After a comfortable mid-table finish in their first top flight season in 19 years, in addition to winning admirers for their adventurous style of play and being able to call Thomond Park their home, Limerick are in a rude state of health as the 2014 Airticity League season begins.
Stuart Taylor did not take long to put his own stamp on the club in his first season in charge, bringing in several recruits from overseas and imposing his philosophy on the team’s approach. The Scot has done his shopping indigenously this time, with defender Mick Leahy arriving from UCD and Cork City’s Shane Duggan returning to Shannonside.
The axe has fallen on quite a few of the 2013 squad, with Brian O’Callaghan and Pat Purcell retiring and Axel Bossekota, Joe Gamble, Stephen Bradley and Carel Tiofack all leaving the Super Blues. The future of David O’Leary has also been under the microscope, although the young midfielder looks set to remain at Limerick for now.
The club will play their home games at Thomond Park for the second year in a row, with work continuing on the Market’s Field. It is hoped that Limerick will return to their fabled former home, the venue associated with their glory days of the 1960s and 1980s, for the 2015 season.
The Super Blues open the 2014 Airtricity League title defence with a home fixture against Bray Wanderers, a fixture that ended in a remarkable 4-4 draw last season, before tough trips to Dundalk and champions St Patrick’s Athletic. They end the season with a potentially crucial trio of games against Derry City (A), Sligo Rovers (H) and Shamrock Rovers (A).
Last season: 7th
2014 odds: 33-1
In: Shane Duggan (Cork City), Mick Leahy (UCD)
Out: Joe Gamble (DPMM FC), Carel Tiofack (Finn Harps), Jeffrey Judge (Fairview Rangers), Axel Bossekota (released), Stephen Bradley (released), Brian O’Callaghan (retired), Pat Purcell (retired)
In contrast to the plethora of new faces at the club 12 months ago, Limerick begin the 2014 season with just two fresh arrivals, both of whom were signed well in advance of the kick-off.
One of the newcomers is, in fact, returning to his native area. Midfielder Shane Duggan starred in Limerick junior soccer circles for Fairview Rangers and had a brief spell at Plymouth Argyle as a teenager before returning to Ireland to line out for UCD and Cork City, from whom he joined Limerick FC. Duggan made 30 league appearances for the Leesiders in 2013, scoring six goals, and he should fit nicely into the pass and move strategy preferred by Stuart Taylor. Also watch out for him getting into the penalty area and snuffing out a few goals over the course of the season.
Limerick’s other new man is defender Mick Leahy, who joins from UCD. The 24-year-old captained the Students in the previous three seasons and, having worked under ex-UCD boss Martin Russell for several years, is accustomed to an expansive style of play similar to the one employed by Taylor. Leahy offers a calming presence at the heart of the defence, is not afraid to take responsibility and shows no little composure on the ball for a centre-back.
Upon taking the Limerick manager’s post in January 2013, Stuart Taylor promised an “attacking, attractive” style of football and he has been true to his word, with the Super Blues being one of the more entertaining teams to watch last year.
However, this admirable ideology left Limerick with a worrying tendency to leave the back door open and a catalogue of defensive mistakes threatened to drag them into a relegation battle at one stage last season. The September arrival of Samuel Oji helped to plug the gaps at the back, and with the ex-Arsenal and Birmingham man now settled on Shannonside, Limerick’s rearguard should be harder to breach this time around. They will also hope that veteran goalkeeper Barry Ryan can maintain his outstanding 2013 form.
None of Limerick’s players featured highly on the scoring charts last year, but strikers Craig Curran and Rory Gaffney will both expect to at least hit double figures this time around. Set piece specialist Shane Tracy is another crucial source of goals from the left side of midfield in a 4-3-3 formation.
Strongest XI: Ryan, Kelly, Folan, Oji, Williams, Nzuzi, Duggan, Tracy, Galbraith, Curran, Gaffney.
Left-sided midfielder Shane Tracy is one of those players who makes an impact throughout the team. Also capable of playing at full-back, the 25-year-old Limerick man played a vital role in both the club’s promotion-winning campaign of 2012 and their top flight return season last time around. Lethal from free kicks and penalties, Tracy is regularly among the club’s top scorers and he has been in prolific form in pre-season, including a spectacular finish against Waterford United. Limerick can ill afford to lose him for even a brief run of games.
Keep an eye on
Since re-signing for the club last summer, midfielder Jason Hughes has won plaudits from Limerick fans for his performances, which included a well-taken goal in a win against Shamrock Rovers towards the end of the campaign. With several of last season’s midfield departing the club in the off-season, the 22-year-old should find his first team opportunities coming more frequently in 2014. Hughes is a hard worker, shows plenty of dedication and, from the glimpses of quality we saw in the latter weeks of last term, no slouch on the ball.
Where will they finish?
Limerick will again seek to improve from their current standing, which would mean a top half finish for Stuart Taylor’s side. A push for the top four is unlikely, while they should be more than good enough to be excluded from the relegation picture, so the most probable scenario is another year of mid-table comfort, plus maybe a sustained run in at least one of the cups. Even sixth would represent further progress from 2013, although Munster rivals Cork City should be stronger this time around, so Limerick may have to be content with another seventh-place finish.