As we have had well over a week to digest the end of Treaty United senior men’s first year in the Airtricity League following a play-off defeat to UCD, Sporting Limerick review the incredibly enjoyable return to men’s senior football which re-united hardened local football supporters with their senior club.
The excitement was building in early February with the announcement that Treaty intended to enter a side in the Airtricity League First Division and it was welcomed throughout the League of Ireland community. The club had already been in existence for a year with the senior women’s side taking part in the hugely competitive Women’s National League which would now be sponsored by Airtricity. However, the county had been without a senior soccer representative for the first time since 1937 and didn’t take part in the 2020 campaign.
The new entity were helped by the presence of Dave Mahedy among others. Mahedy is an extremely popular figure in sporting circles having been involved with both Limerick FC and Limerick GAA in the past and was also Director of Sport and Recreation at the University of Limerick for many years. At the announcement in February, Chairman Conn Murray announced that former Limerick FC player and manager Tommy Barrett would lead the senior men’s side if an application was successful. Barrett was a well-known local manager and was a popular appointment, particularly due to the sour way in which his first sojourn into senior management had ended.
Furthermore, the addition of a boys and girls academy to include teams in the U-14’s, 15’s, 17’s and 19’s league was universally welcomed and crucial. It wasn’t plane sailing and a huge amount of uncertainty hung over the application. The idea of creating a 12 team first division was toyed with due to the interest from the likes of Sharmrock Rovers II and a new entity called Dublin County FC.
However, on February 21st, it was announced that Treaty United would replace Shamrock Rovers II in the second tierin 2021. Fellow first division clubs were happy to welcome a Limerick side into the league. After all, just 12 months previously all clubs had threatened to boycott all games against Shamrock Rovers II, although this never came to fruition.
The excitement was at fever pitch on Shannonside with attention quickly turning to what type of squad could be assembled while the Markets Field was confirmed as the club’s home venue for the season. Murray and Barrett were quick to point out that Treaty would represent the whole mid-west region including Clare, Kerry and Tipperary. With the season beginning just a month later with a tough away trip to one of the early promotion favourites in Bray Wanderers, it was far from the ideal preparation.
On a cold winter night at Limerick Institute of Technology, Barrett held a ‘trial’ night with more than 35 players attending in an attempt to create a competitive side. There was a huge mixture present with experienced players like Marc Ludden and Jack Lynch being the most recognisable names. Barrett had just four days before the deadline to assemble the squad and managed to sign 26 players with a provincial feel to it.
For instance, Matt Keane and Shane Lowth joined from Killarney and Tralee, Callum McNamara and Shane Cusack signed from Clare side Newmarket and Sean Guerins and Willie Armshaw arrived from St. Michaels. When you add the additions of Anthony O’Donnell an Charlie Fleming from Cork along with Marc Ludden and Conor Melody from Galway, there was a big spread of players who certainly weren’t signing for financial reasons, with the club being an amateur outfit,
The backbone of the side was from Limerick with old trusted lieutenants of Barrett including Sean McSweeney, Clyde O’Connell, Kieran Hanlon and Alan Murphy committing to the club following brief spells in junior football where O’Connell in particular had excelled at Fairview Rangers. Despite excitement building, Covid restrictions prevented supporters from attending games across the league which was a disappointment.
With three weeks of full training, the team were miles behind their opponents as they took to the field on a windy day at the Carlisle Grounds in Wicklow. Expectation was minimal but what followed was an incredibly gutsy performance from Treaty as they earned a 0-0 draw against the clear favourites. The determination and defensive organisation was heartening from the newly formed side and gave reason for optimism.
It was followed by a win on the opening night at the Markets Field and the team would remain unbeaten until the seventh game, which included dramatic draws with two league favourites and illustrious opponents Galway and Shelbourne. The character shown in Bray on the opening day was carried into every game with the only negative being the abundance of red cards shown to Treaty players, an incredible 4 in 7 games.
The experience of Ludden, Lynch and Tadgh Ryan was hugely helpful but it was the performances of players in either their debut season at this level or returning after many years away that caught the eye as much as anything else. Sean Guerins and Anthony O’Donnell were forming a very effective partnership at centre-back while Mark Walsh was making quite an impression in midfield. Treaty’s key strength was from set-pieces with Ludden’s deliveries from long throws and corners proving vital in the creation of goals.
The start made by the team surpassed the expectations of the whole league and even all of Treaty’s new band of supporters. Following 2 defeats in 3 games, many predicted that the on-field bubble was about to burst but this could not have been further from the truth. A superb performance at the beginning of the second round of games saw Treaty defeat Bray 2-0 with substitute Willie Armshaw making a huge impact scoring the opening goal and setting up an own goal. It was a fruitful period for Armshaw who announced his arrival on the Airtricity League stage and would become a huge asset for the team in the coming weeks.
Treaty would lose just 1 game in 6 in this period with four wins including a huge 2-3 Munster derby victory against an improving Cork City side. In truth, Cork should have been easy victors with the sheer amount of possession and goal scoring chances they created. But, that grit and determination which was becoming the hallmark of this Treaty team, came to the fore once more as Joe Collins grabbed the late winner in Turners Cross.
Perhaps it wasn’t until three weeks later when Treaty dismantled Athlone Town with a superb footballing display at Lissywoollen, that supporters really began to believe that the play-offs were a realistic aim. It was the first night a small number of travelling supporters were allowed entry and the connect between both parties was developing. Known previously for their defensive strength and ability to frustrate opponents, Treaty scored three quality goals via Jack Lynch, Sean McSweeney and Marc Ludden and showed their ability to attack with pace and quality.
Barrett was quick to dispel any complacency or arrogance by consistently quashing any talk of the play-off push in the media. He appeared to be taking the right stance as Treaty suffered back to back defeats for the first time against both Cabinteely and Bray as we approached the final hurdle. Although the team only managed one win in the next four games, defensive solidity returned with just two goals conceded in that period. The return of Sean Guerins for the final four games of the regular season following an ankle injury was a huge boost.
Walking up to the Markets Field on the 15th of October ahead of the Athlone Town clash was almost surreal. Just seven months previously, the senior men’s side had begun training and here they were, needing just one point to secure a place in the Airtricity League play-offs. Of course, the merits of promotion were discussed with many stating it would be too early for the club. We all knew that it was but that doesn’t prevent supporters from dreaming and does not lessen the competitive edge of players.
A 1-1 draw was enough to secure a play-off place amid scenes of jubilation as over 1500 people were there to witness it. You would be mistaken for thinking that the club had achieved promotion after the game which was evidence of the hardship endured in the previous two years and how unexpected the feat was.
All parties would be forgiven for failing to sufficiently motivate themselves for the final two games of the season and during what turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the play-offs, UCD picked up a 2-1 win over their Limerick counterparts. Treaty were 0-2 victors over Cabinteely on the final night with U-19 captain Josh Quinlivan grabbing his first goal for the club. It was notable that the likes of Quinlivan and Sean Oyibo were regulars on the Treaty bench for the last round of fixtures which is an encouraging sign for the future.
The fourth place finish meant a two-legged showdown with Andy Myler’s UCD with the first leg taking place at the Markets Field. The build-up was superb with the club’s media team doing their level best to promote the game. Our analyst Jason O’Connor was fearful of the firepower that UCD possessed with the likes of Liam Kerrigan and Colm Whelan leading the division’s goal scoring ranks.
O’Connor’s fears became a reality in front of a huge crowd at the Garryowen venue as Treaty were defeated 0-3. It was a hugely disappointing ending to a brilliant home campaign and appeared to spell the end of the season for the team. I travelled to the second leg with Eric McNulty and Jason Shanahan of the Treaty media team. We remarked that we wanted to see a competitive performance to end the season.
However, you could never question the attitude and commitment of this group and it was clear from the start, they believed they could get back into the game. That belief was heightened when Conor Melody, a player who had a hugely frustrating season due to injury, scored on 8 minutes. At the beginning of the second period, Anthony O’Donnell powered home a header to send the large travelling support into raptures. Just as we dared to dream of an incredible recovery, we were sent crashing down to earth as Steven Christopher was shown a straight red-card for a foul on Eoin Farrell and despite creating further chances through Matt McKevitt and Willie Armshaw, a goal from Adam Verdon ended all hopes of a dramatic comeback.
Alan Patchell’s full-time whistle brought an end to a memorable season. Both players and fans embraced positively in the aftermath of the defeat. Considering the competitive nature of the division with three full-time outfits completing in the second tier, finishing fourth in your maiden season was a massive achievement. In our final post match interview with Barrett, he is well aware that further difficulties lie in wait. Teams are well aware of the challenge that Treaty pose whereas many were taken by surprise in 2021.
It is hard to see how a season could be more enjoyable than this one. Travelling to games with no expectation whatsoever of gaining results and providing shocks on a regular basis was thoroughly enjoyable to report on never mind play in. A special mention must also go to Craig Hurley and his U-17 women’s side who were crowned National League champions beating household names like Wexford and Peamount along the way. The future looks bright on all fronts and anticipation is already growing for the new year.