9 November ~ Last year Shamrock Rovers became the first League of Ireland team ever to progress to the group stages of a European competition, while well on their way to wrapping up a second successive league title. Many assumed, or feared, it would be the start of a long period of domestic domination. The €1 million (£800,000) windfall for reaching the Europa League group stages is beyond the dreams of every other club in a league, where precariousness is the rule, even for the most successful.

As it turned out, the 2012 season was a terrible year for Rovers. After losing their manager Michael O’Neill to the Northern Ireland national team they began the season poorly, with a number of heavy defeats to major rivals followed by an underwhelming Champions League exit to the Lithuanians of Ekranas. O’Neill’s replacement Stephen Kenny never got the side to gel and was gone in September, replaced temporarily by former – and future – Scunthorpe United manager Brian Laws. A flurry of good form in the season run-in was not enough to secure European qualification though and the final straw was the loss of striker Gary Twigg, scorer of over 80 goals in four seasons, who moved north to Portadown.

The season belonged to Sligo Rovers, from the north-west. The Bit o’ Red won the title for the third time — their first since 1977. It was a fitting reward for a fan-owned club that are one of the best run in the country and have won two FAI Cups, one League Cup as well as finishing in the top three twice. Another former Scunthorpe manager Ian Baraclough continued the good work started by Paul Cook, with Sligo seamlessly integrating new signings into the league’s most stylish side, orchestrated by the classy languid midfielder Joseph Ndo, veteran of two World Cups for Cameroon.

The team has a togetherness few others can match, with of most the players living on the same housing development in a neighbouring village. They took over at the top early in the season and the title rarely looked in doubt, as they collected points despite two runs of bad form, one of which came at the tail end of the campaign. A thrilling 3-2 win over title challengers St Patrick’s Athletic wrapped it up with two games to go and the title went to the north-west, making Sligo Rovers the sixth club in the last decade to lift the trophy.

Such a spread of the spoils is reflective not only of a competitive league but also the consistent financial problems that beset clubs chasing success. Recent champions Shelbourne, Drogheda United and Cork City have all had subsequent brushes with extinction. With Ireland’s economy taking a battering from austerity policies, clubs have no choice but to live within their means. For some drumming up even modest means is too much, as was the case with Monaghan United who folded during the mid-season break in June.

Monaghan are the sixth club to go bust in seven years and the fact they did so while FAI president John Delaney was visibly partying at the European Championship in Poland angered many fans of the domestic game. The FAI scheduling a Giovanni Trapattoni press conference the day after the 6-1 thumping by Germany while the title decider was being played out in Sligo did little to dispel the impression that the League of Ireland is an after-thought for the game’s administrators.

In one respect the League of Ireland is experiencing a golden era, with the standard of football much improved from the 1980s and 1990s and many of Ireland’s better cross-channel performers graduates of the league – Shane Long, Séamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean, among others. Irish clubs have also long punched above their weight in Europe. Even though attendances are low, the atmosphere at matches is surprisingly vibrant, with fans of many clubs adopting a Mediterranean-style Ultras culture, replete with elaborate banners and flares.

The last few Cup finals have been crackers, including Sunday’s 3-2 win for Derry over St Patrick’s. But the financial woes persist and, even with creative scheduling, the league finds it hard to compete with the English Premier League for the attention of Irish fans. Irish domestic football, realistically, has finite goals and ambitions but that does little to deter those involved in a league where just keeping a club alive is an act of collective heroism.

Originally published by When Saturday Comes.

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