Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is It Over Already? Season 2012 In Review

Jerome Corby is cameraman for Donagh Corby’s award-winning The League of Ireland Interview Show at http://www.youtube.com/interviewloi - he’s also a Shamrock Rovers fan.

So Sligo are League of Ireland Champions 2012. Drogheda are League Cup Winners 2012, but Setanta went north this years to Crusaders, and Derry are FAI Cup Winners 2012. So. Everybody’s happy then, right? Ask Waterford. Ask Longford. Ask the city of Galway.
It’s imperative now that the FAI stop a risible situation where willing fans at functioning clubs are being actively chased away by consigning them to a dysfunctional First Division. It is wrong to a criminal degree, to remove from good towns the opportunity to present top-class football and watch as Sky TV burns down the house. Put up some sort of a fight for heaven’s sake, and if you can’t help these honest people to bring football to an audience, then you really need to get out of the way for those who will. A single league with 16 teams has never made as much sense as it does now. If you build it, they will come.
But I wanted to talk about the high points of the Premier Division this term….
Well the high point of 2012 for The League of Ireland Interview Show had to be a trip to the far west on Saturday 13th of October – given the pace and sheer excitement of this year’s LOI model you’d have to. The signs were all pointing there for some time now, Sligo Rovers knew it, and so did everyone else. Since they demoralised Shamrock Rovers at the Showgrounds on the 12th of May, the writing was on the wall, and the chase was on for whomever had the staying power. The Europa League campaign would surely take a toll, and it did wind them a bit. But another European campaign would also give them a good test, and the match-preparedness and experience gleaned from that stood to them greatly.
Where Drogheda came from, with a decent season-saving run-in behind them, but a raft of new players battling for places in pre-season, was up for discussion. But come they did, and their dogged style and rawness, coupled with an insistent pressure game, topped off with the addition of real midfield and goal scoring talent in the Ryan Brennan / Eric Foley axis and the evergreen Fabio, ensured the spotlight was turned on them early on. Mick Cooke will be hoping the players that were so rewarding for him will continue to want it like they did this year. He appears to have built a strong bond with his men individually. Even if he was the beneficiary in a veritable clear-out of Gortakeegan long before the whistle blew on the Mon Dog, his longer-term challenge is to blend them further into a unit. If he succeeds, the possibilities are only opening up. My vote for LOI player of the year went to Gabriel Sava, except that inexplicably, he wasn’t considered. So many assured displays this year, and was instrumental in keeping Drogs the right side of many results. Well, MNS recognised his talent anyway with their vote.
The rejuvenated St. Patrick’s Athletic stepped up with real intent, turning on a style from early on and give or take a bit of luck here and there, were honest and hard-working enough to deserve at least 2nd in my view. What’s most interesting is that St. Pat’s also had a tough ask with their energy-sapping European journeys for the second year running, and emerged the stronger, proving real contenders for the title by August. The difference however for them this year, was the undoubted personality embodied by Liam Buckley, which he imparted to a squad that blossomed with every next game. Ger O’Brien found his role as an attacking flanker restored with good results, and Forrester/Fagan (re-signed for 2013) promised much early on, given their difficult year at Bohs in 2011. Chambers took time to find his stride, but once settled, he gave Pat’s the best midfield option of the top clubs – so now they lose him to Rovers, but gain the highly experienced Killian Brennan, who I would argue is still improving. Pat’s are looking strong enough already with their re-signings for 2013.
The question for Sligo then, was whether they had the strength in depth to withstand the loss of must-have defenders Keane and Davoren, and a major wobble was expected with the season-ending injury sustained by 15-goal man Danny North. But as was plain to see even since pre-season, it’s hard to keep one voracious striker fed, never mind two, so where North had kept Mark Quigley firmly in his shadow for the early part of the season, his departure from the scene allowed Quigley the space to do what he does best, and he took the opportunity. If anything, it gave a more settled look to a side almost toppling over with vigour and willingness.
The Baraclough factor is belief, and the move Ross Gaynor had made to switch coasts allowed him to benefit from that and shore up the left side, while Raff Cretaro has found a lease of life that was great to watch as the season wore on. His brace against Pat’s before Quigley’s decisive penalty were just reward for the unsung season-long work he put in for the Bit. Using Ventre, Peers and McGuinness as Baraclough did created a strong base to launch attacks, while affording Rodgers ample protection and repeatedly boosting team confidence. Add in Joseph Ndo working off Ventre, and you have the vital link between experienced players and young pretenders. Ask any of Sligo’s new guys and they all point to Joey for their inspiration. David Cawley is an exciting prospect, showing poise and composure. For sheer cleverness, his goal against Shamrock Rovers in May should be competing with Mark Griffin of Dundalk and Chris Forrester of Pat’s for goal of the season.
The implosion at Ireland’s best pitch, Tallaght was hard to watch. I love the Hoops, it’s always exciting to be there, but for so many nights this season the disbelief in the stands was palpable, and began to be reflected in the attendances. It culminated for me in the paltry turnout at the EA Sports Cup Final when their conviction that they hadn’t a chance turned out to be awfully accurate. Cooke’s men swept them aside, with swagger too. Is Stephen Kenny suddenly a bad manager? Hardly. His confidence was shot early doors though – did this filter through the ranks? Definitely. Surely the lesson for Trevor Croly is not to try to hoover up as many resources as there are in the league, but instead to bolster problem areas. That’s done as much by coaching as by spending. Brian Laws’ holiday here saw the green shoots appearing in their forward play, and Croly would be expected to have the players’ ear, having been on the management team there not too long ago. They’ve already signed Jason McGuinness, Chambers and Sean O’Connor, so it’s a new look once more. I wouldn’t be writing their obituary yet, so. They’ll grind their teeth at the loss of European football however.
The FAI Cup win for Derry City is just the icing on the cake for this season, and the quality of that team can be underestimated in the rush to celebrate Sligo’s supremacy. But for those many and famous injuries (10 of 20 players out at one stage), the Candys could have delivered more fully on their early season promise. The return of Greacen and Patterson brought obvious rewards at Lansdowne Road, and Ryan McBride’s season, effectively derailed by his knockout, was resurrected at the death when he was introduced late in the final. They looked physically too much for the mobile St. Pat’s, who really did put it up to them in the 2nd half of that classic. European City of Culture 2013. And European football’s back. If Declan Devine can keep this squad together, I think they’ll do well, hopefully get past the first couple of rounds at least.
Aaron Callaghan must be chomping at the bit for 2013. He signed a slew of young players, and after the expected poor start, bred an aggression in Bohs that appears to be keeping them the right side of the results as they look to consolidate their position from a financial standpoint. He and Owen Heary appear to have an understanding, and the addition of veterans Dave Scully, Evan MacMillan (veteran?) and others has permitted the quick settling of that young staff into the task of maintaining their enduring reputation. Karl Moore, Keith Ward and an improving Keith Buckley promise much in the short term.
When looking at Shelbourne’s outturn, take the example of 2010 play-off winners, Bray Wanderers.  Similar league position this year, but general dissatisfaction for Shels’ fans and Alan Matthews on their return to the top flight. On close examination of the facts, the apparent disappointment of their overall performance can be tempered by the fact that in Tolka Park, the weight of expectation is always greater. But David Cassidy, Philly Hughes and Paddy Kavanagh will be unhappy with their general haul, having left a number of results behind them. The migration of Conan Byrne to Inchicore this week removes a considerable attacking force.
On the surface, Bray seem content to have maintained the status quo, and the emergence of young players of the quality of Kieran Marty Waters was pleasing by the sea this year. Waters and Jason Byrne have built quite the understanding, and produced some nice scores off this partnership in 2012. To date it looks as if that will continue.
UCD continue to do what they do best, challenging in every single game, and bringing us a view of the best young talent College can offer, but ultimately losing players to those clubs that can offer greater compensation and exposure. The loss of Paul Corry to Sheffield Wednesday during the season knocked the wind out of them to a small extent, but Martin Russell has carried on their progress of recent years this season, causing an upset or two along the way. Will he be there next March to push it further?
Cork continue to improve, and held their own admirably this time around. Tommy Dunne appears to be happy with his men, and given the changes in that side, some enforced, they have looked every inch the Premier outfit. Kevin Murray made the short trip from leading Waterford to Leeside over the close season, and given a number of fortuitous (or not) circumstances, he’s captained the side a number of times too, a worthy position for a man of his skill and intelligence. Mark McNulty in goal impressed this season, but their real gem is the hardest-working player in the league, Daryl Horgan. A real snip for City, Sligo’s loss is their gain. You’d have to believe his passion and honesty will be rewarded soon. And they’ve drafted in Daryl Kavanagh fresh from a frustrating season at Tallaght, arguably a more mature player for his year there. I think he and Horgan will forge a formidable partnership given half a chance.
And Dundalk survived. Again. In fairness to them, they were the best league-propping team for some time, and you’d take odds that had Monaghan stayed the course, the Lilywhites would not have been rock-bottom by October. Rafter and Griffin up front, Foran and Liam Burns at the back, with Shields playing the captain's role, all added to Cherrie’s excellent reflexes, and kept them watchable the whole time. Sean McCaffrey was luckless really. No more than Ian Foster before him, Darius Kierans after him tried to entertain and survive a tough period for the club, and he’s done both. But it wasn’t enough to keep him in a job. He’s got a lot of experience and stamina however, so he won’t be out of the picture for too long - we’ll watch that space. Regardless, De Tewn will need serious beefing up next time around.
All up then, as the fat lady sang, it’s getting better. Growing stronger. Warmer, wilder, getting better every day.
Better every day? Ask Waterford. Ask Longford. Ask the city of Galway.