Wexford Youths will only, if all goes well, secure promotion to the top flight this evening but already there has been criticism from old League of Ireland heads about Shane Keegan's new kids on the block.
The gist of the question being asked by the sceptics is: “what will they bring to the Premier Division party?” There’s more than a hint of: “If no one likes us, we don’t care,” about club chairman Mick Wallace’s reply.
The club has been a long-term pet project of the well-known developer-cum- politician who poured millions during the good times into its home at Ferrycarrig only to lose control of the ground after using it for security against business loans. He hasn’t given up hope of getting it back some day, but it is not the facilities that are riling the game’s establishment.
Rather it is the fact Wexford Youths are an amateur side with little enough support about to enter a group desperate to be more, not less, professional but needing every possible extra body through the turnstiles in order to make that happen.
Wallace, as might be expected, is unapologetic. “Look,” he says, “450,000 people play football in Ireland and what? Maybe 300 get paid for it. It’s an amateur sport for the most part and I happen to like it that way. The likes of Shamrock Rovers, Sligo, Dundalk and St Pat’s can pay players and that’s great, fair dues to them but that doesn’t mean there should be no non-professional football.”
In any case, he adds: "Shane Keegan has brought professionalism to us in a way that I would say has been beautiful. We are professional in every way except in terms of actually paying the players."
That, of course, is kind of the defining way but Wallace is scathing about the sort of approach that the club’s critics would have them adopt.
“Kilkenny went out of business because they turned to Dublin for its players,” he contends. “I’m not parochial but it is supposed to be a facility for the local people and I can’t see the point of the club if local people can’t get the chance to play for it. We had a guy from Dublin last year,” he adds after a moment’s silence. “So it’s not a hard and fast rule.”
Another moment passes before he concludes less seriously: “If I could get a good Italian I’d probably play him alright.”
The choice, he readily acknowledges, however, is not his. Keegan is a young, dedicated and ambitious manager somewhat, it seems, in the mould of Stephen Kenny. The 33-year-old makes the comparison himself although, to be fair, he is mainly making the point that neither had a playing career to shout about but both are managing teams on course to win their respective divisions.
Keegan comes from Laois originally where he started running kids teams at his local club, which happened to be in Kilkenny, before a spell with Carlow in the A Championship served as a stepping stone to Wexford where the team had narrowly avoided finishing last in the league the previous season.
In each of the three campaigns that followed progress of one type or another but nothing concrete achieved and so the start of this season was sort of a crunch time for players and manager.
Keegan said: “I wasn’t sure I was going to go again but we talked and we said that, ‘well if we are going to do it we have to give it a right go’. Then we lost our first two to the teams that are last and second last in the table now. But that’s the way it is, a tough division with no stand-out teams really. We’ve won our last six games but won every one by a single goal so the margins are tight. We’ve just been coming out on right side of them which is what matters.”
It is, he insists, very much a collaborative effort and when he starts to list players who deserve particular credit, it seems hard to believe that he is leaving anyone out.
do get special mentions along with the likes of central defensive partners
, the latter a soldier, one of three in a side that also includes several students, all of them playing for expenses.
Danny Furlong gets a prominent mention too. His goals have been key to the side's success and they are bound to make him a target for other clubs next season. Keegan appreciates the financial side of things can't easily be ignored but points to the fact that when Furlong left before he barely got a look in at Cork City.
“Our game plan is basically to create as many goal scoring chances as we can for Danny. I’m not giving away any secrets there, that’s what we do. To go from that into the unknown at another club again would be a gamble for him.”
Assuming they do go up, and it seems a pretty safe assumption even if it doesn’t quite happen this evening, sticking to their guns, as both men say they will, and continuing to field a side drawn mainly from Wexford and its neighbouring counties, will be a gamble too but, win or lose, Wallace maintains, he is happy to play that hand.
“The money that I’ve put in has gone into infrastructure, not players’ wages, that’s how you build something,” he says. “Do I think we will be able to compete in the Premier Division? I don’t know. Will we get relegated? Maybe. Football is like that, teams find their level and we’ll be no different.”
For the moment, though, they’re happy to believe finding their level involves going up.