2 weeks before the season starts, the League of Ireland’s First Division remains mired in uncertainty

TWO WEEKS FROM now, the First Division season is due to begin, yet exactly which teams will compete remains uncertain. The number of sides that will participate also is unclear.

Limerick FC’s involvement is still in doubt. There were signs of hope, when the FAI confirmed the club could apply for a licence earlier this month. However, there have been few signs of progress since then.

The chaotic nature of the situation was emphasised by Limerick’s lack of presence at Wednesday’s League of Ireland media day — no players or managers showed up on their behalf, essentially because they don’t have any currently as they await licence approval.

There’s also the issue of the Shamrock Rovers II team and whether or not they will participate as planned.

Such a scheme would allow the Hoops to play younger, second-string players in the second tier, though promotion to the top flight would not be permitted even if they finish first.

The proposal has proved unpopular with others in the First Division. At one point, there was said to be a “strong possibility” of legal action, after the club’s application was approved by the National League Executive Committee, and was ratified by the FAI board.

Cabinteely chairman Larry Bass previously told The42 the idea of a ‘B’ team “devalues the whole league”.

Speaking on Wednesday, Dundalk boss Vinny Perth suggested he could see both sides of the argument.

“Personally, I’d love [Dundalk] to have a second team in there, that’s the ideal, but I understand where that creates a huge amount of problems… For the obvious reasons. Unless it is just a case of 20 players signed for a club, this thing of dropping players up and down has the potential to affect the credibility and integrity of it.

“You use a goalkeeper for argument’s sake, he’s been out injured and he needs a game and he keeps a clean sheet against Longford, then a different goalkeeper comes in against Drogheda the following week. That’s an issue.

Other clubs, however, are not so diplomatic in relation to the Rovers II plan, with talk of rival sides potentially boycotting games in protest at the decision.

Nevertheless, speaking to The42 earlier this week, Rovers sporting director Stephen McPhail defended their plans and denied it was an opportunistic attempt to capitalise on Limerick’s well-documented woes.

“We met with Ruud Dokter, me and Stephen [Bradley], and spoke about our problems, because he asked. Over a long period of time, maybe the last two years, we’ve had a question mark between our 19s and the first team. We felt we were losing players to the game and people weren’t playing football anymore when we let them them go,” the former Leeds player explained.

Meanwhile, Rovers’ club captain Ronan Finn feels the initiative will benefit both his club and Irish football in general.

“For us to have a team now in the First Division, I think we’ve got the best academy in Ireland. We’ve the best infrastructure in terms of the training ground — competitive teams at 15s, 17s, 19s, all national leagues. One of our ambitions this year is to go and win those leagues outright.  

Ronan Finn believes Shamrock Rovers’ youngsters would be more than capable of holding their own in the First Division.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Finn also feels the Hoops have more than enough young players capable of seriously competing in the second tier.

“It depends on the age. You’re not going to throw a 14 or 15-year-old in unless he’s ready, but there are 17-year-olds in our dressing room in the academy that undoubtedly would be able to compete in the First Division.

“I don’t think the objective is to win the First Division, it’s to develop players into our first team. We’re forward planning in that regard and I think it’s a really good move by the football club.”

And while it looks increasingly likely that Rovers II will feature in the First Division, whether Limerick join them appears doubtful.

The sense of confusion is highlighted by the fact that not one but two fixture lists have been released.

A 10-team set of fixtures was released on 10 January, before a second, 11-team draft fixture list came out on 24 January, after Limerick were allowed apply for a licence, while Rovers II were included in both cases.

In response, Bray Wanderers tweeted: “We wish to remind all fans that the new fixture list issued this evening by the [SSE Airtricity League] is still only a draft version and supporters are advised not to make concrete plans based on this fixture list until advised.” 

Should Limerick gain acceptance, a shield competition will kick off proceedings and run until 20 March, before the league proper begins on 27 March.

With still no sign of a definitive fixture list in sight, certain clubs will surely be frustrated at the lack of clarity, with teams such as Athlone having to tell fans “don’t book your holidays just yet,” with the situation “subject to change”.

Nonetheless, speaking during the week, UCD boss Andy Myler played down concerns, when it was put to him that such organisational chaos might be highly disruptive to his plans.

“Not really. People just get ahead and train their teams and do pre-seasons and let those decisions typically happen at board level or league level. So to be honest, I haven’t thought about it too much. What will be will be at the end of the day.”

Meanwhile, speaking on Wednesday, Niall Quinn, the FAI’s recently appointed Interim Deputy CEO, was unable to shed too much light on when exactly the issue will be resolved as the scheduled First Division kick-off date — 21 February — draws closer.

“But I believe it’s their decision to get together and understand that if we can avoid any more confrontation on it, great. But [our role] is to support and mediate if possible. It’s up to them now to get back to us. 

“Hopefully it’ll be done soon. You see what it’s like seeing players in football kit and football matches. It’s the same for that league. Everybody wants to play. All the clubs just want to get out and play. I know that. They have this issue. I hope the issue can be resolved amicably between them. I believe they’re trying to do that. And we’re here in a way facilitating it as best we can.”

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