s hope it’s a great one that sets a few records for all the right reasons.

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