Neil McDonald’s Departure: Where to now for Limerick FC?

Neil McDonald’s short reign as Limerick FC manager is over after the Newcastle native resigned to become assistant manager to Graham Alexander at English League one club Scunthorpe.

The news came as a big surprise to many supporters as McDonald signed a two and a half year contract in May to succeed Martin Russell. The long-term commitment sought after by chairman Pat O’Sullivan and promised by McDonald has been ripped up. Assistant manager Eric Kinder has taken training and will do so for the immediate future.

The timing is horrendous for the club as it was announced on the same day that Limerick FC players were due back in the University of Limerick for pre-season training. With just over six weeks to go before the start of the 2018 Airtricity League Premier Division on Friday February 16th, Limerick have just 14 senior players contracted to the club.

Many of these players are young with little to no premier division experience which is far from ideal in an unforgiving league. The likes of Barry Cotter and Tony Whitehead featured regularly last season but will need more experience next to them in defence.

The Airtricity League Premier Division will be ultra-competitive on paper after being reduced to ten teams this season. Strong clubs like Dundalk, Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City make up almost half of the league, which is an indication of how tough it will be.

Limerick’s recruitment has not been spectacular but it is hard to judge the new players as they need time to settle in. Midfielder Cian Coleman, striker Danny Morrissey and winger Daniel Kearns were signed by Neil McDonald before Christmas.

Cian Coleman is a product of the Cork City youth system and was captain of the same team as Chiedozie Ogbene which were relatively successful in the UEFA youth league. He spent last season at first division club Cobh Ramblers where he impressed the former manager in an FAI Cup second round game to earn a move.

Danny Morrissey burst onto the scene with Cork City as a 16 year-old in 2010. Since then, the striker has suffered numerous setbacks with injury and spent last season at relegated Finn Harps and scored at the Markets Field against his new employers. Winger Daniel Kearns may be the most exciting prospect. Upon returning to Ireland from West Ham in 2011, Kearns signed for Dundalk and impressed enough to earn a move to Peterborough.

Since the move to The Posh, the winger has lined out for various clubs including Sligo Rovers but due to injury, has not featured enough. All three players have shown their potential and come into the club with a lot to prove. However, one would hope that the club will be able to attract a few proven players to the club to ease fears.

Upon being appointed to his new role, Neil McDonald made an admission during an introductory interview. He stated;

“I was asked to go and make sure that the team stayed in the division, which they did, to trim the squad and to give the young players a chance and I’ve come away knowing that I’ve achieved the three tasks that I was asked to do.”

The middle objective may worry Limerick supporters. If McDonald is to be believed and was asked to release players and introduce youth, it suggests that the budget may not be substantial. It has been argued that McDonald left due to false promises and disappointments with the budget provided but there is no concrete evidence to support this outside of the apparent murmurings of a couple of ex-players.

Unfortunately, the premier division is not a place to blood a number of youngsters at the same time without the necessary experience present. It will be exceptionally difficult to attract players to the club on two fronts but budgetary confinements is not necessarily one of them. Many of the sought after players are already assigned to rival clubs for various reasons.

Furthermore, without a manager in place, players will be reluctant to commit their futures to a project with no direction and stability. Pat O’Sullivan is the sole provider to the club and has been since 2008. However, as he stated almost three years ago in a message to supporters, his personal financing of the club is not sustainable and the club must be supported with outside investment including more support from a city with a huge football population but which sees a disconnect between the junior clubs, their supporters and Limerick FC.

As a whole, the appointment of Neil McDonald has been a mistake. Yes, the Englishman kept the team in the premier division but at a cost. He has left a small squad with little credible recruitment taking place. Friendly matches will be soon upon us and it has thrown preparations into chaos.

The appointment of foreign managers, particularly in recent times has not worked. It is true that there is never a guarantee of stability no matter who you appoint. However, Dave Robertson and Neil McDonald have left their respective clubs in an unfavourable position. In 2013, Limerick appointed Stuart Taylor and while the Scot did achieve a top half finish, he did so with the aid of a very generous budget which attracted the likes of Craig Curran and Danny Galbraith to the club.

Halfway through the next season, Taylor had left and the board appointed Martin Russell, a specialist in dealing with low budgets and encouraging youth. As expected, the budget was cut for the following 2015 season which was a necessity due to it’s unsustainable nature and despite a late rally, the club were relegated to the first division.

Following this, the brave decision was taken to retain the squad which almost survived relegation and promotion was achieved at the first time of asking. However, the club have sought stability for a number of years and the appointment of managers from outside of Ireland appears to be the wrong approach to achieve this.

Attracting a quality manager with experience and knowledge of the Airtricity League scene is going to be incredibly tough. The chosen man will have to accept an almost entirely inherited squad with little time to assess the players. It is hard to build anything under those circumstances.

Locally, there are little if any with the necessary qualifications or willingness or ability to take the job. The Limerick board may have to look abroad to bring a manager in to maintain premier division status once more. The chance of stability has been robbed for the foreseeable future.

If stability is to be achieved, the model of bringing in foreign managers has to be scrapped. The success achieved by Stephen Kenny and John Caulfield at Dundalk and Cork respectively, has been built with managers with a great knowledge of the league and particularly in Kenny’s case, has helped his recruitment drive dramatically. Remember, Stephen Kenny inherited a struggling team and built his current side from scratch over four years ago.

It certainly is not all negativity for Limerick despite all of these worries. The club have access to one of the best stadiums in the division with the best pitch in the division at the Markets Field. There is a strong core support building in recent times and survival is vital in keeping it.

The club are in the process of building a training base in Bruff but while this is ongoing, they have availed of the facilities available at the University of Limerick which are superb. Also, there are still some quality players on Limerick’s books including Brendan Clarke, Shane Duggan, who endured a tough season last year and Chiedozie Ogbene, if the club retain his services.

The three new signings may prosper in a new setting. Also, the signings made by the likes of Bray Wanderers and St. Patricks Athletic have been uninspiring on paper. One thing is certain, it will be another campaign filled with drama on Shannonside.

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Adrian Finnin