This year’s SSE Airtricity League First Division is proving to be one of the most exciting in years. Rejuvenated by the 10-team restructuring and the offer of three promotion play-off spots, the standard of football and attendances in general have improved.
The return after the mid-season break at the weekend threw up a set of results that really stirred the pot. UCD – the runaway leaders at the break – lost heavily at home to Longford. With the chasing pack of Drogheda, Shelbourne and Finn Harps [as well as Longford] all winning [Shelbourne triumphed in Galway, Finn Harps in Cabinteely and Drogheda beat Cobh], the pressure on UCD to try to hold on at the top must be enormous.
In many ways it is easier to be chasing someone down rather than being the team being chased. This doesn’t just apply to football – it is basic hunting psychology. The fact the other teams are hunting them down in a pack adds to the pressure on UCD. The coming week will offer no let up for them, with Shelbourne – now only four points adrift with nine games remaining after a fine 2-1 win in Galway at the weekend – this week’s visitors to Belfield.
Conceivably anyone from UCD [on top with 38 points] down through Drogheda, Shelbourne and Longford to Finn Harps in fifth [on 31 points] could now win the automatic promotion spot. That will see four teams [possibly even five if you don’t discount Galway in sixth spot on 26 points] battling for the three play-off positions. It’s certainly set up to be an exciting climax to the season.
Games against each other for these teams will become real six-pointers. Take the Drogheda versus Finn Harps game this coming weekend. A win for the Donegal outfit would move them level on points with Drogheda, while a win for Drogheda combined with Shelboune getting a result in Belfield would move both Drogheda and Shelbourne closer to UCD.
The 9 remaining games will not be coming as thick and fast as the frequency of matches before the break. Perhaps prolonged involvement in the FAI Cup could prove to be the deciding factor in the promotion race, in that it could take a side’s focus and energies away from the league; or maybe the opposite could hold through – a good run in the Cup could be sustained in league encounters, which will more and more take on a Cup feel to them as the climax of the season approaches and the promotion prize looms on the horizon.