It was a wet Monday evening in Galway. I remember a certain sense of optimism, a certain degree of wonder and a level of intrigue surrounding the game; something I had never seen at a pre-season friendly before. It was Sligo Rovers entertaining Limerick to try and iron out any last faults in either side’s game. It turned into a very entertaining encounter, and the observations I made during those ninety minutes have greatly enhanced my understanding of the Irish game ever since.
Is there a difference between the sides in the First Division and the sides in the Premier Division? The obvious answer of course is “Yes; yes there is.” A lot of people are quick to state this, but what is it exactly that separates the two tiers? Most people will argue the brand of football on display is the main difference. Perhaps this is the case. What most people don’t understand, and what most spectators never seem to comprehend, is that you can’t play the same way in both divisions.
As Alan Keane tirelessly provided the overlap throughout the entire game, I began to ponder the fitness requirements from one league to another. Sligo seemed much the better side for the ninety minutes in terms of possession, in terms of passing and movement. Yet, for some reason, I could not say for one moment that Sligo deserved to win by more than one goal.
Football is a game of opinions. While the modern trend is to pass the ball - a common conception that has somehow reached the depths of our largely semi-professional league - perhaps playing to win is far more important than putting on your best Barcelona impression for the entirety of a game.
Chronological order might help me when discussing sides who have experienced both Premier Division and First Division football in the recent years.
It’s not often that people will associate Pat Scully with the free flowing, tip-tap, possession football game that seems to be the hot trend at the moment. Pat, for his entire playing career, was a ‘no –nonsense’ centre half, who just got things done, regardless of the style in which they were achieved. Had that Shamrock Rovers side of 2006 any footballing ability? Of course they did. David Cassidy ran that midfield for the Hoops. Casso’s footballing talent can be seen every second week in Tolka Park.
Why did Scully opt for a more aggressive, direct style of football? It suited the division they played in.
The Stephen Henderson school of football was on show for all to see in 2007. Under a shoestring budget, the former Waterford United boss led the Rams to a First Division title, seeing off the challenge of Dundalk, Finn Harps and Limerick 37. Again, like Scully, the style of football was far more smash-mouth than any television station would deem viewer friendly. Stars like Shane Guthrie and Davin O’Neill showed week in, week out that they were well capable of beating teams due to their work ethic and passion.
Sure, it’s all well and good to use examples of how direct and dogged football works, but the use of a passing game must be proven as defective for this argument to make any sense. Thankfully, 2009 exhibited this. Despite having at the time what would have been the most star-studded First Division squad ever, Sporting Fingal didn’t manage to win the league title. Shane McFaul, Shaun Williams and Eamon Zayed somehow could not pass their way to a top of the table finish as the Ravens had to settle for a playoff spot.
Not once did Buckley change his tactics to try and adapt his style of play to compete with the aggressive nature of the second tier - and his side almost paid for it.
In the same season, Buckley’s passing game won him an FAI Cup; a cup triumph that saw his Fingal side defeat some of the Premier Division’s big boys. How can a “better” brand of football be failing in the First Division; a division of “lower quality” than the Premier Division, yet succeeding in the top tier of the Irish footballing ladder? It’s simple. No brand of football is “better”. It may be more entertaining, but it’s certainly not better. Winning is the ultimate aim in any sport, and if a manager can adopt a tactic to ensure he wins, then that is the “best” footballing style available.
Derry City, despite demotion in 2010, maintained the majority of their playing squad from the previous year to enable them to compete in the First Division. Derry have always been known for their footballing ability, and their fantastic home form. When the Candystripes dropped to the second tier, a more aggressive style of play was adopted by the boys from the Bradywell. City won the league that year, and just a season later, Derry found themselves comfortably in third place, just nine points behind champions Shamrock Rovers. Under Stephen Kenny, Derry had reverted back to their traditional style, as the Premier Division allowed them more space and time in which to move the ball around.
The First Division gets an awful lot of negativity thrown its way by the media. Despite its lack of possession football, it’s still a football league in its own right. As I watched Limerick try and outwit Sligo by playing lovely football that evening, I knew there was only going to be one winner. Rovers were a full time outfit. They trained four days a week, all had gym schedules and were used to having far more time on the ball than the Shannonsiders.
So perhaps the difference in the divisions is not the quality of football on display, it’s the quality of football allowed to be played. The most talented of footballers may not shine in the second tier due to lack of time and space on the ball, despite most likely being seen as top class in the division above.
As the cold Galway breeze grazed my face, I developed an image of two sisters in my head; one far uglier than the other, but both beautiful on the inside and well respected for their individual styles. I smiled, and drank the last of my coffee as the referee blew for full time.
Andrew joined Extratime for the 2010 season and covers all the on-goings down in Limerick. Having first experienced the League of Ireland in 2002, Andrew became hooked, even at such an early age. He is currently studying English and New Media at the University of Limerick. You can contact him via Twitter @Cunneen92.