All roads lead south for Limerick FC in spite of green shoots

Friday the 13th is unlucky for some, but a 5-0 thumping for Limerick at Munster rivals Cork City has less to do with chance and more with inevitability as the Shannonsiders have fallen straight into a slump they look unprepared to emerge from.

Their Premier Division record for the season – after just two games – reads Played 2 Lost 2 For 0 Against 8.

Sandwiched between the two was a humiliating EA Sports Cup loss to First Division Cobh Ramblers – Played 2 Lost 2 For 0 Against 7 – which has already, after just eight days, relegated Limerick’s hopes of a successful season to an unlikely FAI Cup run.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to pan out. Limerick cruised to the First Division title in 2012 on the back of the division’s largest budget – largely funded by the largesse of millionaire owner Pat O’Sullivan – after he took over a club in abject crisis a year earlier.

Limerick FC endorsed the Shave or Dye campaign in 2013
Limerick FC endorsed the Shave or Dye campaign in 2013

O’Sullivan maintained his spending in the Premier Division as promotion-winning coach Pat Scully was replaced by the well-regarded Scot Stuart Taylor, and the new manager’s connections in the UK saw him bring in high-calibre players like Belgian Axel Bossekota, Scot Danny Gablbraith and Englishman Craig Curran.

Taylor’s reign saw O’Sullivan maintain his generous spending on behalf of the club but, despite the recruitment of the talented Sam Oji in defence, his side’s ugly style of football never matched the talent at his disposal and by mid-2014 the serious threat of relegation forced O’Sullivan to act and replace the coach with former UCD manager Martin Russell.

Russell had quit his role at UCD at the beginning of the previous season and it was somewhat of a mystery why such a talented coach – who had returned the Students to the Premier Division at the first attempt and maintained their position against the odds for four years – was unable to get a another job at the top level.

Russell’s tactical nous and a couple of high-profile signings saw him turn a potentially disastrous season into a hitherto unimaginable top-six finish, and all the signs were that a measured overhaul over the winter would leave Limerick in a position to challenge for the top four.

That’s when things started to get strange. The final league game at their temporary Thomond Park home, before an expected return to the club’s spiritual home in the Markets Field at the heart of Limerick city, saw O’Sullivan address the crowd in torrential rain and warn them that the club couldn’t move on without greater support from the community.

The move from the grossly outsized arena to a permanent, more shapely, home would presumably have done the job, and all outward signs were that, while O’Sullivan wasn’t prepared or able to maintain his financial support forever, the first season in the Markets Field would see a big push to win over the city’s sporting hearts.

The club’s forward-thinking link-up with the Right To Dream academy in Ghana had already yielded positive results in the form of Prince Agyemang and the incredibly talented goalkeeper Ali Abass, while Benin-born Abdel Bouriama was all set to join for the new season. The status of all three remains undetermined.

Talk abounded in the off-season that Limerick were set to offer Shamrock Rovers’ Ronan Finn a large deal to unveil him as a marquee player for the first season at the Markets Field, while Dundalk’s league-winning striker Pat Hoban was also a target. The pair eventually departed to Dundalk and Oxford United respectively.

At some point during the winter, it appears the owner’s tack changed and, far from looking to kick on in 2015, Limerick would look to merely consolidate their position in the Premier League. Some of that may be down to the dithering over Markets Field which, at the mercy of the Limerick Enterprise Development Fund, had fallen well short of what the club had been led to believe in the beginning.

Rory Gaffney – arguably the league’s stand-out striker – secured a move to England, to Cambridge United, while Galbraith went a league higher as he signed for Gillingham. Barry Ryan – who goalkeeping heroics had kept Limerick in the Premier Division over the past two seasons – was allowed to leave in acrimonious circumstances and, most damagingly of all, captain Sam Oji went down the road to newly-promoted Galway United when his preference was clearly to stay put.

Increasingly, it’s become apparent that Russell’s appointment was less an endorsement of his potential as a top-level coach and more an acknowledgement of his remarkable ability to mould young but talented players into a group who can just about stave off relegation year on year.

It was little surprise that Russell’s departure from Belfield – despite being replaced by the very talented Aaron Callaghan, who himself had inspired a young Bohemians side to overachieve in his one full season as manager – coincided with UCD’s eventual relegation to the second tier.

The goal of mere survival is just about an acceptable target for a development club like UCD – who have possibly the best facilities in the country and a constant supply of talented players – but for a commercial enterprise like Limerick, whose much-vaunted youth system is still in its embryonic stages, it seems one dice with death too far.

Russell’s appointment should ensure that, given time, Limerick will develop a style that yields dividends, but relying on teenagers to produce the goods when the club’s very existence relies on attracting paying fans through the gates seems remarkably short-sighted.

Reports that the chairman has been involved in verbal confrontations with those same fans is more worrying. Eight goals conceded without reply in the opening two games invites parallels with the old Galway United’s final season under Sean Connor, when the Tribesmen became every chairman’s favourite club on their way to a record low total and relegation.

That iteration of Galway United was liquidated later the following year – and it’s been a long and politically-toxic road back for football in the nation’s third-largest city.

It would be a crying shame – and potentially a fatal one – if the country’s fourth city were to endure the same cruel fate.

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Dave Donnelly

Dave Donnelly is a freelance journalist based in Dublin, Ireland. He mainly writes about music for the Irish Sun, but as lover of all things football, he writes about all things League of Ireland on his blog, the Second Post.

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