Limerick FC’s season got off on a bad note and things have only got worse since, writes Andrew Cunneen.
I found myself wondering how Limerick had gotten to this point. Forgetting the Stuart Taylor gamble and the lack of big gate receipts at Thomond Park, how has this season panned out the way it has?
I’ve never been a believer in pre-season form. I stand by that across all levels of the game, but there was something more to that win over Cork in the Munster Senior Cup – or so it seemed at the time. Pat O’Sullivan had spoken about financial cutbacks.
The Club then announced just weeks before the season that the Markets Field wouldn’t be ready for day one. There was a lot of negativity and I tried to look beyond the cynical mist that had engulfed the football Club at that point. Limerick’s new goalkeeper – one of the brightest products in a very well regarded UCD production line – had just gone viral for his double save against John Caulfield’s men.
One of the early title favourites had come to Askeaton and were turned over. A host of national media believed Limerick hadn’t a prayer for the season ahead. Maybe it was the local pride in me, but I firmly believed Limerick would be better than a couple of teams. They have not been.
Martin Russell’s budget had changed in the middle of pre-season. He signed certain players based on a certain figure, then had to change his approach. Limerick do not have the smallest budget in the league, but they did have the shortest amount of time within which to assemble a squad. When so many sides have small budgets, the Dublin teams typically have an advantage in that regard.
A huge percentage of League of Ireland players live there and Limerick have to either accommodate them, or arrange for them to travel to and from training which isn’t ideal for anyone. If you were a semi-professional footballer living in Dublin, you’d take 50 quid less a week for convenience. That’s just the nature of the league. The squad building was hampered from the start and this is due to a lack of foresight on behalf of those setting the budget.
Bohemians came to town in week one. The form since almost excuses Limerick on this occasion. Keith Long’s men have been in the top half all season and apart from minor bad spells, they’ve been consistent. Next up was Cork City who were never not going to win that game. It was a hard blow to take, but probably to be expected. Shane Duggan was sent off for very little and Limerick folded. Consider it forgotten. Longford Town came to Jackman Park and were behind twice. Limerick played well and Sean Russell gave the impression that he was a useful addition, despite the obvious pressure that comes with being the manager’s son. Limerick didn’t deserve to win that game, but they should have done. The next week was worse. The Blues led Drogheda United for an hour, while Johnny McDonnell’s charges were forced to play with ten men. All they had to do was avoid conceding set pieces. They didn’t. Sean Thornton equalised. The first real hammer blow.
At this point, it appeared Limerick had enough about them to pick up points. They got over the initial poor start to pick up back to back draws and were unlucky not to win one. It was all going to be fine. Pat’s came to Jackman. The best footballing side in the country came to Limerick to play on the worst pitch in the league. If the pitch had been a huge leveller, I’d have held my hands up and admitted that Limerick were lucky not to be well beaten, but that wasn’t the case. The Saints adapted well to the surroundings and adjusted accordingly. Limerick defended well, apart from one or two lapses and were more than a match for a side whose budget is over twice the size of theirs. If that positivity was considered over the top at the time, then the next week’s point against Dundalk really justified it. Limerick were solid. They defended in numbers and broke swiftly. This is what Limerick should have been about all year. The move from Jackman Park seems like a fantastic move for the Club, but in reality – the surface enabled Martin Russell to play total football. They’re far too open and they get picked off time after time. Had Limerick defended deeper, and Conor O’Donnell was replaced by sixteen year-old Tommy Holland after a few games, would Limerick be in with a chance of staying up? Probably. O’Donnell cost Limerick at least six points and has since left the Club because of that. It’s worth noting that he left before he was dropped. If that doesn’t ring some alarm bells, I don’t know what would.
Three huge defeats followed before a game Limerick should have won – against the unbeaten Shamrock Rovers. It’s like Limerick have been teased with results on so many occasions. They were in a poor position before the Markets Field return and the first game in the Garryowen venue should not have had the ‘must-win’ feel to it, but Limerick were also expected to push on when they got there. They have not.
I believe Limerick lost their confidence completely after the Shamrock Rovers game. As bizarre as it is to say, considering they went on to equalise late in Sligo the week after, putting so much into a performance to come up short will kill any side. Martin Russell is a very particular type of manager. He plays football. He does not care about the quality of the players he has, and he goes for it.
This is admired across the league, but maybe he has taken the wrong approach here. Limerick’s best performances were in Jackman where they soaked up pressure and broke.
We are in July. The Chairman has been on local and national radio preaching the good news and begging for support. He’s tried to make light of a very serious situation by going on some sort of Shirley Valentine-inspired Greek odyssey for the whole country to laugh at, and now the whole Club is in limbo. If reinforcements are coming, ask yourself why. Maybe the Club don’t want to be seen to go out on a whimper. I believe this is an ill-advised move. Sligo are releasing players, Derry are releasing players and uncertainty hangs over Bray, but the points differential is too big now.
Play your younger players and prepare them for next year – don’t waste money you could pump back into the first team in 2016 just so you can look like you’re doing something. It’s like putting on your best suit to go down with the Titanic.
This Club has a bright future because of the Markets Field. One season away might not kill it, but the minor details have cost them this year. An imbalanced squad, a manager who plays attacking football regardless, and a change from a fortress where teams hated coming, to an arena where the best are exactly that.
With a poor footing from the off – staff being let go in a highly unprofessional manner as well as ongoing timing issues with payment for players, this season never truly got going in the fashion it should have.
Limerick will bring in players now. It’s too late for them, and that much is acceptable at this stage – unless other clubs fall apart. Had Limerick seen the good crowds coming in the Markets Field, maybe they should have budgeted at season’s beginning. If it was one more player, it might have been the difference. This season was doomed from the start – but it could have been easily prevented. It’s the simple things.