Limerick FC's trio of managers this season. Martin Russell, Neil McDonald, Willie Boland
A LOT happened at the Markets Field in Limerick in 2017. Too much. Yet, not enough. If that sounds paradoxical, it’s probably apt. Fragmented might be the best adjective. We’ll go with that.
Someone once told me the worst thing you can be called in Ireland is ‘harmless’. That’s fairly much what Limerick were for the majority of the year, but to truly understand what we can take out of it, we need to dissect the transition. That’s the one undeniable feature of the past few months.
After some early-season panic over Rodrigo Tosi’s registration, he went on to score an opening day hat-trick. Although in February, it feels about a decade ago, considering all the upheaval since. It dragged. It really dragged.
At time of sacking, Martin Russell was 14/1 to be the first man to lose his job. This mainly due to Sligo’s Dave Robertson having an abysmal start in the Showgrounds. It seemed unlikely that the winner in a 5-1 rout would lose his job before the winner of that tie. Yet, that’s what unfolded. There was shock resonating around the country as it seemed, at least from the outside, premature.
I’m not sure it was.
Knowing what we know now, not too many will disagree that Limerick’s standout performers on the year were Brendan Clarke and Rodrigo Tosi. Neither of whom were signed by the former St. Pat’s assistant. Tosi ended up in Garryowen thanks to a chance friendship he struck up with Joe Gamble in Brunei, while Clarke was recruited by Eddie Hickey.
Now, there’s absolutely no point in saying Russell would have gotten ‘X’ amount of points over the course of the season. That’s guesswork. What was extremely obvious, though – is that Limerick were making the same mistakes over and over again. While the Tony Whitehead/Shaun Kelly mix-up in the Munster derby was little more than unfortunate, it exemplified the unnecessary risks that side took. Let’s talk through it.
Lee-J Lynch picks up possession inside the Cork half. He’s timidly pressed by Gearoid Morrissey, before passing the ball backwards to Tony Whitehead. He goes backwards again to his right full. Kelly is rushed by Stephen Dooley and passes it backwards (again) to Whitehead, only for it to cannon off the Charleville native’s leg. Dooley picks out a pass to Maguire. There weren’t many missed chances by that man this year. 3,000 bore witness. That crowd would never come back. They wouldn’t have come back after that, even if Mourinho donned the Hummel gear.
Willie Boland doesn’t talk much. The one thing he did say when Martin left was that, under him, Limerick would play in the ‘right areas’. Russell wasn’t even at Junction 14 and Shannonside had washed its hands of his slow, high-risk build-up. Boland was never getting the job; he wasn’t qualified, nor do I believe he wanted it. That doesn’t mean his run shouldn’t be acknowledged. A very un-Limerick-like performance in Inchicore saw them run out winners on the road – with a clean sheet.
That win was followed up by a 3-0 success at home to Drogheda. Two clean sheets in a row. Two in two games for Boland. Russell managed just four in fifty-three Premier Division games. He should have bowed out after this. But the managerial search went on. It went on – and on – and on.
The wave of momentum that the former Cardiff City midfielder was riding eventually broke. The manhunt for a new boss, which was once a source of excitement became a distraction. The distraction then become a frustration; then an annoyance. Forty-five days after Russell ‘mutually parted company’ with the Blues, McDonald landed.
His initial bedding-in period took its bumps. Within his first eighteen minutes ‘in charge’ he saw his first-choice goalkeeper get sent-off for a bizarre handball outside the box. Freddy Hall shipped three and the reality very quickly set in for McDonald about how far any side, let alone Limerick, would have to go to catch the top two.
For all its quirks and oddities, the League of Ireland is just football. That’s what McDonald preached from day one. As he began to learn more about other clubs, his preparation would improve. Perhaps the longest he spent assessing a side was his own, though.
Results were mixed. Limerick plodded along. Late drama away to Bohemians and hometown heroics against Bray ensured the Blues stuck around. Even if it felt by default. Then came Galway. The one that changed everything.
Five-hundred strong make the journey up the then-unfinished M18. The talk was of Europe. Rodrigo Tosi missed an absolute sitter early on. Ronan Murray hooked a half volley into the roof of the net from near-forty yards.
The defensive pride McDonald possessed was then shattered as Whitehead bit on a pass from Dave Cawley to Padraic Cunningham before Robbie Williams made an appalling attempt at a tackle. When the 20-year-old slid the ball under Clarke, McDonald’s spirit was tested. When the pair repeated their mistakes later on, his sprit was probably broken.
Two weeks later, he left his mark. The 51-year-old gutted what many considered the core of that squad in Shaun Kelly, Robbie Williams and Paul O’Conor. The reception to his appointment was positive – anything other than the seemingly-secured signature of Kevin Nugent – would have been.
The expected inconsistency which comes along with a new managerial reign was in full flow. The Limerick public were on the fence, but the transfer listing of three senior pros in a time where it appeared a relegation battle was on the horizon was too much for some.
A run of games against Derry City, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers did little to aid McDonald’s cause. Conceding eight times and scoring none in those ties didn’t help either. But back-to-back one-nil wins gave hope that the Geordie’s defensive leaning was starting to bear fruit. A cup run ensued.
Harps fell, Galway fell and Hery rose. It was a welcome distraction, but that’s all it was.
The full away end in Turner’s Cross symbolised just what the club could become should it make those occasions a tad more commonplace. In patches, McDonald’s new professional outlook – with assistant Kinder alongside – has invigorated a club that’s been going around in circles since 2013. Some people like him. Some people don’t. The important thing is that he really couldn’t care less.
2017 wasn’t a success in any regard for Limerick, and nobody can say whether or not McDonald will be one going forward. However, in the dying embers of the season, there appeared to be an identity forging. Harness that, and the Blues will have more about them going forward than they’ve had in recent years.
Chiedozie Ogbene and Brendan Clarke are on deals for the year. Dave O’Connor overcame abuse. Dean Clarke shone in spurts. Bastien Hery flashed class. Rodrigo Tosi kept scoring. Gauging their performances levels is a subjective process, but acknowledging their compatibility with McDonald’s more cynical approach is a no-brainer. The core has shifted, and it must be tied down. There’s your transition.
League of Ireland off-seasons are long and full of terrors. Traditionally, Limerick have made a mess of them. For once, there may be a manager who just won’t tolerate it.