Fasten your seatbelts, the 2021 League of Ireland season is upon us, and it isn’t a moment too soon. I think I speak for all LOI fans when I say that my world is a brighter place when the League is ongoing. These are grim times, and anything that lifts the mood is welcome; if that something is our favourite sport then all the better.
With these sentiments in mind, congratulations to Drogheda United on renaming their ground Head In The Game Park for the 2021 season. The name and initiative grew out of the passing of Dundalk’s groundsman Harry Taaffe last year. Highlighting the importance of and need for conversation around mental health sends a strong message of togetherness and support from Louth to the rest of the clubs.
What constitutes ‘the rest of the clubs’ seems to be a moveable feast in recent times. Gone out are Shamrock Rovers B and in are Treaty United from Limerick. Both these clubs, along with Dublin County FC, were awarded First Division licences. When it came to making a final decision on the make-up of the 2021 second tier, Treaty United got the nod, with Dublin County denied entry seemingly over the availability of Santry Stadium.
Whilst I welcome the return of a Limerick side to the national stage, I think the exclusion of Shamrock Rovers B was a retrograde step. The club has plugged a gap not once but twice [2014, as well as 2020] in the second tier and their participation at this level was an excellent way of developing young players on the national stage.
I’ve commented before on my support for a national third tier that would include the reserve sides of clubs in the Premier and First Divisions, along with the first teams of other clubs looking to get onto the national pyramid. This kind of model would be an updated version of the old League of Ireland B division, which wasn’t strictly a reserve division as it included sides like Dublin University.
This model for reserve sides is also common on the continent, with strict rules. For example, no reserve side is allowed get promoted into the same division as that club’s first team. It could work here, and allow a clearer pathway from U19 to first team. If something like this had been in place this year it could also have accommodated Dublin County FC, and perhaps other clubs from around the country.
It is great to see Robbie Keane’s presence at Shamrock Rovers during the build up to the season. Although he is not there in any official capacity, he is keeping his hand in while he decides what his next career move will be. To have a legend like that around is inspirational to the players, particularly the strikers. I am always impressed by people who ‘give something back’. Well done Robbie.
With no sign yet of when we will be allowed attend games in person, it was good to see the WATCHLOI service extended to the 2021 Premier Division. The joint FAI-RTE venture was rolled out for the second half of the 2020 campaign, and although take-up fell below expectations, the service itself was well received. The First Division will get its own streaming service this campaign, albeit on a different platform.
Talking of platforms for viewing domestic soccer, one that has disappeared is Soccer Republic. The show – going for more than a decade between its current guise and previous guise of Monday Night Soccer – needed to be improved, not cancelled, in my opinion.
I found the show difficult to watch, with poor analysis and a meaningless timeslot. Why couldn’t RTE have had the show on a Saturday night, in the style of Match Of The Day, but obviously not in a competing timeslot? Saturday nights are a balmy archipelago of bad television, but people tune in. Investing in a show that would bring our national league to a wider audience could only be good, couldn’t it?