The SSE Airtricity League First Division fixtures for the 2020 season were finally released on Friday last. My club Bray Wanderers kick off away to Cabinteely on Friday 21 February, in the first ‘El DARTico’ of 2020. We follow that up on Friday 28 February with our first home game of the new term, with Wexford the visitors to the Carlisle Grounds.
It is not until seven matches in though that we meet the new addition to the division, Shamrock Rovers B; they visit the Carlisle on Friday 03 April. That’s a game I’m really looking forward to, although I seem to be in the minority in terms of welcoming Rovers B back to the division they previously played in during 2014.
When news of Limerick FC’s demise was confirmed late last year I was straight out of the blocks to say ‘Bring Back Rovers B’. It seemed the only logical way forward to me, and none of the arguments put forward by those opposed to it – including the First Division clubs themselves and the majority of fans – shifted my conviction in the slightest.
We are a small league and many clubs have gone to the wall in recent times. If we have to start including reserve sides in our pyramid to make it viable then let’s bite the bullet. If Dundalk, Bohemians, Cork or anyone else wants to include a reserve side for 2021 then let’s plan for it now.
Depending on how many reserve sides might be interested and how many other sides might want to move their first team onto a national stage, our options are either an expanded First Division or a third tier.
We had a League of Ireland B Division for many years and it included a mix of reserve sides of Premier / First division clubs, as well as the first teams of sides like Dublin University. It was a third tier in all but name but there was no direct promotion to the First Division; if the division was to be brought back then it should be with promotion available.
You have to have rules. Players can’t move between a first-team panel and a reserve team panel; you’re in one or the other for the season. No reserve side can play in the same division as their first-team counterparts; if a reserve side wins promotion then they can’t go up if their first team is in the higher division – the promotion would go to the next eligible team. Similarly, if a first-team gets relegated to a division that the reserve team is in then the reserve team would have to automatically move to the league below, with the next eligible team gaining the additional promotion place this would entail.
Much bigger countries than us have blurred lines between reserve and first teams, blending them into the same division at some point in their pyramid. You’ll find Bayern Munich B in Germany’s third-tier 3. Liga [a national division]; Juventus B are in Girone B of the regionalised Italian third-tier Serie C; the Segunda Division B [Spain’s regionalised third-tier] has the reserve sides of Espanyol, Barcelona, Valencia, Villarreal and Levante, amongst others.
There is talk of a new Limerick club [Limerick United] returning to the League for 2021. This would be welcome but we should see what other clubs might be willing to join – both first teams of clubs not already in the League of Ireland and reserve teams of those already in the League – and decide whether to go with a third tier or an expanded First Division.
Reserve sides make sense for bigger clubs who can afford to run them and who are looking to bridge the gap between their U19 sides and their first teams. Their young and fringe players get to play in their club colours rather than going out on loan. For clubs who can’t afford to – or just don’t want to – run a reserve side, there should be no obligation.