At the beginning of the 2019 Airtricity League First Division season, clubs like Shelbourne, Bray Wanderers and Longford Town were touted as clear favourites for promotion from the Airtricity League First Division.
Following another all too quick return to the second tier of Irish football, Limerick FC were the last team on anyone’s lips for a play-off place, never mind a league challenge. Tommy Barrett and the senior players in the squad were predictably quick to write off any chance the club had at a play-off push.
The frequently used line of “we will allow everybody else talk themselves up and take it game by game” was quoted by yours truly on several occasions before the season began. Barrett was clearly running a tight ship with players sternly reminded of the consequences if they ventured too far from the squad motto.
However, there always appeared to be an underlying belief that, despite possessing a youthful squad with many untested players, the likes of Robbie Williams, Shaun Kelly and Darren Murphy would perform to a level which would allow the club compete with the top four teams.
While the likes of Bray were bringing in Paul Keegan and Gabriel Sava, and Shelbourne signing Ryan Brennan, Conan Byrne and Ciaran Kilduff, the Super Blues had to raid the junior scene with former youth players Sean McSweeney and Kieran Hanlon signing on.
To put some context on it, Hanlon was out of the game for almost a full year prior to his arrival and was miles off the fitness levels required for an Airtricity League player. With all due respect to both players who have performed well since, they were signings which were going to inspire little.
Coupled with this, the off-field drama continued with apparent talks with an American company collapsing leading to the departure of Breifne Earley, just five days after his unveiling as the new Chief Executive Officer of the club. We have also seen the Daly family’s sponsorship of the club come and go. Furthermore, there have been little developments on the proposed investment from a group headed by Sean Connor.
There have only been two constants so far in the 2019 campaign for the Shannonsiders; financial trouble and the team challenging for the play-offs. The first is certainly withering at this stage and the second owes a great deal of credit to the manager and players. As we enter a second month where it is likely staff won’t be paid on time, it is not the ideal preparation for the biggest four weeks for this group of players and manager in the whole season.
Despite being in June and with the season ending in October, there are only 10 league games left to navigate for the club. Admittedly, the first division is of poor quality. Yes, it is a tough and competitive league for those competing in it and it makes it interesting for supporters, but the drop in standard from the premier division is massive. Even taking this into account, Limerick FC have overachieved thus far in being just four points adrift of second placed Longford Town.
The team have made the Markets Field a fortress and are unbeaten at the Garryowen venue this season. That form will need to continue when Shelbourne and Longford arrive in Limerick in the next two weeks. It is definitely a season defining period for the team. In four weeks time, they will possibly be out of the promotion picture altogether or miraculously could be challenging for league honours.
While the latter does appear to be a pipe dream with this season’s events as well as rumours of player departures on the horizon in July, it is not inconceivable. Limerick were narrowly beaten 1-0 away by Longford when a dubious decision to send off Sean McSweeney turned the game in Longford’s favour and drew with Neale Fenn’s side at home in a tight affair.
The upcoming games remind one of supporting Limerick in the first decade of this century, when the likes of Tommy Barrett and Pat Purcell were instrumental figures in trying to end the Premier Division drought. Big games which are effectively winner takes all. If you lose, it is severely damaging to your ambitions, but if you win it sends a clear message to the rest that you are not going away and are not there to make up the numbers.
Frustratingly in those days, whether it be at Hogan Park or Jackman Park, Limerick teams in several different guises always appeared to fall short on the big occasion.
The main difference between then and now is expectation. In the first decade of this century in the first division, there was an expectation that Limerick could compete at the top and it was bitterly disappointing when it never occurred. On this occasion, there is a lack of expectation as the current squad is filled with players under the age of 20 and is one of the smallest in the division.
The Limerick soccer fraternity with be hoping that this lack of pressure and expectation can allow the players to attack these upcoming games with Shelbourne, Longford, Bray and Drogheda with a freedom which they already possess, given the circumstances.