Paul Smith


Excitement is building as the League of Ireland season returns from its winter break for a new campaign. Last season’s runaway victors Bohemians are overwhelming favourites to retain their title after claiming the crown with an impressive 19 point winning margin in 2008. It was manager Pat Fenlon’s first season in charge, and the Dublin based club begins the defence of their title away at newly promoted Dundalk. 

The league campaign kicks off amidst a host of controversy over club expenditure.  The global financial crisis has hit Irish football hard over the past 12 months. One of the league’s highest profile clubs Cork City were forced to apply for examinership (the Irish equivalent of administration) in August 2008 with debts of approximately €800,000.  Fellow club Drogheda United also found themselves in examinership during the last campaign, and both clubs suffered a 10 point deduction as punishment. The FAI has responded to this. They believe examinership could be too convenient an option and have opted to impose a staggering 40 point deduction for any clubs applying for examinership during the 2009 season.

Since the end of the last campaign the football authorities have undertaken a thorough course of due diligence with all clubs to assess whether they are financially viable to compete in the 2009 season. It’s only been a matter of weeks since clubs were informed as to whether they had obtained a license to compete in the upcoming season. The only club not to receive a license was Cobh Ramblers. The County Cork outfit, who were playing in the Premier Division last season, have in effect been relegated to the "A" Championship (the third tier of Irish Football) after failing to obtain a license to compete within the professional structure. Kildare County will take their place in the First Division (the second tier of Irish football).

The FAI has been roundly criticised for failing to adequately punish the clubs that fell into examinership. Cork City still have two players perusing them for alleged unpaid monies.  One of these players is former Aston Villa, Everton and Bolton midfielder Gareth Farrelly. In particular the Players Football Association of Ireland (PFAI) is furious at the lack of direct action taken by the FAI for any past misdemeanours. The fact that players at Bohemians (favourites for the league and current champions) have agreed to a wage cut to allow the arrival of new players highlights the financial mess that Irish football has found itself in.

Despite financial problems the prize money on offer for the forthcoming season has never been higher, breaking through the €1M barrier for the very first time.  This includes an equal share of TV Money to be paid between all Premier Division clubs.
Considering the lack of money that has engulfed the league it’s not surprising that pre-season has been a quiet one in terms of transfer dealings, although there have been a few headline grabbing moves. The biggest name to leave the league in pre-season was Keith Fahey of St Patricks Athletic (St Pats). Fahey had previous had unsuccessful spells with Arsenal and Aston Villa, and has now returned to England’s Second City to ply his trade for Championship promotion contenders Birmingham City. Manager Alex McLeish hopes he will add a creative spark to their combative midfield.  Newly-promoted Dundalk pulled off a coup by signing attacking midfielder George O’Callaghan from Tranmere Rovers.  O’Callaghan is a former League of Ireland Player of the Year who excelled at Cork City before making the move across the Irish Sea.
In terms of managerial movements, the headline change is that of former Republic of Ireland international Jeff Kenna. Kenna takes over as manager at St Pats after rescuing Galway United from relegation last term. Despite the loss of Keith Fahey, Kenna believes St Pats can still compete with Bohemians for the league title. Ironically Kenna’s first game in charge is against his old club Galway United.  

Cork City also have a new manager in Paul Doolin who has arrived from the other team that applied for examinership during the 2008 season; Drogheda United. After a 2008 season to forget for Cork City, Doolin is hopeful that the Rebel Army can launch a title challenge in 2009.

There is also a new ground in the League of Ireland this season. Shamrock Rovers finally move to the Tallaght Stadium situated in the sprawling south Dublin suburb of Tallaght after a long draw out affair that many fans can probably relate to. Details of the stadium were announced in 1996, however financial problems and disputes with the local authority continuously delayed construction.  Finally the UEFA Category 3 stadium has been built and is ready to host League of Ireland football. The stadium is owned by South Dublin County Council with Shamrock Rovers as anchor tenants, with the first competitive game at the new stadium coming in the shape of Shamrock Rovers vs Sligo Rovers on Friday 13th March.

The administrators are hopeful the 2009 season will be a breath of fresh air for Irish football and will go some way towards banishing the painful memories of the 2008 campaign. The financial crisis that overshadowed the 2008 season should not return, however if clubs do not learn from the errors of the past, the potential of a 40 point deduction (and barring some miracle guaranteed relegation to the First Division) for falling into examinership should ensure all clubs remain prudent with their spending.

Bohemians deserve their status as favourites to retain their crown, despite asking their players to take wage cuts there is an air of stability at the club. Pat Fenlon will be looking for a repeat of his first season in charge, and his side will also fancy their chances of retaining the FAI Cup.  Could they even go one better and complete the domestic treble by lifting the League of Ireland Cup, a trophy won by Derry City in 2008? It will also be interesting to see how they fair in the qualifying stages of the Champions League. However teams such as Cork City, St Pats and Derry City will be looking to ensure that Bohemians do not have it all their own way on the domestic front.

Atletico Madrid 00/01 Home Shirt           Real Madrid 08/09 European Shirt

Atletico Madrid 00/01 home shirt                                 Real Madrid 08/09 European shirt