Singing the Blues 2011 edition

After a hectic weekend of hurling which saw De La Salle become the it’s-a-pity-someone-had-to-lose team – and I challenge anyone to read Michael Ryan’s anguished thoughts and not feel sympathy – it’s time to draw breath and give some thought to less weighty matters. So let’s look at how the season is shaping up for Waterford United (cue abuse).

It’s been a traumatic winter for the League of Ireland. Bohemians made many headlines in their flirtation with oblivion and while I’m reliably informed that there was a spirit among its members to embrace the cleansing fires of relegation and start afresh free of the burden of trying to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, the headlines were in themselves bad enough for a League seriously short of credibility. Then Sporting Fingal came along and demonstrated how right everyone who has been cynical about their existence was to be so cynical. To go from a new entrant to the League to promotion to FAI Cup winners to going out of business in the space of three years was quite something. When Lao Tzu observed that “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” he didn’t, contrary to the impression given by Tyrell in Blade Runner, mean it as a compliment.

On a less philosophical note, Sporting typified the obsession with money that can ruin even – especially – the smallest of competitions. A more telling example of the lemming-like charge for filthy lucre came recently from Drogheda United. Seemingly chastened by their financial traumas of recent years, Drogheda United were planning to run an entirely amateur setup in 2011. Yet when they found themselves elevated back into the Premier Division after the demise of Fingal, their first instinct is to go out and buy some more players! Do they put something in the Lucozade Sport for the League of Ireland that leads to such collective madness? One wonders whether the seeming unwillingness to accept that there is no revenue stream from being a League of Ireland club stems from a desire to not be anything like the culchies in the Gah. Whatever it is, if they can’t learn from a fiasco like Fingal then there is something hardwired into the collective DNA that leaves every club vulnerable.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, we then saw the perversity of the licensing system which saw clubs who are broke like Bohemians and Drogheda given Premier Division licenses while a club that has adopted sensible financial policies for a number of years now like (say) Waterford United is given a First Division license. It seems this was down to Stephen Henderson not possessing a Uefa A licence, which is fair enough – why a job in soccer should be exempt from the requirement to have transparent minimum terms of employment is an argument best left to the type of person who think women don’t understand the offside rule – but given the financial traumas that have beset the League of Ireland you have to wonder at the attitude that sets the bar so low that the likes of the aforementioned Bohs and Drogs can clear it. One can’t shake the feeling that the decision was made as to who should belong in the top tier then the standards shaped in such a way to ensure those teams made it in.

Still, we are where we are, and Waterford should be able to look forward to a season free of visits by parachute. Since I started following the Blues in 2009, their fortunes have been bedevilled by the presence of teams who didn’t belong in the lower tier. Sporting Fingal in 2009 and Derry City in 2010 were clubs with Premier Division resources, and the Blues were always going to find it hard to compete.  Even the bête noire of last season, Monaghan United (played five, lost five) have been taken out of the equation, so the Blues should be ideally placed by events off the pitch to take advantage of events on it (Update: just been informed that Monaghan are back in the First Division. Hard on them. Harder on the Blues).

Then you look at the squad. Oh dear. The 2011 squad, shamelessly culled from BTID.net, looks like this:

Officially signed:
Kevin Burns
Josh Byrne

Kevin Murray
Michael Coady
Kenny Browne (from Sporting Fingal)
Seamus Long
Paul Carey
David Breen (from Athlone Town)
Lee Chin (Wexford Bohs)

Shane Barrett
Gary Dunphy
Keith Quinn (from Sporting Fingal)
Conor Sinnott (from Drogheda Utd)
Dwayne Wilson (from UCD)
Brian Nolan
Shane Dempsey (North End United)

Paul Murphy
Willie John Kiely
Michael Rafter (from Colchester United)
Gary Keane

Out
Chris Konopka, Liam Kearney (Dandenong Thunder, Melbourne), Paul McCarthy (Tramore), Alan Carey (Cork Co-op), Vinny Sullivan (Cork Co-op), James O’Sullivan, Timmy Purcell, John Kearney (Australia), Paul Walsh (Waterford Bohs), Kevin Waters, John Hayes

I freely admit to knowing not-very-much about the talent in the League of Ireland so I won’t comment on the players on the way in except to say that the return of Kenny Browne after his sojourn with Sporting Fingal is excellent news. On the way out though, the Blues seem to have lost out badly. It’s almost a relief to see the freak show that is Vinny Sullivan move on (there’s probably a peg being kept bare in the dressing room though) and there are a fair few who have had enough missed opportunities in the First Division that they can’t be taken seriously as Premier Division material. Liam Kearney will surely be missed, and it’s a little worrying that there is no marquee signing to replace last season’s marquee signing. Much more worrying is the loss of two of the standout performers last season, John Kearney and Alan Carey. Kearney had a delightful habit of popping up in unlikely positions which caused opposition teams no end of bother, while Carey’s two-footedness, coolness under pressure and thunderous penalties would be an asset to any team. At least the former has emigrated so won’t be coming back to haunt us. Carey, on the other hand, has flown to Cork City Chicken Coop. Did I say there were no moneybags teams left in the First Division? I suppose it’s easy to have money when you don’t pay your creditors.

Recently I finally got around to reading Moneyball. It’s hard to see how Billy Beane’s ruthless application of statistics in choosing his playing staff could be applied to the much more free-wheeling sport of soccer, but his philiosophy of trying to pick a diamond out of the rough is one that Stephen Henderson is clearly having to adopt if the Blues are to get out of the First Division. Tracking down a player in the Colchester United reserves feels like a real Hail Mary. Given the Blues’ propensity for failing in playoffs – spookily like the various hurling teams and semi-final. See, Ultras, we’re all the same deep down – we’ve got to operate on the basis that first is first and second is nowhere. Even three games shorter than last season, it’s going to be a long one.

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