Yesterday saw news emerge that Limerick FC and manager Martin Russell had parted company after a partnership of under three years.
Appointed in July 2014, Russell opted to leave his role as Liam Buckley’s assistant at St.Patrick’s Athletic in order to keep a struggling Limerick in the top flight with Stuart Taylor his predecessor.
Achieving that goal, Russell’s stock was on the rise with the former UCD chief encouraging a style of passing football that had gained him many admirers during his four-year stint with the “College”.
A turbulent off-season in 2015, with delays in the building work of the Markets Field and a lack of transfer activity saw Russell’s Limerick get off to the worst of starts in the Premier Division.
Twenty-one games into the new campaign and without a win, the chances of Limerick staying in the top-flight looked all but done, however a revival of epic proportions was to follow.
Coinciding with the much anticipated move back to the clubs spiritual home, the people of the City got behind their side as Russell oversaw a run of seven wins inside the last thirteen league games to secure a shot at the end of season play-offs.
An unfancied Finn Harps were the opposition and with a 1-0 win in the bag from the first-leg, Limerick fans traveled in mass numbers to County Donegal in something of a celebratory mood.
However, by the end of the night there were to be no Limerick celebrations as the “Super Blues” let the great escape fall through their fingers and with it their Premier Division status.
Despite that play-off disappointment, Limerick chairman Pat O’Sullivan not only stuck by his manager but backed him in the transfer market as the Munster club started the season with one of if not the biggest budget ever seen in the second tier.
Bookmakers made Martin Russell’s men unbackable favourites for the title and that proved to be correct as Limerick romped to the championship, only losing one game in the process.
An EA Sports Cup final on home-soil further added to the Limerick revival but looking back now perhaps that defeat in front of a bumper crowd can be pin-pointed as a turning point in the Martin Russell reign at Limerick FC.
Russell’s ‘play it out from the back at all costs’ approach combined with selection decisions was now openly criticised by the passionate Limerick fan base, with chairman Pat O’Sullivan adding further pressure on his manager by stating he saw Limerick as a top-four club upon their return to the elite of Irish football.
This statement of course came long before the Football Association of Ireland’s (FAI) decision to relegate three teams from the Premier Division in 2017, a move which pretty much guarantees earlier than normal managerial casualties this season.
The decision to part company with Russell has been met with widespread shock across social media, especially from supporters of other League of Ireland clubs.
Many have criticised the move with newly promoted Limerick currently sitting in eighth, with a game in hand over the teams around them.
Friday’s 3-0 home defeat in front of a packed Markets Field against local rivals Cork City was bitterly disappointing and will be viewed as an opportunity lost to entice more supporters out to the ground.
An opening day 5-1 hammering of Sligo Rovers and a narrow 1-0 away win over fellow strong starters Bray Wanderers had hopes of a top-four challenge high around the City but surprise defeat to slow starting “Bohs” and two points dropped at home to relegation favorites Finn Harps were key chances missed to really cement the “Lims” as early European hopefuls.
Still, a few weeks into their first season back in the top-flight and looking far from relegation candidates in a league where 25% of the competitors will go down this term, Russell was far from struggling in his post.
It’s not so long ago that Russell brought his team to the home of the Champions Dundalk and despite losing out by a single goal on the night, the “Lims” left with all the plaudits after a typical Russell attacking display.
So why the sudden demise? Well, murmurous of discontent at least from within the fan base had been visible on social media for a number of weeks now, with Russell’s constant Achilles of a leaky defense and controversial selections in certain areas coming back to haunt him.
The manner of Friday’s derby defeat seemed to seal Russell’s fate and the debate over the Limerick boards decision is sure to rage on until a replacement is found.
With many outsiders criticising Limerick’s decision, some balance is needed. Many Limerick fans had called for the managers head during that disastrous twenty-one game streak of 2015.
However, given Limerick’s total lack of organisation in the build-up to that season, and chairman Pat O’Sullivan will be the first to admit they got things wrong ahead of that campaign, he decided to stick with his man and rightfully so. 2016 was always going to be a lose-lose situation for Russell.
With the resources at his disposal and the poor quality of the divisions rivals, Limerick were expected to wipe the floor with the First Division and despite winning it at a canter, the constant leakage of goals raised questions over the managers ability to tighten up his defensive line.
As mentioned earlier, these issues again raised their head during defeat to St.Patrick’s Athletic in the league cup final as Martin Russell’s wait for a knockout competition trophy went on. Despite that disappointment, chairman Pat O’Sullivan again stayed loyal to his man and yes, again he backed him in the transfer market with no less than seven substantial additions to the Limerick FC squad.
Among them were St.Patrick’s long-time number one Brendan Clarke, Shamrock Rovers defender Dave O’Connor and former fans favorite Ian Turner.
However, it was the capture of Cork City’s highly-talented and highly promising winger Chiedozie Ogbene that raised eyebrows around the league.
Ogbene, who had broken into John Caulfield’s senior ranks during the previous campaign was expected to continue his development on Leeside but the appeal of first-team football was too much to turn down as the pacey winger made an instant impact in pre-season.
An opening day hat-trick for exotic signing Rodrigo Tosi has already turned the thirty-four-year-old Brazlian striker into a cult hero at the Markets Field, while former Accrington Stanley midfielder Bastian Hery has been earning rave views from the “Super Blues” faithful since signing
Dean Clarke has also returned to Limerick after a disappointing spell in Tallaght and as a result of this strong off-season business, it is rumored that Limerick have the fifth highest budget in the twelve-team Premier Division.
As cynical as it may sound, especially after just seven games, Limerick are technically underachieving at present sitting in eighth.
The carrot of European football and the financial rewards that go with it have never been greater for League of Ireland clubs and with the usual powers of St.Pat’s and Sligo Rovers struggling, while other Euro hopefuls such as Bray Wanderers and Shamrock Rovers making inconstant starts, the opportunity for a new kid on the block to make a top-four push is most certainly open.
Despite only claiming two wins from their opening six games and still with a game in hand, Limerick could significantly cut the five-point gap on fourth-placed Bray over the coming weeks.
With two of the clubs next three games coming at Markets Field against relegation candidates Galway United and Drogheda, this could prove to be a make or break few weeks in the season for Pat O’Sullivan’s side.
Given the timing and swiftness of today’s decision, one would have to assume Limerick may already have a candidate lined up, and if not it would certainly open up the Limerick chairman for criticism given the importance of the next few weeks.
While an assault on the higher end of the Premier Division ladder is the goal for Limerick, should they take their eye off the ball they could easily find themselves dragged into that dreaded bottom three.
Again, while the decision to change the leadership at Markets Field has come in for questioning, the board of Limerick FC and chairman Pat O’Sullivan should not be bashed for showing clear ambition.
We have of course seen over-ambition prove to be the undoing of many an Irish club throughout the years but you certainly don’t get that feeling of danger around Limerick under the stewardship of the greatly passionate O’Sullivan.
Unlike other cases in the past, O’Sullivan has not only invested greatly in the on-field side of things but he has overseen the much needed move back to Markets Field and perhaps more importantly he helped secure a six-acre site in the County which will be developed into a new training, business and community base for the club.
Speaking to the official Limerick FC website at the time, O’Sullivan outlined his reasoning behind the purchase.
We need to leave sustainability behind us, Kieran Judge, our General Manager, has always said to me that we need to find a home for the club, so no matter what happens that the club has a base and a home. We have to have a dream.
The talk of sustainability is one not often heard within League of Ireland circles and shows O’Sullivan is far from a short-term visionary.
O’Sullivan is clearly in it for the long-haul at Limerick and that is why his decision or at least his boards collective decision to separate with Martin Russell should be respected as should the clubs ambition to do more than just survive.