Wednesday, October 03, 2007

And The First Shall Again Be Last

Come with me now for a fumble in a dimly lit corner of eircom League football that is usually called the First Division. Akin to the two-headed sibling who's kept locked away in the attic, we rarely come across any mention of the Cinderella division. Modern media concerns itself only with the shiny stuff; this trait applies itself across the British Isles; one has to scratch beneath the epidermis to find the heartbeat of provincial football at the highest level.

Names like Monaghan United, Kilkenny City, and the novices of Kildare County and Wexford Youths are unlikely to have football fans scrambling for train and bus timetables. But they are holding their own side by side with the more established reputations of Shelbourne, Dundalk and Athlone Town. Finn Harps, Cobh Ramblers and the league's 'newest' recruits Limerick 37 complete the package.

True, we expect more from a side representing the 90,000+ residents of Limerick City and its environs - currently the mere existence of one is sufficient. Shels, Harps, Dundalk and Athlone Town are vaunted names in League of Ireland spheres; each at varying stages of redemption and rebuilding. The smaller clubs rarely register on a national scale; but their position provides an outlet for emerging local talent - a stepping stone to greater things. Often poorly supported on and off the field, the very existence of these clubs sometimes beggars belief.

When Athlone Town moved to their shiny new ground they could have called it something sexier than Lissywoollen; their failure to terrorise opposition teams with a testosterone-charged name has backfired badly. Michael O'Connor was allowed to invest in a squad for 2007 worthy of the new stadium; the Midlanders looked like serious contenders for a promotion challenge. Their ineptitude cost the boss his job and the Town continue to languish just above the bottom two, twenty three points off the promotion places - with a sixth placed finish their greatest hope.

Tackling them for that illustrious title are Kildare County and Monaghan United. Mick Cooke gave his squad a transfusion in the second half of the season - it has seen them win half of their last 12 matches - heady stuff for the Mondogeaters who only managed the equivalent in 36 outings last season and took to the field without their 2006 topscorer, David Lee.

The Thoroughbreds can only aspire to justify their ill-judged nickname. It has been another season built on loose and inconsistent performances for John Ryan's side, and they will do well to improve upon last year's harvest of 42 points.

Both Kilkenny City and Wexford Youths are set to finish where most expected. The Cats have been forced into using an incredible forty-two players so far this season; the vast majority of them have been Under 21's. Already on their third manager this term, life is difficult for the hardworking citizens of Buckley Park. The Youths are on the early stages of a journey that Mick Wallace has high hopes for. The boreholes of longterm stability are not yet complete, but nonetheless there have been some flourishes to offer substance to the vision. Not least of these was the provision of a very flamboyant team bus for the young stars of tomorrow. Containing the leather of a large Brazilian beefherd, embossed with the club crest and adorned with the latest in in-bus entertainment, the arrival of the Youths certainly draws attention.

We are all well acquainted with the soap opera surrounding current Premier Division champions Shelbourne. Bothered, bewildered and bereft of a squad in the lead up to their opening league engagement, it was Dermot Keely who stepped into the breach at Tolka Park. It was 'finger in the dyke territory' for the damaged Reds, and they just managed to keep their snouts out of the uncannily blue waters of the Tolka until the transfer window arrived. The hastily borrowed squad was bolstered with some of the bosses' cronies and immediately they began to show the form of promotion hopefuls. It was unavoidably too little too late for the Reds, but 2008 beckons.

Limerick 37 shared the combined difficulties of Wexford Youths and Shelbourne; clubs at opposite ends of the historical scale in Irish football. Both new to the league and laden down with the baggage of times near past they were tasked with lifting eL football out of the doldrums in Limerick. Paul McGee was appointed and the early season results built on the panglossian mood in the West. Players from the old regime gradually returned to help the cause. Wayne Colbert, Robbie Kelliher and Tommy Barrett shelved Premier Division football with Shamrock Rovers in favour of a return to their hometown club. When Paul McGee was said to have applied for the vacancy left by Michael O'Connor at Lissywoollen there was much consternation. Stuttering league form was padded out with a run to the FAI Cup quarter finals; banishment turned the focus on a self-harming run of three wins in eleven games. All those lost points eventually saw Lims slip feebly out of the race to the top; doffing their cap to the royalty of Finn Harps, Dundalk and Cobh Ramblers.

It was easily anticipated that Dundalk would provide a sustained title challenge in 2007. With a stronger squad than that which had seen its hopes go up in flames, almost, the previous season - there was no Shamrock Rovers to foil them and Lims were in a state of disarray. Galway had moved on to the scrub pastures of a relegation catfight in the Premier Division, so who could stop the Lilywhites? Cobh Ramblers? With 13 points separating them at the close of 2006, John Gill's side should still succeed.

In the highlands of the Northwest, money was falling around the feet of new boss Paul Hegarty like drunks at a wedding. Steven Kenny's former right hand at Derry City raided the fringes of Nutsy's new squad; akin to the man from Del Monte he used his insider knowledge to pick only the finest fruit for his cocktail. Financial imperatives had seen the campaign of 2006 undermined at a crucial time - Conor Gethins was seconded to rivals Galway - his goals took United to a promotion of sorts. Back in the Harps' colours it seemed a second successive promotion was almost a formality for the lethal striker. An opening day five-goal thriller against Dundalk put meat on the bones of that supposition. The reversal was no cause for concern; they had matched the peoples' favourites and were unfortunate not to take something from the game.

Echoes of Dundalk's early season reversal at the hands of Shamrock Rovers then. The Louth side lost 2-1 then, but John Gill later surmised that he had underestimated the effect of the defeat on his charges. Dundalk went into a tailspin which culminated in them losing 4 on the trot. Harps' collapse was not quite so dramatic, but one win from their first eight games left them with a lot of work to do. But a run consisting of 14 games without a league defeat, underpinned by a defensive record of just two goals conceded took them right back into the twister. Even when Athlone Town slashed their tyres at the end of August, Higgsy's confident charges responded with a 6-0 demo job on the Cats - followed up with crucial wins over Dundalk, Shels and Cobh.

With home games against Limerick 37, Kildare County and Athlone Town interspersed with trips to Monaghan United, Wexford Youths and Kilkenny City - the title is now theirs to lose. Yet for so long it seemed as if Dundalk would get what Maxi felt was rightfully theirs, as they blazed a trail at the start of the season.

The acquisition of Shaun Williams was a cunning move - the youngster brought poise, class and goals to the Dundalk midfield. The continuation of his loan from rivals Drogheda United was immersed in doubt while he netted his seventh and eighth league goals on June 30th against Wexford Youths. That brace took the talented youngster to the head of Dundalk's, and the Division's scoring charts. His loan status turned out to be an aside; injury took control and the border club have been denied his services anyway. He is still the club's leading league marksman for this campaign. Philip Hughes has failed to scale the heights of last season; fortunately Robbie Doyle has settled in quickly. Gill's gallants face Monaghan united, Limerick 37 and Kildare County on their artificial surface - they'll have to get mucky at Lissywoollen, Wexford and crucially, Cobh.

That win against Wallace's Youths was Dundalk's last away win this season; unbeaten on plastic, that form has been supplanted on grass. When all around are winning you too must be - step out from the darkness Cobh Ramblers.

Preseason was not a happy time in Cobh; not everybody was happy to see Stephen Henderson continue at the helm, feeling he'd had his opportunity and failed. Nevertheless, he remained. Darren Murphy was amongst those who moved on - Shane Guthrie was amongst those who moved in. Guthrie was one half of a near impenetrable centre-half pairing with Aidan Price during Shamrock Rovers' triumphant campaign of 2006 before suffering a legbreak. His defensive ability has been an essential part of an immense back five effort from the Rams thus far. There will be red faces in Queenstown upon recollection of the foetal stages of the season. The assault opened with consecutive defeats to Limerick 37 and Wexford Youths; on both occasions Ramblers failed to find the net themselves. 26 games later, they had not tasted defeat again - until last Friday's cruncher in Finn Park. 27 games without defeat; just three losses in all and the meanest defence in the two divisions that has been violated just 14 times is the stuff of Rovers' emphatic title win.

Did anyone see it coming? Certainly not those who were calling for Hendo's head on a pike in March. Any side that defends as well as the Rams is in with a shout- but just as with Finn Harps when their comfort zone was invaded, it's all about the response to defeat in their next outing. The Rams must visit Kilkenny, Shels and Athlone Town while hosting Kildare, the aforementioned Dundalk and Monaghan United. Let the games commence.

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