Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.
The original publication date for this piece was October 31st 2012.
On Friday, one Irish club is being pulled into the vortex.
Following a tense and nervy first leg on Tuesday night, Dundalk and Waterford United go into their final match of the season knowing that rich awards awaits one while a catastrophe awaits the other. The 2-2 result in that game, with the away goal rule not in effect, leaves both teams with everything to play for.
Because of the current state of the league, it is simply the biggest promotion/relegation play-off match in years. The team that leaves the RSC on Friday contemplating life in the First Division next year, memorably dubbed “the graveyard” by club chairmen who have had to endure it, will know that they face at least one year among mediocre opposition in a tier that is struggling to stay together with poor crowds, lack of attention and a sense of aimlessness as to its direction from the FAI. It is no exaggeration that the future of the losing club, through the likely hit in finances, will actually be in very real peril. With a league containing as few as six teams potentially, the loser will face hard choices and deep regret.
For Dundalk, it has been a season of some highs, but mostly lows. Fans will point at their astonishing FAI Cup run, semi-finalists, as proof of the competition that the club is capable of giving, but it is mere gloss over a very poor season, on and off the pitch. Finishing their league program with a scant 20 points, only four wins and GD of -40, Dundalk took a well-deserved spot at the bottom of the Premier League.
There were many factors. An exodus of players meant that the pre-season was spent blooding in a whole new first team. A new manager, untested on the senior level, struggled to cut it, appearing nervous and irritable at times. The Oriel Park pitch, artificial, was pure hell to play on, and the home team never got used to it anymore than the opposition. Crowds were poor. Results were poor.
Worse, finances were poor. Dundalk found themselves dangling over the precipice of financial oblivion at times this season as debts mounted and income could not be found to stave off what seemed sometimes as an inevitable end. A campaign to save the club managed to increase gate attendances for a time, and new owners were found to take over from the previous, but Dundalk is still not in a state of economic good health. Destruction off the field has been staved off for now, but debts remain and the possibility of squad improvement seems low.
As the season went on, the Dundalk squad seemed to simply call it quits and resign themselves to this play-off process. Their final matchday win against Bray Wanderers was their first three points in the league for five full months. Defensive frailties, lack of attacking potency, Dundalk’s faults are all too plain to see.
Their opponents, Waterford, are desperate to escape the graveyard. Chairman John O’Sullivan is on record as declaring Waterford’s continued existence in the cash-sparse First Division as not feasible, threatening to do the same as Monaghan United have this season and pull out before debts become unsustainable. Such a threat might be seen by some as just a bluff to try and put pressure on the FAI to reform the league system, but it is undeniable that Waterford will struggle to maintain their current competitive and financial level if repeating another season in the lower tier next year.
A poor start to the season, signified by a 6-0 drubbing to Wexford Youths on the opening day, seemed to spell early disaster, but the Blues battled back to secure second spot, challenging for first all the way up to the second last matchday, including a four game winning sweep over eventual champions Limerick. Seanie Maguire, the red hot teenage striker, was the main driver of this reversal of fortunes, leading Waterford on a 10 game unbeaten run through the middle of the season.
Waterford’s reward for their runner-up spot was a First Division play-off against third placed Longford, which turned out to be an all too easy affair against a demoralized and inept midlands outfit. Securing their final play-off spot with a 3-1 aggregate win, Waterford went into the first leg buoyed.
It’s hard to really analyze that first leg with a view to predicting the second. Waterford started the brighter, but it was Dundalk’s Lorcan Shannon who opened the scoring, connecting to the end of a crisp counter-attack. Minutes later though, the game was turned on its head when Dundalk’s Stephen Maher was given a straight red for kicking out at Peter Higgins. Waterford pressed and pressed for the remainder of the game, grabbing two goals from Paul Phelan and Ben Ryan. Though dominant, Waterford missed a score of chances, and Dundalk lived to fight another say with a long range Stephen McDonnell effort levelling the tie, which is how it stayed.
Both teams go into the last tie with regrets, Waterford over their missed chances, Dundalk over their lack of discipline that left them on the back foot. But both must now, essentially, start over and press hard. Seanie Maguire played merry havoc with the Dundalk defence on Tuesday night, and needs only to convert some of the opportunities that will fall his way. That defence is now likely missing the experience of Liam Burns, who hobbled off in the first leg, so will need to pull together. At the other end, Dundalk’s top scorer Michael Rafter needs to have more of an impact on the game, Shannon needs to continue to break fast from the right flank. Dylan Mernagh will be a dangerous threat for Waterford with his crosses, while the return of influential midfielder John Frost from suspension will also be a boon to the Blues.
Waterford’s big strength this season was their consistent away form, but that let them down in the first leg. They have been slightly wobbly at home, especially in the closing weeks of the league calendar. They might take some comfort in Dundalk’s form in that category though as the Premier Division outfit hasn’t rattled the net in opposition grounds for over two months.
If pressed for a prediction, I would favour Waterford. I think they have a superior squad, better momentum and the key star man in Seanie Maguire, who is one of the only men on the pitch capable of turning the tie all on his own. And, aside from the facts of form and past record, I think the Blues want it more. For five years they have been wasting away in the lower tier, and the possibility of leaving the League of Ireland is one that the squad will fight hard to avoid. Dundalk simply wanted to survive as a club this season, and I would not be surprised if the new owners took over the club with the logical approach that relegation was a serious, even likely, possibility.
One of these clubs will be doomed to the graveyard of Irish football after Friday night, the other left to glory in the possibilities of Premier Division crowds, attention and money. It is a cruel blow to the loser, a prize beyond measure for the victor. It is not just a game of football. It is a battle for survival.
Postscript: Waterford were beaten, and remain mired in the First Division today. Dundalk’s financial situation has stabilised significantly.