The Irish First Division Run-In

by David Costelloe

With less than six games to go in the League of Ireland First Division, the lower tier of Irish club football has become firmly split between an also-ran pack of five teams and a trio of clubs that are duking it out for promotion placement.

In a season where the First Division has had as few clubs as it ever has – just eight – it has been year where all three of these top rankers have been able to become intimately familiar with each other. The lack of familiar “big names” in the reduced division – the likes of Cork City and Shelbourne who were promoted last year – has opened up the way for different set of league leaders. Limerick, Longford and Waterford have not been fonts of success over the past few years, but all three have the opportunity to get out of the doldrums and reach the top tier – for Longford and Waterford it would be the first time in over five years. For Limerick, an agonising 18.

While the current table placing would match what most people would have predicted at the start of the season, the way we have gotten there has been anything but. Limerick rule the roost for the moment, in a division they were widely expected to walk at the beginning, but only by four points from Longford, who are just three ahead of Waterford. With automatic promotion to the league champions and promotion play-offs for the other two, all three of these teams will have a chance at promotion by the end of the season (barring an unlikely miracle from the chasing pack, 15 points behind the rest). But the prize of automatic promotion is within the grasp of all three clubs potentially and it is a prize that has kept the top of the First Division competitive.

Limerick FC, since the takeover of Pat O’Sullivan just a few short years ago, could well be the richest club in the entire League of Ireland system. Missing out on play-offs by just a point last season was a bitter experience – made worse by the subsequent collapse of Monaghan Untied, the team that piped Limerick to the post – but all signs pointed to a far easier time in 2012, as Limerick went into a league having finished 24 points higher than any of the remaining teams the previous year.

Limerick has its money, the biggest support in the First Division and it has the “star” players – the likes of Dennis Behan, Joe Gamble and Dominic Foley, the kind of players who played a few friendlies for the international team once upon a time and are seeing out their playing careers at home – mixed in with some of the more exciting young prospects in Irish club football, chiefly Rory Gaffney, Dave O’Leary and Shane Tracey. It is not unfair to say that, on paper, Limerick have easily the best squad in the First Division.

But while that has resulted in roaring success over the also-rans, with Limerick garnering a stunning 46 points from a possible 48 from them, the form against the rest of the “big three” has been far less impressive. On only the second week of the campaign over optimistic bets that Limerick would go unbeaten through the whole season had to be torn up after the first of three defeats to Waterford this season, matched by a home defeat to Longford. Limerick have a seeming inability to cope with the main games – “big crowd syndrome” as some fans have taken to calling it – putting in some of their worst performances of the season when facing key rivals at Jackman Park. An over-reliance on long ball tactics, an inability to control the midfield when it really matters and simple stage fright all combined to  make Limerick play second fiddle to their rivals for much of the season.

Only the last few game days have Limerick pulled ahead, an away win at Longford and their stellar record against everyone else propelling them to the top spot. But any Limerick fan will tell you that the performances have not been much to write home about. A lot of poor opposition and a lot of late lucky goals have put Limerick where they are.

That is not to say that Limerick have blundered their way to the top spot. Gaffney has been a revelation down the wings, his pace and long throws making him the most threatening player in the First Division, and likely to move to England before too long. In conjunction with one of the more experienced strikes, like Behan or Foley, he has produced some wonderful goals for Limerick this season. When playing to the best of their abilities Limerick’s midfield, bossed by Gamble in the centre, with Judge, Sheehan and O’Leary all making key impressions, has controlled games, shutting down opposition attacks and feeding their own. And at the back, Tracey, Purcell and Barry Ryan have been solid for the most part, though they are as guilty as anyone else on the team when it comes to the Waterford defeats.

Manager Pat Scully has come in for some flak regards the “hoofball” tactics and some odd positional choices, but has generally been competitive enough to see Limerick to the position they are in. It should be noted that the quality of grounds in the First Division are not open to the sort of short passing, ground game that many people would prefer to see Limerick play, and that the “Super Blues” are simply making do with what they have to work with. A failure to gain promotion this year will likely be the death knell of Scully’s tenure and even after several years in charge, it remains to be seen if his Limerick could possibly cope with top tier football.

For Longford a sixth place finish last season indicated a team that was not yet ready to really challenge for higher honours, but they have blown everyone away this season. Five wins in their opening six games, a comprehensive defeat of Limerick away from home, and a game based around sheer determination and a certain amount of grinding – two thirds of their wins have been by just a single goal -show Longford are not a team that play compelling attacking football but have a very solid outfit. They have benefitted from the absence of bigger names in the division, but the core of this team was present last season, and is making good now.

The likes of Keith Gillespie, once of Newcastle United, have been the rocks at the heart of a very strong Longford midfield that is able to hold the ball and pass it around very well. Young players like Purdy, Gary Shaw and Bayly have been instrumental in Longford’s rise, playing a confident brand of football in the early parts of the season. Where Longford fall down, and it has become more apparent as the season has gone on, is their offensive tactics. Longford lack a really notable attacking midfielder or winger who can move forward fast and make opportunities for the forwards. Even if that existed, Longford’s forwards have been less than stellar generally, with the teams top scorer, Daniel Purdy, having six goals in 14 games, in front of midfielder Colm James with five in 17. They sometimes come out with some fantastic goals – James’ winner against Limerick in April was as good a counter attack as you will ever see – but their main rivals have, in Gaffney and Maguire, the kind of players who score far more consistently, which is a key difference.

This lack of attacking impetus, combined with a breakdown in defensive stability, was the cause of a blip that saw Longford slide from a well deserved spot on the top of the league table. Starting just around the summer break, when they fell at home to Limerick in a pivotal game, Longford have looked increasingly lacklustre at times. Draws against Athlone and Wexford, losses to Waterford and Finn Harps have seen Longford fall, with the most notable game coming against Mervue United in July: Longford won 5-4 with the last kick of the game, but only came back from a 3-0 scoreline when two Mervue players were sent off. Watching Limerick and Longford play out a dour 0-0 draw at Jackman Park a few weeks illustrated how toothless and over-reliant on long ball tactics Longford have become, barely getting any effort in on goal in a fixture they previously blitzed Limerick in.

With Limerick having no problems taking points off the likes of Mervue, Longford’s weakness in these kind of games, especially in the second half of the season, is heartbreaking to see at times. A similar heartbreaking feeling comes from the crowds in Flancare Park, abysmally low even when Longford were top of the table. Manager Tony Cousins has done some sterling and commendable work, but Longford are in serious danger of letting what was once a very promising position disappear. The ship has been steadied with some hard fought results in recent weeks, but some serious nerves must be evident among the “Town” faithful. Four points to the top is nothing of course, but neither is the three points separating Longford from Waterford.

Waterford United on the other hand, have had a season that can only be described as topsy turvy. The best team outside of the promotion chasers last season, Waterford were always expected to be the main challengers to the Limerick favourites, but it hasn’t exactly gone to plan.

The topsy turvy nature of their season can best be seen in the opening two fixtures. A 6-0 mauling on the very first day, at the hands of Wexford Youths, indicated a team in crisis that was not wholly prepared for a new year after the winter break. But a week later Waterford outplayed Limerick in every department in a 3-1 victory at the RSC, a herald of future nightmares for the favourites. Four points from the following five league games again saw them tumble down the ranks, before the start of an unexpected and dominating run that has seen the Blues lose only once – to Longford – before last week. A ten game unbeaten streak has put Waterford firmly back into contention, brushing with second place. The showcase of that has been the three wins over league leaders Limerick, a masterclass of tactical knowledge and deadly familiarity. Few Limerick fans would bet against the idea of Waterford going four for four in the coming weeks.

At the heart of that is the impressive away form of Waterford, who have actually won more games away from the Deisce county than they have within it. A vibrant, confident squad has seen Waterford get to where they are now after early disappointments, with a knack for late goals (a third of their tally comes in the last 10 or so minutes of games) that would make Alex Ferguson proud. A torrid pre-season that saw several key names leave and a new young team struggle to get it together is why Waterford aren’t neck and neck, or even above Limerick. Players like Gary Dempsey in the midfield and keeper Packie Holdan have been the footballing veterans that have kept the team going, but it is the likes of Sean Maguire, the 18 year old hotshot striker and league top scorer, who have been the pivotal links in getting Waterford back up the table.

While Waterford might just be a tiny bit over-reliant on Maguire – without his goals the play-off race would probably be far more competitive – that should not hide the fact that an efficient team has been created on Suirside. It took some time, and some thrashings, for that team to come into being but now it is as good as anyone in the First Division. Paul O’Brian may miss out on a chance to go straight up, but Waterford are in a better vein of form generally right now than play-off rivals Longford, and would have no fears of meeting Limerick in such a scenario either.

All three clubs will face each other once more before the end of the season, in games that will likely be the defining moments of a race that has been far closer than many expected. Limerick host Waterford on August 31st,   Waterford welcome Longford on September 21st, and Longford receive Limerick on October 6th. For Limerick a drastic reversal of form in these big encounters will see them over the line. For Waterford, continued exploitation of Limerick’s weaknesses and Longford’s sloppy form could see them jump back into winning contention. For Longford, a return of previously solid play and good results could see them overtake Limerick.

While publicity, regard and notice for the First Division has been low, this has honestly been as interesting a season as the lower tier has ever had, a far cry from the snore fest many predicted (and Limerick dreamed about). While the low number of teams has reduced the attractiveness of the league as a spectacle and the low attendances are damaging, the First Division has at least managed to create a run-in between three very competitive teams, with the likes of Wexford Youths, Finn Harps and Athlone occasionally doing themselves proud with their efforts.

With six games left, there is everything to play for between these three clubs and not a lot of time left to do it. By mid October we will know which of the Shannon, Camlin or Suirsiders are celebrating.