Before a ball was kicked this season, there was a lot more questions than answers. Some of the questions asked: Was the contracts been offered by Bray Wanderers sustainable? Is the new 10-team league a good idea? Was the fixture pile up in the first half of the season, needed? Will we have a title race that will have more than two teams? The answers came a lot quicker than expected.
Bray Wanderers appointed Dave Mackey for the upcoming season. Mackey had various roles at Bray over a 5-year period, but never a managerial role. They followed that surprise appointment up by signing 10 players in the 1st week of January including the experienced duo Gary McCabe and Conor Kenna. Everything was looking good for the Seagulls as they started their campaign with an away trip to Oriel Park. The odds were stacked against them but they left Dundalk that night with a point after a surprise 0-0.
They then went on a run of nine straight defeats, scoring only 4 times and conceding 31. They managed to get their first win of the season in April against Shamrock Rovers; a week after Dave Mackey had stepped down as manager. By this stage, Bray were already rooted to the bottom of the table and were heading for the first division. The Seagulls have won just three more times since beating Shamrock Rovers, spanning 17 games.
During this time, Bray have failed to pay players which seen an exodus of players leave the club. Martin Russell has come and gone as manager and Graham Kelly back in temporary charge. The remaining players also threatened to strike over unpaid wages, which led to the FAI and the PFAI at loggerheads, as the latest instalment of Wanderers Weekly reached a ludicrous stage.
No matter how much you sugarcoat it, point fingers or even stay out of it, Bray Wanderers are, in truth, an amateur club. They are ran like an amateur club and have been for some time. New owner Niall O’Driscoll has a massive job on his hands but getting the Seagulls out of the media, scrutiny needs to be his first task.
During this chaotic time at the Carlisle Grounds, Limerick decided to get in on the act and not pay players wages. This led to players leaving the club for new pastures but their situation is not as bad as Bray’s, but does remain a unstable one.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, the FAI announced that three teams would be relegated from the premier division. The 2018 season would then see two 10-team divisions. This left a bitter taste in the mouth of fans and coaches as it would see no less than four league games against the same opposition over the course of one season. If you include cup games, you could play the same side 6 times across one calendar year!
The 10 team premier division has recent history and not in a good way. In 2009 each side met each other 4 times but it finished with Cork City and Derry City been relegated despite finishing third and 4th respectively. This was down to financial difficulties as Cork’s holding company was wound up while Derry City were found guilty of making extra payments to players using secondary contracts. That same season Bray Wanderers finished bottom, lost the relegation play-off but kept their premier division status due to the misfortune of the other two clubs.
The 2010 season seen Sporting Fingal fold as a club despite finishing fourth and having previously won the FAI Cup. Their brief existence as a club came undone as they ran out of money. This led to relegated Drogheda been reinstated as a premier division club for the 2011 season.
The following season, Derry City were banned from Europe for 3 years after going into liquidation, while Galway United finished bottom and then withdrew from the league. Finally the 2012 season reverted to a 12 team league after the after the 3 year experiment of a 10 team league was over. This season however ended with just 11 teams, as Monaghan United folded after just 14 league games.
It Is when you look back over recent seasons; you see a familiar pattern of the same problems with the same people in charge of it all. Despite what has happened in previous seasons, the FAI and the clubs still managed to vote it back in for the 2018 season.
This year we’ve had financial problems with Bray and Limerick which coincides with previous seasons when a 10 team league was in place. This is not exactly the problem but it has bad history and the authorities, are simply not learning from past mistakes. After recent European success for Dundalk, the FAI decided that the fixture schedule would be somewhat different for the 2018 season.
They decided that they would front load the first half of the season with games Friday and Monday so it would help the European sides in July when the qualifying fixtures come out. This idea, as predicted by the majority of the fans, turned out to be a disaster. Unless you had a squad like Dundalk or Cork, you were going to struggle. The top two have much more resources than the other 8 sides and this proved more evident in the recent years.
By the time the mid-season break came around in June, the majority of teams had played 23 league games. That is an incredible number of games in such a short time for what is a ‘part-time’ league. Yes, we have full time clubs but in the main, the majority of players have 2 jobs so they can live and feed their families.
As most of clubs are cash starved, they rely on the fans coming through the gates, so having this amount of games in such a quick period is baffling. Fans have their own bills and families to look after but this is not a thought process for the FAI fixtures committee. They also do not have a plan around their fixtures as they send the likes of Bohemians up to Derry on a Monday night or best yet; send Derry City down to Cork of a Monday. Finances are the biggest problem within this league yet making these type of fixtures is only hurting them more, rather than helping.
The country suffered greatly after an insane snowstorm that affected the fixtures and only added to the problems for each club. One of the issues with back-to-back games so frequently is the lack of coaching and recovery time for players. This has proved even more evident this season, as there is currently 20 points separating second and third.
The league is too small to have just two teams competing for the title, but unfortunately, this year it is happening again. Dundalk and Cork have finished in the top two since 2014 and the gap that year between 2nd and 3rd was 7 points. In 2015, it was just 2 points and in 2016, it was 8 points. Just last year the gap was 15 points and already this year, it is 20 points with still eight games left.
You can also see the effects on the pitch, as there has been a major lack of quality for most of the campaign. Waterford are sitting in third but haven’t won in their last 4 games and haven’t won back-to-back games since the 1st week of May. At that time, they had beaten Dundalk to move level on points with them and are now 20 points adrift. St Pats were on a run of 4 straight wins and moved into 4th but that came to a halt as they then lost 7 in a row to drop to 6th. They remain in 6th despite only winning 2 of their last 10 league games which tells you the level of the other teams in the league.
Dundalk have kept 17 clean sheets in just 26 games. They have managed to win by 2 or more goals on 15 occasions. Cork have managed to win by two or more goals on 13 occasions and have played two games more. It would seem both clubs have benefitted the most from the new format and the gap will only get bigger.
The fans and media want to be entertained. Coaches want to coach and improve players. They want to be able to show them where they went wrong in the previous match but when you have games every couple of days, you cannot show them. Instead, you must show players how to beat the next opposition and forget about what happened previously.
We currently have eight games left and excluding the title race, there is not much else to play for Bray Wanderers will be relegated and Limerick will more than likely end up in the relegation play off. Sligo and Bohemians will try catching St Pats in sixth while Derry City will try catching Shamrock Rovers in fourth.
During this chaotic fixture schedule, Sligo Rovers were left without a home game since June 30. Their next home league game is Monday August 20 and for clubs who rely on fans coming through the gate so they can pay wages etc., this is embarrassing from the FAI.
The governing body allowed Dundalk to cancel their away game at Sligo, which was scheduled for 21st of July, to allow them prepare for a Europa league fixture. This was insulting and pathetic for everyone involved in the league and inevitably backfired on Dundalk as they only drew 0-0 at home to Larnaca. Following this, Dundalk played Bohemians in a league fixture before flying out to Cyprus for the return leg. Surely, it would have made more sense to play Sligo as you were not traveling after it and then postpone the Bohemians fixture? Only Stephen Kenny and the FAI know the answer to that, either way Dundalk were sent packing from the Europa League.
It is the same people in the same positions year on year that has seen no growth or change in the league. Changing the format of the league is not what we need. Playing each other 4 times is not what we need. We have excellent media coverage and we have strong, passionate fans that a good league needs. We lack a good TV deal that can show the world the product we have here. We also lack fresh air right at the top, where it matters.
From the facilities to the TV coverage, the league is a shambles. We cannot seem to take the next step whether that is a TV deal where clubs are compensated or whether we move with the times of social media and show live games on Facebook. We need something fresh, we need a new direction. We have to stop having clubs going through financial difficulties every season if we are to improve.
A clear out is needed so a change can begin. Unfortunately, we are a dying league in need of help!