Perth has tricky balance to strike keeping Dundalk on top
Champions still favourites as season kicks off with squad strength leaving rivals in shade
Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth celebrates with the President’s Cup. Photograph: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho
The debate still might still rage around Oriel Park as to whether Stephen Kenny did, in the end, eclipse Jim McLaughlin as Dundalk’s greatest ever manager. For Vinny Perth, though, the priority is to avoid being one of the more short-lived.
The 42-year-old, whose side kicks off its latest title defence with a home game against Sligo Rovers this evening, deserved his chance to take over as manager but will be under no illusions about the level of expectation he must now meet.
The champions were the league’s best side by just about every imaginable measure last season and Perth might be considered to be on a hiding to nothing in this, his first campaign out front. If the Lilywhites win again, people will still talk about it being Kenny’s. If they do not, it will not be the now Republic of Ireland Under-21 manager who will be getting the blame.
Brian Gartland spent his time at this week’s league launch expressing the belief to reporters that all will be fine. The central defender, a key campaigner for the club since arriving in Kenny’s early days, spoke of both the shift that has taken place since Perth assumed the top job but also the sense of continuity.
It is a tricky balance to strike but Perth is certainly helped by the strength of the squad available to him. Starting (and winning) the President’s Cup with the same first XI as for the FAI Cup final in November seemed like a statement, a significant one. Even before you take Sean Murray or Daniel Kelly or Aaron McCarthy into consideration, the best of the rest have a bit of catching up to do.
A little breathlessly
First team coach John Gill speaks, a little breathlessly, of the levels of hunger he has encountered amongst the players since seeing them at close quarters for the first time a few weeks back; with the squad, he reckons, still showing more desire to succeed than any he had previously encountered.
Given their collective ability, that should be enough to sustain them through the coming campaign – if he is right. In just about every department they have players who are the best, or very close to it, the league has to offer. Inheriting a side like that must be a very great pleasure in a business where most managers get the job because things have been going so badly. Clearly, though, it leaves little leeway for growing into things.
If they do go well then, the hope is that they will at least be pushed over the entire course of the season. Cork City have done more than that at times over the last few years but the rivalry between the two has been a precious element of the last few campaigns.
It would be great if City can maintain the same levels or even improve on last season but it seems a little unlikely. Whether that means the Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic and/or Waterford can actually significantly shake up the top four or five is another thing, though, and it might be a while before the picture becomes a little clearer on that front.
Beyond that, the division will hopefully be more competitive than last season when whatever benefits we were supposed to derive from the return to a 10-team top flight were completely undermined by the problems at Limerick and Bray Wanderers, something that reduced the anticipated relegation battle to something more like a glacial slide.
The competitive edge to the first division, meanwhile, will be fuelled by the desire to get out of it. There are no €100 million matches in this league but the incentive to secure promotion is still pretty strong.
Like Dundalk, Shelbourne start the season as odds-on favourites to top the table and while there is no questioning the calibre of the signings they have made – the likes Conan Byrne, Ciaran Byrne and Luke Byrne – it is not a division that always goes to plan.
Bray, Limerick, Longford, Drogheda and Cobh . . . too many teams look capable of taking points off each other and Ian Morris’ side to call it with any degree of certainty. Still, both Limerick and Waterford have shown in recent seasons the good use to which a bigger budget can be put, and the Tolka Park outfit certainly start the season well placed to make the running.
Their spending has, of course, been criticised by rivals in a division where some of the budgets are tiny and levels of professionalism sometimes depend less on money than the manager’s outlook and application.
Traditionally positive picture
Inevitably, though, all was declared to be well at all levels again at this week’s league launch where competitions director Fran Gavin painted the traditionally positive picture.
There has been some suggestion that Gavin and the other officials out in Abbotstown are genuinely puzzled by the likes of Niall Quinn failing to appreciate all that the association does for the league, but if true then their own inability to sense how little most of the participating clubs feel it does for them is truly alarming.
In the absence of anything like the transparency required for a properly informed debate the key facts seem to be that commercial revenues remain desperately poor, prize money is still miserably small and static, the clubs are being asked to shoulder a significant chunk of the costs associated with the expanding underage leagues, infrastructural development seems to be entirely dependent on the public purse, and even the money that comes in from Uefa gets held up for months by an organisation whose chief keeps telling the world that all is rosy on the financial front.
The question of whether the league can ever achieve its true potential remains one to be argued over but in terms of setting or structures it has not got noticeably closer since the association took it over.
The quality of the actual football, though, has been getting better noticeably again after the tough times that accompanied the crash, with Dundalk leading the way. Thankfully, it is the time of year when we get to focus on that again.