The 2018 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division is up and running and what a weekend it was, with some sell-out games, plenty of goals and a few surprising results [Bray’s marvellous draw in Oriel Park being one of them!].
This coming weekend it’s the turn of the First Division to kick off. The new ten-team format should breathe new life into the lower division, and there are certainly some mouth-watering ties scheduled for the opening weekend. There’s a Dublin derby between UCD and Shelbourne at the UCD Bowl and a short distance away in Stradbrook the capital’s third First Division side Cabinteely host Wexford FC.
Elsewhere Galway United, relegated from last season’s Premier Division, host Athlone Town at Eamonn Deacy Park and Longford Town entertain Cobh Ramblers at the City Calling Stadium. Potentially the tie of Series 1 in the First Division though is the visit of Finn Harps to United Park to face Drogheda United – both these relegated teams from last season’s Premier Division will be anxious to make a firm statement of their promotion intentions in this opening game.
This year’s First Division is packed with teams who have rich histories in the League of Ireland, not to mention lengthy lists of honours. Take the Drogheda versus Harps game; both have FAI Cup wins – Harps lifted the trophy in 1973-74 and Drogheda won it in 2005 [and several times before as a previous incarnation of the club] – and Drogheda were Premier Division champions as recently as 2007.
Or take the Dublin derby between UCD and Shelbourne. Shels have 13 Premier Division titles [I’m including the time before 1985 when the League was a single division] and 7 FAI Cups and UCD themselves were FAI Cup winners in 1983-84. Or the Galway versus Athlone game; Galway won the FAI Cup in 1990-91 and were runners up in the Premier Division in 1985-86. Athlone, the oldest club in the League, won the FAI Cup in 1923-24 and have 2 League titles [1980-81 and 1982-83].
Longford Town have 2 FAI Cups – won in succession in 2003 and 2004, while Wexford FC won the 2015 First Division [as Wexford Youths]; Cobh Ramblers have also played in the Premier Division. Only Cabinteely from the current crop have never been out of the First Division, but as the League’s newest team they have improved year-on-year since their arrival in 2015. Could they take the giant step forward of promotion this year?
I go to quite a few First Division games. The standard is good and the clubs deserve better crowds than they generally get. Supporting Bray Wanderers through 11 First Division seasons [starting in 1985-86 when we arrived in the expanded League of Ireland and then off and on up to our most recent promotion in 2004] I always enjoyed the First Division. The feeling that you were in with a chance of promotion and not having to face the big clubs every week was a relief in a way, although you always wanted to get back up.
I wouldn’t dare try to predict who will come up this year. I think there is too much quality there for promotion to be a foregone conclusion for anyone. I think it will be an exciting contest, and I’m looking forward to attending as many of the games as I can, mostly at Tolka Park, Stradbrook and Belfield. I’d encourage all fans of Premier Division teams to try to take in some games from the lower tier also this term. Good luck to all the teams as they prepare to kick off.