A few weeks back I overheard one of the Waterford United Supporters Club grandees suggest that we’d be better off finishing third in the division. This was predicated on there only being one First Division playoff tie with the team who finished second having home advantage, much as we did against Monaghan United two years ago. Quite apart from an instinctive recoil from how well that one turned out, the thought that Waterford fans would end the season on a high by bringing a couple of hundred of the truly committed to make some noise was an attractive one. And while it’s always hard to quantify the impact the crowd can have on the game, there was only one winner last Friday in that department – Dundalk. Despite a crowd of nearly 3,000 people at the RSC all the noise was made by the visitors, and that wasn’t just because they happened to win. It was true right from the off and while there are few clubs that get my hackles up more than Dundalk , due to their remarkable record of spawning trophies back in the day and for perpetuating the win-at-all-costs philosophy of Dermot Keely that did so much damage to the League during his reign of terror, you couldn’t begrudge their fans on the night. This was a battle for their existence, and they were entitled to be euphoric at their deliverance.
Of course, there was an existential element to Waterford United’s struggle the other night, and while recent results and that big crowd made you think it was highly unlikely that the Blues would fold, a feeling allegedly confirmed by chairman John O’Sullivan over the weekend, our future is still very much in limbo. Seven teams are preparing for next season’s First Division with no word of any replacements. Even if we could anticipate the FAI pulling a (say) Cobh Ramblers-shaped rabbit from the hat, there’s no chance they’ll be up to the standards that would be necessary to prepare a club for taking on either the Premier Division for an entire season or even a Premier Division team in a play-off. I didn’t feel so bad on the night, not having properly gone through the hell of playoff misery before and being able to congratulate myself on sportingly applauding the Dundalk players off at the end – don’t laugh, self-actualisation matters. It was only when I got home and crunched some stats that I realised the gulf between the two divisions, i.e. of the seven teams in next year’s First Division, Finn Harps haven’t been in the top flight since 2009 and the Blues and Longford Town haven’t been there since 2008. it’s one thing to be miles off where you want to be. It’s another to arrive and the door and find yourselves locked out.
Before John O’Sullivan’s interview, and it has to be noted that this interview lies in the realms of the unconfirmed, I would have said that the Blues needed to accept our lot as a First Division and go amateur. Sully seems to have changed his tune if the quotes attributed to him in the link above are to be believed, and as a supporter of long-standing he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t cling to dreams of frequent four-figure attendances for the visits of Shamrock Rovers and Derry City. For me though, there has to be arealisation that the powers-that-be don’t really care about us. We’ve cut our cloth to measure to several years now and seen clubs like the Shams, Cork City, Derry City, Shelbourne and Drogheda United, all of whom wreaked far greater havoc with their bankruptcy events than the Blues ever did, breeze back into the Premier Division after minimal banishment periods. To compound the sense of grievance, I’m going to predict that heaven and earth will be moved to accommodate Dundalk – that is, assistance over and above giving them a play-off chance despite finishing rock-bottom of the table. The last thing the League wants is another situation like Monaghan, and their commitment to a 12-team Premier division is such that they’ll consult the 12 teams of the Premier Division before doing anything. So while completely understanding the yearning to have those big crowds at the RSC, the reality is that there’s only a hardcore of 500 or so who are willing to trudge through the turnstiles for the likes of Wexford Youths and Mervue United. About the best we can hope for now is for the return of the aforementioned Cobh, which would at least contain a reasonable chance of a derby feeling to the four matches a year we’d be playing against them.
All this will probably be dismissed as sour grapes, that I’d have been saying none of this had we beaten Dundalk. And I’ll admit to feeling a little bitter over the way things have panned out. I wrote before the play-offs about how unfair the system is and the issues I raised in that post are not going to be wished away by ad hominem attacks. But having got the bitterness out of my system, we have to play the hand that has been dealt us. Far from being negative about it all, it’s time to accentuate the positive. Relish the derbies with Wexford. Eagerly anticipate ding-dong battles with Longford. Feel satisfaction in playing with clubs that don’t go bankrupt at the drop of a hat. Stop chasing fans who are never going to come back except in a fantasy future where every game is winner-takes-all. Gee, it was all the GAA’s fault after all! If they won’t do right by us, at least we can do right by ourselves.