With St Pat’s hammering Finn Harps 6-1 in the FAI Cup semi-final, one wonders just how big the gap is between the two divisions?
Although this was an excellent St Pat’s side which a lot of Premier sides have struggled against,the fact is remains that they were not even at their best and still cantered to victory. Credit must be given to Finn Harps who gave it everything, especially in the first half, however the likes of Killian Brennan and Christy Fagan showed the difference in class between the teams.
The gap between the Premier Divsion and First Division is hard to gauge. The uncertainty in Irish football means that the very makeup of the leagues can change from year to year. Teams are forced out of the leagues while others are reinstated.
For the teams that remain though, the First Division is a graveyard. Waterford, Wexford and Finn Harps are three sides who haven’t tasted top-tier football in quite a few (if any) years. They are now languishing in the First Division and the likes of Shamrock Rovers and Cork City seem years ahead.
This season, Longford finally put end to their spell in the division securing the title and more importantly, promotion. They had escaped. Yet they will go into the 2015 Premier Division season as the overwhelming favourites for relegation, showing the vast gulf between the leagues.
With the exception of last year’s victors Athlone Town, the last six winners of the First Division have established themselves as Premier sides. UCD, Derry, Dundalk, Cork and Limerick have all become firm fixtures in the top flight and there is no real “yo-yo” club so to speak. This can only point out so much though as some of these clubs were already big clubs who had ended up in the second tier due to financial implications. The First Division was a far different place when Dundalk and UCD were competing for honours in the late 2000s.
The reality is that Athlone are struggling in the Premier Division this season because they won a weak First Division last year. They won it relatively comfortably in the end but looked well out of their depth once they began life in the top flight. Had they not boosted their squad considerably in the off-season, relegation would have been the definitive outcome. To their credit they are still fighting to stay up but its shows the gap between the leagues. This is a problem that their rivals Longford will experience next season but also one that they will relish.
A positive note is the meetings between sides from the two divisions in the earlier rounds of this year’s FAI Cup. Galway (UCD), Wexford Youths (Bray Wanderers) and Longford Town (Athlone) all recorded wins over their Premier counterparts in the second round. The only exception was Cobh Ramblers who went down 2-0 to Derry City. Alas, this form didn’t transfer to the latter rounds of the competition but provides evidence that First Division sides can compete against the lower Premier sides at least.
At the end of the day it is all down to finances. It is well-know that most of the League of Ireland clubs are run on very tight budgets and finance can often be a trouble. However, the teams who do have the bigger purses and manage accordingly are starting to push ahead and are leaving the rest in their wake.
The top five or six clubs in the league have worked hard to get there and are now starting to reap the rewards. The rest of the clubs in the Premier along with the First Division sides are being left behind. It is not unlike the situation in the Premier League in England, albeit on a smaller scale.
If this trend continues then we may see the number of clubs in the league decrease even further. Whatever complaints the Premier Division sides have in attracting fans, the First Division clubs have an even tougher task. A Friday night tie with Shamrock Rovers B is not an easy sell and facing the same seven teams each season becomes highly repetitive.
Shelbourne’s woes of recent times culminated in their relegation to the second tier. It was a sad occasion for this historical club and it’s clear that they will do anything to escape out of it. A play-off is on the horizon for Johnny McDonnell’s men and for a club their size, they need Premier football. Whatever money is in Irish football, it is in the Premier Division.
Irish football is not in the best of states but whatever positives they are to be found in the league are found in the top tier. The First Division is crying out for competitiveness, for investment and most of all for a meaningful purpose. The gap is widening and if it doesn’t change then it could be too late to fix.
Thomas Stafford, Pundit Arena.