SSE Airtricity League preview: FAI must keep the recovery going

Dundalk have raised standards, but clubs need backing to continue improvement

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates last season’s league title win. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates last season’s league title win. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

It may be a dozen years or so since the FAI’s then chief executive, Fran Rooney, said that things needed to change in a league where the clubs were undercapitalised and living day to day. It’s nine now since Noel Mooney said that an association-backed marketing campaign was going to mark “a turning point” in its history. But as we get set for the 2016 season, life remains much as it ever was in what we now call the SSE Airtricity League.

The soccer has been getting consistently better again over the past couple of seasons, though, with Dundalk last year raising the bar for their rivals as they defended the league and completed the double while playing in an impressive style. If Stephen Kenny’s side can maintain those standards for a third straight year and the others can close the gap, even a little bit, we could be treated to quite a title race over the course of the next eight months.

Dundalk’s latest defence kicks off, though, at a time when the league’s leading sides have felt the need to hire heavyweight legal representation (Michael Cush SC) in the hope of being taken a little more seriously by the association. Ultimately, the clubs want to have more of a say in the how the league is run, but, before that, they’d like to know a bit more about how it is run. Most find it remarkable that they are kept in the dark with regard to commercial contracts and the like.

The FAI has, meanwhile, effectively handed them a far greater role in the development of the country’s future players. That’s a good thing, but even some of those whose love of the game here is beyond question have their doubts about the ability of the clubs to step up to the challenge without serious support. Resources remain a key issue and if the clubs go even some way towards doing the work of other countries’ elite academies, then the financial models are going to have to be rather more ambitious than anything wheeled out so far.

In terms of their first teams, clubs are showing signs of recovery over the past year or so, with players being offered somewhat better and longer contracts. But infrastructural investment remains patchy, with Derry City, Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers among a handful of clubs on the verge of significant developments.

Others are gradually finding better ways of doing new things. Some have already introduced improved underage structures, marketing set-ups or community initiatives. It seems momentarily mystifying that they cannot all learn from each other how the jigsaw might fit together until you remember that it almost all costs money and that is something that is in very short supply.

The association insists that it is trying to do its bit and has revealed that there will be about €150,000 in additional prize money, or roughly €10,000 per club, the bulk of it coming from the controversial Trackchamp deal announced last year. The money comes from a company set to provide what looks likely to be poor-quality match footage through its website to fans on the somewhat embarrassing condition (for the association, clubs and league) that they have an “active” betting account with the company.

Nobody will be turning down the money, but a few might well have opposed the deal had they even been consulted before the deal was signed. What makes the whole thing more remarkable is that the contract is due to run well beyond the expiration of the current merger between the league and the association.

For those supporters with more direct access to the action here at home, the new season promises plenty to interest and entertain. The bookies’ estimation that the title race itself is, at best, a four-team affair is probably fair enough, but there is a lot of room for movement among a chasing pack that produced some surprises last season.

If the four can start to make some serious headway in Europe again, things really will feel like they are moving in the right direction again. In the meantime, after four months of darkness, at the very least the Friday-night lights will be a very welcome sight.

BOHEMIANS
Last year: 5th.
Title odds: 50/1

The early season form of Keith Long’s side was one of the great surprises of last year and though they ran out of steam somewhat as the months wore on, they were the only side to beat Dundalk in the league and finished the season in a highly creditable fifth place with a sense of a restored spirit about the club.

Most of the team has been retained including key performers like Roberto Lopes and Ismahil Akinade. Kurtis Byrne looks the best of the signings although he would be eclipsed if Mark Quigley actually manages to rediscover his form of a few seasons back.

BRAY WANDERERS
Last year: 8th
Title odds: 66/1

After a traumatic year that ended with the team avoiding relegation in a surprisingly comfortable manner really, Mick Cooke has been given resources in the hope that he might he discover the touch he displayed at Drogheda United.

Conor Kenna, Alan Byrne and Ryan Brennan come into a side that already includes experienced goalkeeper Peter Cherrie and with the link to St Joseph’s Boys restored there is the prospect of more good young players to come. There should be onfield progress then but it will be almost as interesting to see how things at boardroom level develop.

CORK CITY
Last year: 2nd
Title odds: 3/1

John Caulfield might argue that he is a victim of his own early success in the City job but the reality is that there will be greater pressure this year to topple Dundalk.

Things have certainly been significantly reshaped and there appears to be a better balance between youth and experience as well as, one suspects, the ambition to play a brighter style of football. Greg Bolger looks to be the key recruit but Gearoid Morrissey’s return and Seán Maguire’s arrival all look to have improved a team that always really looked second best last time around.

DERRY CITY
Last year: 7th
Title odds: 150/1

Against the background of the Brandywell’s redevelopment, new manager Kenny Shiels faces a difficult task to significantly improve the on-field fortunes of a club that has been one of the league’s best at bringing on talented young players but has consistently struggled to keep them.

There are some bright prospects again to look out for again and Keith Ward looks a decent recruit but the team’s immediate fortunes may depend first and foremost on the ability to Rory Patterson to stay fit and score goals because they didn’t get nearly enough last season.

DUNDALK
Last year: 1st
Title odds: 10/11

The champions had such a decisive edge on everybody else last year that the title seems almost theirs to blow this year but then their closest rivals look to have improved, the departure of Richie Towell takes a lot of goals out of the side and winning in the way they do is a hard thing to sustain over a prolonged period of time.

Stephen Kenny has recruited Pat McEleney and Robbie Benson, both of whom should prove to be good signings and if Stephen O’Donnell avoids injury he will be like a terrific one. Still, making it three in a row would be a tremendous achievement.

FINN HARPS
Last year: Promoted via play-offs
Title odds: 750/1.

Harps did very well to nick promotion ahead of UCD but Ollie Horgan has been dampening expectations at every turn over the last few weeks and his side will do very well to avoid going straight back down this season.

Richard Brush, Ryan Curran and Seán Houston will bring much needed top-flight experience and it will be interesting to see how Ryan McConnell adapts to life back in Ballybofey after his time at Manchester United. The side as a whole, though, will surely have to thrive there if they are to have any chance of battling their way to safety.

GALWAY UNITED
Last year: 10th
Title odds: 200/1

After the turmoil of the last few years, United had plenty of cause for satisfaction for last season even if they only avoided the play-off spot by two points in the end.

Tommy Dunne has assembled a talented young group and he had an awful lot to cope with last year on the injury front. Jake Keegan’s departure robs the team of one of its leading goalscorers but the hope will be that Vinny Faherty will maintain the sort of form he showed at Limerick. The number of goals conceded is at least as big a concern Armin Aganovic’s ability to settle in after arriving from Sweden may prove key.

LONGFORD TOWN
Last year: 6th
Title odds: 400/1

Their top six finish was a remarkable achievement last season but this year may prove every bit as challenging as experienced players like Stephen Rice, Pat Sullivan and skipper Mark Salmon depart. The loss of Gary Shaw to Shamrock Rovers will, it is hoped, be offset by the return of Josh O’Hanlon on loan from Bournemouth.

Former underage international Kealan Dillon looks to be the pick of the other close season signings and, overall, they will probably do very well to repeat last year’s success and they will surely need to tighten up defensively if they to manage it.

SHAMROCK ROVERS
Last year: 3rd
Title odds: 3/1

This will be an interesting year for Rovers and their manager Pat Fenlon who is bound to find himself under more pressure to have the team seriously challenging for, if not actually winning, the title.

On the face of it, they were only two points adrift of Cork in second last season although their run of six unbeaten at the end as City lost their way a bit, skews things slightly. Still, Brandon Miele and Mikey Drennan are amongst the young players who showed a lot of promise while Killian Brennan returns and a consistently fit Danny North could be a huge boost.

SLIGO ROVERS
Last year: 9th
Title odds: 66/1

New manager Dave Robertson has introduced a fair bit of fresh blood to a squad that retains very few of the players that won the league just three years ago and Alan Keane, Richard Brush, Dinny Corcoran and David Cawley have all gone since the end of last season.

Amongst the new arrivals with league experience are Mick Leahy from UCD and Michael Schlingermann from Drogheda United. Robertson clearly rates some of the players he has brought from England, several of whom he has worked closely with before but, not for the first time at the Showgrounds, there quite a few unknowns.

ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC
Last year: 4th
Title odds: 9/1

After a disappointing 2015 campaign, things have been shaken up a bit at Richmond Park where the loss of central midfielders Greg Bolger, James Chambers and Killian Brennan ensures that there will be a different feel to the side.

Dinny Corcoran should relieve some of the pressure on Christy Fagan while Keith Treacy, David Cawley, Mark Timlin, Graham Kelly and Billy Dennehy all provide new options across the midfield. At least as important will be Liam Buckley’s ability to field a more settled back five given the problem he had to endure in that department last time around .

WEXFORD YOUTHS
Last year: Promoted as D1 champions
Title odds: 500/1

Shane Keegan did a remarkable job to guide Wexford to the first division title last year and has done well to retain the team’s best players, most obviously runaway top scorer Danny Furlong.

On the face, of it, though, he’ll be doing very well to avoid this season being a long scrap to avoid going straight back down. The club’s ethos is hugely admirable but the squad’s relative lack of experience of this level and their tendency, even in the first division, to concede quite a few goals, leaves them looking vulnerable. Danny Ledwith is the best known of the new recruits.

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