Caught between Mick Wallace and the deep blue sea

Three years ago, flush with the enthusiasm engendered by discovering I could be made care about Waterford United, I put together the hall of shame that is Premier/First Division playoffs and the Blues’ statistically improbable contribution to it. It makes for grim reading and I re-post it here verbatim because only one thing has changed:

  • The Blues lost the first ever promotion/ relegation playoff in 1992/3, going down 5-2 on aggregate to the First Division team Monaghan United.
  • The playoff was staged in this format with minimal tweaks each subsequent year until 2003. Of the twelve playoffs, the team in the top flight only lost three times: Athlone Town in 1995/6 and the Blues in that first staging in 1992/3 and in 1999/2000 to Kilkenny City. The Blues almost managed to lose once from the First Division in 1996/7 when they were beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Dundalk.
  • There was no playoff in 2004.
  • The pattern of Premier beating First was bucked in 2005 when Dublin City beat Shamrock Rovers and restored in 2006 when Dundalk beat – you’ve guessed it – Waterford United. The Blues stayed up though thanks to FAI licencing regulations.
  • With the natural order restored, it was just the time for the Blues to buck it again, losing to First Division Finn Harps in the 2007 playoff.

The only thing that is different about this list is the the Blues lost 3-1 to Monaghan United in their next playoff appearance in 2010. So you’ll understand if I approach tomorrow night’s First Division playoff second leg against Longford Town with a degree of trepidation. This isn’t because we’re 2-0 up from the first leg, supposedly a dangerous lead. Ruud Gullit, when England scored in the opening minutes of their clash against Germany in Euro 96, suggested at half-time with the knowledge that Germany had equalised, that scoring so early was a bad thing because it made you complacent. Maybe telling Alan Shearer to miss gilt-edged chances in the opening minutes of any game to avoid ‘complacency’ explains why he was fired by Newcastle United.

No, being 2-0 up is a good thing. But it would make any failure to progress especially agonising, and it’s not just our overall record in playoffs that would give you cause for concern (although that’s a big factor). Things are very close between Waterford and Longford. They’ve already beaten us 2-0 at the RSC this season and having seen them run us ragged in the first half of the more recent clash, which Seani Maguire Waterford won 4-2, it wouldn’t be that surprising if the same were to happen again. It will be different this Friday.  Being 2-0 up changes the dynamic from a bog-standard League clash. They’ll have to attack and hopefully the Blues will be able to exploit that. The Blues have to proceed on the basis that they’ll need to score though. Management need to be brave.

So much for the micro concerns. On a macro level, this game would be enough to put the fear of God into you as the stakes are very high indeed. The prize isn’t great – the chance to play a team with lots of experience of the far stronger Premier Division. Whoever they end up playing, Dundalk will be favourites. Even the chance though is better than the alternative, the certainty of a close season of gross uncertainty as the FAI fiddle while the  First Division burns down to a seven team league, three of whom are souped up junior teams. It’s no disrespect to Wexford Youths, Mervue United and SD Galway to say that. Wexford and Mervue have both beaten Waterford twice this season. But the league table doesn’t lie – they have no hope of competing even with the modest resources of the Blues. The loser this weekend can look forward to going through an entire season to end up in another playoff this time next year. And that’s assuming there will even be a First Division to call home. No pressure, Blues.