Off-field problems calmed down
12 July ~ Just over halfway through the League of Ireland season, there has been plenty of excitement on the field – with five teams still in the hunt for the title – but it is the off-field calm that has been the most noteworthy feature. After several years of severe instability which saw six clubs go to the wall, things have settled down. It is still a month-to-month struggle to make ends meet, even the more successful teams must make do with ten-month contracts, and the second tier is now a truncated eight-team league but clubs are staying afloat.
The Premier Division this year has been a battle of the established and the resurgent. Reigning champions Sligo Rovers at first looked even more invincible than last season, winning their first eight games, but then stumbled badly and won only three of their next 11. They remain in contention though, in third place, four points behind St Patrick's Athletic, whom they play in Sligo this Sunday.
Pats have been the most impressive team this season; under the stewardship of Liam Buckley, who led them to their last title in 1999, they have been solid (particularly away from home), while playing some fine football. They comprehensively outplayed Sligo in a 2-0 home win in April, the first points dropped by the champions.
Sligo have looked sluggish ever since and have dropped behind north-west rivals Derry City (despite beating them twice). Derry, Cup winners last season but without a title since 1997, probably lack the strength in depth to go all the way this season but they have been free-scoring, with striker Rory Patterson top scorer in the league with 14 goals. Also in the running are newly promoted Dundalk, who stand two points behind Sligo. Shamrock Rovers lie in fifth having struggled to get going under new manager Trevor Croly. They did, however, win the first silverware of the season, the cross-border Setanta Cup, hammering Drogheda United 7-1 in the final.
League of Ireland clubs' participation in Europe got off to a disappointing start with St Patrick's Athletic and Drogheda bowing out of the Europa League to Zalgiris Vilnius and Malmo respectively after promising first-leg draws. That leaves Derry facing a tough tie against Trabzonspor and Sligo, who make their Champions League debut against Ole-Gunnar Solksjaer's Molde next Wednesday.
Molde, like Sligo, have recently enjoyed success after winning little for most of their history but, after being champions in Solksjaer's first two seasons, they are now struggling in mid-table in the Tippeliga. Rovers manager Ian Baraclough, who is the sole English coach involved in this year's Champion League, might feel he can put one over the man alongside whom he once studied for his A-Licence. Oliver Farry