12 March ~ With all the courtroom battles and finger pointing finally done, the new Irish domestic season finally got underway last Friday. A week earlier it was announced that the League of Ireland had changed its name to the Airtricity League, after its new sponsors, an electricity company. Although the new title sounds better suited to an amateur set-up played out high on the Connemara mountains, it's understandable that the authorities might want a fresh start. Football in Ireland suffered a torrent of negative publicity in pre-season with the demise of Cork and relegation of Derry City for financial transgressions. So supporters and clubs are just glad the talking is over and they have made it to the kick-off still intact.
The disappearance of the big two gives the league a strange look, almost like an extended version of the Leinster Senior Cup. Eight of this season's ten Premier Division clubs are based on the east coast with only Galway United and Sligo Rovers coming from the west. But the Cork City fiasco of recent weeks has had much deeper implications than the disruption of the league's geographical make up – as Bray Wanderers could testify. Relegated at the end of last season Bray lost eight of their first team players to Premier Division clubs. With the winding up of Cork two weeks ago, Bray were reinstated back into top flight, except the eight players have now been replaced by journeymen who signed up after no other club would give them a contract. It's little wonder that even the mention of the name League of Ireland is met with looks of disdain from the majority of Irish fans who follow the English Premier League.
On the field it's expected Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers (revitalised thanks to a brand new stadium) will set the pace with St Patricks Athletic, Sligo Rovers, Dundalk and Sporting Fingal not far behind. The battle for promotion from Division One is likely to involve supporter-run Cork side FORAS and Derry City slugging it out with Shelbourne. Whatever happens the domestic game will be angling for a place beside Grand Slam Sunday in the Irish armchair fans schedule now that the national broadcaster RTE have increased their coverage from ten live games a season to 15, with a view to eventually showing 30.
After the turmoil of the last three months the league is certainly in a much stronger position than many could have envisaged in February. Perhaps clubs might even get to focus on the biggest issue of all – attracting the followers of cross-channel football to the domestic game. Joe Coffey