Stephen Kenny: Relegating three Premier Division teams is ‘very harsh’

FAI’s Fran Gavin refuses to clarify how Airtricity League restructuring was agreed

Stephen Kenny reckons the relegation of three of this year's top-flight clubs will be "very, very harsh", but there was no new information on Wednesday as to how exactly a restructuring of the Airtricity League was agreed.

The FAI’s competitions director insisted at the new season’s launch that the matter was not up for discussion.

"I'm not going back on it again," Fran Gavin told members of the media while answering questions from them for the first time since the changes were announced.

“The decision is, it’s going to be 10 and 10 [in the two divisions from 2018]. It’s going to make a very exciting league and we are where we are.”

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Gavin repeated his position several times and was just as unforthcoming on this year's licensing decisions. Wexford, for instance, were granted one, despite having made what was most likely a late application given the timing of the move by one of Mick Wallace's creditors to bankrupt the previous incarnation of the club.

“The licence committee made the decision,” Gavin said. “An independent committee. They made their decisions and they were satisfied with the application, and they [Wexford] have been rewarded with a First Division licence.”

Few would have liked to have seen Wexford put out of football in the way that was intended but that does not alter the fact that, yet again, the association’s much-trumpeted system for the maintenance of standards in the club game has been left looking like little more than a bit of dressed-up ducking and diving intended, first and foremost, to keep the show on the road.

None of which, of course, is Shane Keegan’s problem, although the former Wexford Youths and now Galway United manager has enough to keep himself busy as he attempts to ensure that his new club does not get dragged into what could be a wide-ranging relegation battle, with three clubs going to go down.

Separate ourselves

“There’s going to be a hell of a lot to play for, for everyone involved,” he said.

“We finished down around the bottom half of the table last time, so the question will be whether we can separate ourselves from those three relegation spots over the first round of games.

“If you can do that, then you can focus on kicking on and finishing in the top half of the table. But for us, the initial focus is avoiding that bottom three.”

While Stephen Kenny is highly unlikely to have to concern himself with things at that end of the table, he acknowledges that enforcing a cull that affects a quarter of his top-flight colleagues is pretty tough on them.

“The stakes are high, and it’s very harsh in a 12-team league for three teams to go down; very, very harsh,” he said. “I think the European places are up for grabs; the league title is up for grabs, a lot of teams will feel that they can make a fair challenge at it.

"The way we feel about it at Dundalk is that nobody gives you anything. We understand that we have to start again with no points and what we've done before counts for nothing now; we've got to go again.

"We have to go away to Cork, away to Derry and away to Sligo in the first six game and we also have Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick's and Limerick in those first six games, so it's as tough a start as you could get and the challenge for us is that we have some new players coming in and we have to integrate them and hit the ground running.

“It’s a big test for everyone to go again but we certainly won’t be lacking hunger or the determination to do it.”

New pitch

If Kenny sounded certain on that point, he seemed less convinced when asked about the club’s new pitch being ready for the visit of Rovers on Friday week. “It’s not finished yet,” he said. “Apparently it will be ready for next week. The club only took over the lease just after Christmas and immediately work started straight away. It’s due to be ready for next week.”

Harry Kenny, meanwhile, admits that he is not quite sure what to make of the news that his team will be competing in the Scottish Challenge Cup but he admits that it might yet to be an unwelcome distraction if Bray Wanderers are scrapping for points towards the end of the league season here.

"I don't really know the ins and outs of it, to be honest," said Kenny after it was confirmed that an invitation from Scotland for two teams to participate had been accepted and that Wanderers, along with Sligo Rovers – the two highest-placed sides not to qualify for Europe last season – will be representing the league in what will be the 2017/18 edition of the competition.

“If we’re mid-table, it’ll be nice to have something to look forward to; if you’re challenging for anything at all, then it could be a hindrance, to be perfectly honest. But as things stand, it’s a nice little reward for finishing where we did last year.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times