The long and arduous four month wait for the return of the Airtricity League season is over as Limerick FC travel to the Showgrounds to take on Sligo Rovers on Saturday night (kick-off 7.45pm). It has been a hectic period for the club with a managerial change and a large player turnover which is far from ideal. New manager Tommy Barrett has been promoted from within after leading the under-19s side for the last three seasons.
Barrett takes charge of his first competitive game as the club’s first team manager on Saturday night. The 38 year-old has been at the club for a number of years. He captained the club in 2008 and 2009. Furthermore, he has had a brief stint as caretaker and assistant manager. The departure of Neil McDonald could not have come at a worse time for the Shannonsiders. The senior players were due back for pre-season training on the same day as the public announcement that the Englishman had left for Scunthorpe.
Many cited the in-house appointment of Barrett as a cost cutting measure. However, the club have backed the manager’s recruitment drive and he has made some shrewd signings including the Dennehy brothers Billy and Darren, Daniel Kearns, Eoin Wearen and Mark O’Sullivan. Killian Cantwell, Shaun Kelly, Danny Morrissey, Cian Coleman and Conor Ellis have also come through the doors at the Markets Field. One striking similarity is evident in relation to Barrett’s new signings; every one of them have a point to prove for various reasons.
Winger Daniel Kearns has endured a tough time with injuries and has joined off the back of a tough year and a half spell with Sligo Rovers where he managed just 17 appearances and two goals. However, he has been impressive in pre-season by assisting three goals as he looks to prove the doubters wrong. Young signings Cian Coleman and Conor Ellis are products of the Cork City youth academy and played on the same team as the now departed Chiedozie Ogbene. Ellis arrives directly from Cork with a view to playing regular first-team football which eluded him with the Leesiders. Coleman joined from Cobh Ramblers where he impressed ex-manager Neil McDonald in the FAI Cup game against Limerick in June.
Similarly to Daniel Kearns, Eoin Wearen had horrible luck with injuries last season as he suffered a cruciate ligament injury in pre-season training with Bohemians which robbed him of a year of football. Wearen is in search of a fresh start with Limerick. He can operate in midfield or at centre-back and will be a valuable asset from set-pieces due to his height.
Strikers Danny Morrissey and Mark O’Sullivan join the club from Finn Harps and Waterford respectively. Morrissey made 15 starts for Finn Harps and scored five league goals including two against Limerick in Finn Park and the Markets Field. Mark O’Sullivan was part of the Waterford team which impressively won the first division last season. O’Sullivan contributed 12 goals and is a strong target-man in the mould of Rodrigo Tosi.
Billy and Darren Dennehy both arrive from St. Patricks Athletic. Darren has been heavily criticised by sections of the Inchicore support for his performance level. However, he brings a wealth of experience from his time at Cork City which will be invaluable in an otherwise youthful centre of defence. Billy has been credited with being one of the key players in helping Liam Buckley’s side maintain their premier division status in the final third of the season before choosing to sign for the Super Blues.
Limerick have enjoyed one draw and three victories from their four pre-season encounters with Galway, Cobh, Shelbourne and Longford. Goalkeeper Brendan Clarke has kept four clean sheets which will provide optimism. The defence has been Limerick’s achilles heel for the last three seasons. Although the standard of opposition was not as high as the club will face every week in the league, it is a good omen.
A 4-2-3-1 formation has been the preferred direction for Barrett and assistant manager Willie Boland in pre-season. Captain Shane Duggan has featured in a more advanced midfield role with Eoin Wearen and Cian Coleman operating behind him. Furthermore, Billy Dennehy and Daniel Kearns have started three games on the wing and have linked up well. Mark O’Sullivan has been the preferred option up front ahead of Danny Morrissey. The former Cork City player could benefit from constant delivery from Kearns and Dennehy who have provided superb crosses in pre-season. Conor Ellis has rarely featured due to injury. Brendan Clarke will certainly start in goal for the Super Blues and has become a leading figure in the Limerick FC dressing room over the past season.
Limerick are the early favourites for automatic relegation among certain bookmakers. Furthermore, in all league predictions from various writers, the club are predicted to finish no higher than ninth which would result in a play-off scenario. No Limerick supporter will want to go though that again after the 2015 experience against Finn Harps. When speaking to Sporting Limerick last week, defender Shaun Kelly feels the side can maintain premier division status but recognises that it will be a tough year;
“you have a lot of big players that have left. It’s going to be a tough year and everybody knows that. We will be fighting to the last to make sure we stay in this league which is our aim and I’m confident that we can do that.”
Limerick face a tough start to the season. Three of last season’s top four lie in wait for Shane Duggan and co. in the opening five fixtures. The opening two fixtures away to Sligo and at home to Bohemians may be crucial. On paper, the aforementioned teams are not a million miles ahead of Limerick’s best starting 11 in terms of quality and with little expected from the two away fixtures against Dundalk and Derry in March, you feel at least three points may be needed to avoid an uphill struggle from the very beginning.
The situation has improved drastically from four weeks ago. Although the new signings have much to prove and were late arrivals, they all provide a wealth of Airtricity League experience which is vital. Supporters will be hopeful that young players like Will Fitzgerald and Killian Broader will be given the platform to show their talents in the future. However, relying on a team promoted from the under-19 set up to survive in the premier division would have been naïve at best. The squad is very thin so avoiding injury and needless suspensions will be paramount.