This coming Sunday, November 8th, will see the curtain come down on yet another League of Ireland season as league Champions Dundalk battle back to back league runners up Cork City in the 2015 FAI Cup final.
Despite the fact the domestic league here in Ireland has one of the longest off-seasons in Europe you will already find businesses being done by the majority of the twenty league clubs in preparation for 2016.
The league and its members have for many years being criticised for its short term and quick fix approach with forty-two-week contracts the norm and a resulting merry-go-round of playing staff unrivalled by any other league in Europe.
The LOI has one of the highest player turn over rates within UEFA competitions and it has been long said by pundits that this lack of continuation of players with their clubs is a huge stumbling block in trying to put players on a pedestal and use them as a marketing tool in attracting more fans and particularly kids to local grounds.
However, is this one season vision mentality about to change within League of Ireland circles? It may be, as already this ‘off-season’ (forgive me Limerick, Harps, Cork and Dundalk fans but the rest of us have run our race for 2015) ‘long-term’ contracts have been handed out at Cobh Ramblers and Bray Wanderers.
Having rejoined the national league in 2013, following a four-year absence, Cobh Ramblers have had an up-and down few years both on and off the field. Initial signs were encouraging for the ”Rams” with large crowds and exciting football on display at St.Colmans Park.
However, the novelty soon wore off as crowds returned to low levels and rumblings of discontent began to leak through. 2014 brought hope and expectation for those following the Ramblers revival but with no playing squad signed up until just weeks before the start of the new campaign and some PR disasters on social media for the club it was no surprise to see them finish rock bottom of the second tier.
Martin Cambridge would come in and try his hand at the Cork club and with signings such as Shane O’Connor arriving at the club some were predicting the ”Rams” to make a run at the play-off places for 2015. However, after some inconsistent form Cambridge would be replaced by former Waterford United chief Stephen Henderson.
Shortly after his appointment at the club it was announced that the ”Islanders” were to take immediate steps towards a fan ownership model. Having had to sell St Colman’s Park to the FAI due to financial difficulties in years gone by, the aim of the new committee was to eventually buy back to ground and bar, which was also sold, and ultimately to keep the club on track to reach its 100 year anniversary in 2022.
Recently it was announced that Henderson had been offered and accepted a new three-year deal by the club. This is something almost totally unheard of in LOI football and it’s even more staggering when you consider the current state of the second tier. Announcing the deal on the club website the new Cobh committee stated:
The club has made significant progress both on and off the pitch in recent months, and securing Stephen on a long term deal has been a priority for the new committee since it was elected in July.
We are delighted that Stephen has agreed to extend his tenure. Stephen will oversee all footballing activities at the club over the next three years.
This kind of long term thinking is exactly what has been lacking within the management of LOI clubs for many years now and if Cobh Ramblers can combine financial prudence with on field success over the next numbers of seasons, the dark days of falling out of the league and almost going out of business all together will be a distant memory for those at the Cork club.
Elsewhere today, it has been announced that Bray Wanderers goalkeeper Peter Cherrie has signed a new two-year contact with the Premier Division club. While this news has been met with understandable cynicism in some quarters given the off-field circus that almost defined Bray’s season for most part, those involved with the club will say this news points towards a change in mentality at the club with chairman Denis O’Connor looking to bring the ”Seagulls” to the next level.
While these are only isolated examples of long-term planning there are plenty of reasons for other LOI followers to be optimistic for the future of their clubs and the league as a whole. At Bohemians we have the extremely exciting prospect of a new Dalymoumt Park while on the field the ”Gypsies” final look like getting back to their old self under the stewardship of the highly popular Keith Long.
A new stand at Tallaght Stadium will elevate the home of Shamrock Rovers onto a new level while Cork City continue to raise the bar in terms of media work and club promotion. Meanwhile, if their cup final opponents can get the lease situation at Oriel sorted we could finally see some much needed renovations at the home of the Champions.
The Brandywell stadium in Derry is another ground looking set to finally receive the fact lift it needs while local rivals Harps new stadium offers hope to the promotion hopefuls of a return to the glory days. Already this season we’ve seen the success of the Market Fields in Limerick and how that can breath new life into a football club and its community while Wexford Youths are hoping to use the windfall of their first ever promotion to upgrade the fine Ferrycarrig Park facilities.
In conclusion, while there are many reasons to think things will never change for those mad enough to devote their lives to this league, the truth is changes are happening right before our very eyes and we should be proud of the progress being made.
However, as we’ve all seen many times before, the danger of clubs over extending themselves always remains, but if clubs can find a way to strike up a balance there is no reason the LOI can’t take a step into the future and for the better.