The last shall be First

Come the end of the summer I had been building up a right head of steam attending Waterford United matches. But then I stopped. When the always slim chance of topping the division rode out of town, I decided to stay at home of a Friday evening with mother and child. Best to keep my powder dry until the playoffs.

Ain’t karma a bitch?

Speaking to a knowledgeable League of Ireland watcher a few weeks before the denouement in Cobh, I learned that the charge up the table of Mervue United was not a fluke. They had blossomed under Johnny Glynn and said watcher had even had a punt on them to win the whole thing at the start of the season. He had lost that bet but it showed that, in his eyes anyway, they were no mugs, and so it proved with a storming finish to pip us at the post. Fair play to them – the bastards.

In fairness to all concerned at the club the damage had been at the start of the season. There was a point where finishing ahead of Finn Harps and Wexford Youth seemed unlikely, so for the Blues to finish as high as they did was creditable. And while I would never claim that not reaching the playoffs is a good thing, even with our lamentable record there, there were positives at the time in a way there were not last season. It has been an exciting season in the First Division, certainly more so than any of the grand leagues around Europe have been. The relegation of Shelbourne means that we could look forward to a fresh face in the division, one that (dare I say as much) has a proper pedigree attached to it. Longford or Mervue would probably have a better stab at nobbling at winning the promotion playoff, thanks to our lamentable record there, which might see another face at the RSC next season. Okay, Bray never get relegated and UCD wouldn’t add much to the gaiety of nations but they were nice thoughts while they lasted. Factor in how the sword of Damocles that was the Stephen Henderson case no longer loomed over our heads, and it was possible to view another season in the eight-team First Division with a degree of good cheer.

How naive it would be though to assume that these matters would be decided on the pitch. For the last week we’ve had the astonishing possibility that Mervue would win the playoff over Longford but not be able to take their place against the team that finished bottom of the Premier Division because Mervue were being subsumed, along with the Salthill Devon and the supporters of the former Galway United, into a new Galway FC outfit. There’s a part of me that would have relished this outcome, emphasising as it would the sheer incompetence of the FAI. But let’s not be completely nihilistic about this. Let’s hope Longford overcome Bray for the reasons I mentioned earlier – a First Division with two new members from the Pale would be a much more interesting prospect than the culchiefest we have now.

(Of course, as things stand there are only going to be six teams in the First Division next season. Having spoken to the League of Ireland watcher about it, I can understand the decision to rationalise the teams in Galway. Even if Mervue and Salthill were willing to field teams alongside the phoenix of Galway United, putting out three teams from one pool of talent in Galway would lead to all three of them being weakened, potentially fatally. Enough with the nihilism. Let’s assume the FAI will pull a couple of Cobh-shaped rabbits from the hat for next year’s First Division, right? Right?!)

For Waterford, the priority for 2014 is clear – sort out the manager. I’ve checked back through the archives and am as relieved as the FAI over Mervue not reaching the promotion/relegation playoff to discover that I didn’t leave myself any hostages to fortune with respect to Roddy Collins, although I’m sure I would have had some snarky thoughts when he was appointed manager of Athlone Town. There’s something deeply irritating about his particular brand of bluster, but there’s no denying the turnaround he has wrought for Athlone, going from 29 points in 2012  to 55 points in 2013  (for your own sanity, don’t dwell on how many points the Blues got in 2012 when set against how many were enough for Athlone to win the division in 2013). In a division where it’s difficult to differentiate between teams by transfer fees and wage bills, because there are no transfer fees and no one pays much in the way of wages in the first place, a manager who knows what they are doing is worth their weight in gold. Perhaps Tommy Griffin is that man. The Blues only picked up three wins in the eleven games when Paul O’Brien was manager. Even a modest improvement on that might have been enough to have secured promotion. Big decisions ahead – both for the Blues and the FAI.