The Return of The SSE Airtricity League

It may not have goal line technology or have access to the new VAR system but what it does have is good old blood guts and passion. The weekend that has just passed saw the much anticipated 2018 season kick off and the excitement that had been building for the fans was just about to become reality. Following on from last season when attendances were up, this season could possibly be the best one yet. In the Premier League, Champions Cork City are there to be toppled and after their runaway campaign last season the other clubs have been building there squads during the winter break to try and wrestle away the title from the men who are based close to the River Lee. Cork City were magnificent last season and totally deserved a league and cup double. It is going to be a question of who can mount a challenge and sustain it throughout the campaign until the trophies are lifted at the end of the season.

Over the past few seasons it has been a case of who could win the title either Dundalk or Cork City. To make the league even more spectacular it needs more clubs to close the gap on the top two. Shamrock Rovers have been setting things up nicely and this season their fans expect to be a lot closer to challenging for honours than in the last few  seasons. I have been watching very closely to what is going on at the home of football in Dalymount Park and Bohemians Football Club have been slowly getting things right on the field under manager Keith Long who has gathered a very talented group of players. If they can get off to a good start this season and keep it going there could be good times around the corner for all those involved at the club. There is nothing better in Irish football than been sat in Dalymount Park when the home side are doing the business on the field and the team are been successful. There are a few other big clubs around the league that need improving on last seasons campaign, Saint Patrick's Athletic would be one of those clubs that need to turn things around because last year they really struggled and at one stage were in a relegation dog fight. As former Champions of the League, Saint Pat,s need a big season and manager Liam Buckley has to get right on the field or he could be in for a very hard time. There is no doubt that this season in the Premier League we are in for what one can only describe as a bumpy ride. At this stage it is hard to predict who will win the league but I will stick my neck out and go for Cork City to follow up on last seasons success and top the league again.

In England, the Championship is one of the hardest leagues in the world to get out of and in the SSE Airtricity League it is exactly the same. This season there are some big clubs trying to gain promotion from the second tier and as in England the favourites always seem to be one of the clubs that have dropped down from last years top tier. I feel that this seasons strong favourites to go straight back up are the team from the North West of Ireland Finn Harps under manager Ollie Horgan. One other club that need a big season are Shelbourne and their manager Owen Heary must hope for a bit of luck to go with his great management skills, to get this club back up where it belongs at the top table of Irish football. I have sat in the press box on many nights in Tolka Park and the positioning of the directors box is right in front where all the media boys and girls do their stuff. If there were points awarded for passion from the owners  of a club then Shelbourne would have a least twenty in the bag before the season even kicks off. I tend to compare Shelbourne with Leeds United in England because they have been on the same rocky road as the Yorkshire club for a couple of years now, ironically to add to this story is the fact that Shelbourne Chairman Joe Casey is a big Leeds United fan and regularly makes the trip across to Elland Road. There is no nicer and more genuine man in Irish football than Joe and if I were to grant him one wish I know he would want his beloved Shelbourne back in the Premier League.

It will be a long season in both leagues but it has the potential to be a cracker. There are going to be more games shown live on TV this season and this has to be a help for the promotional side of the league, but you can not beat the thrill of going to a ground each weekend to support your side. The fans in Ireland call it the best league in the world and I tend to agree with that. Over the next few months if it happens in the league I will be all over it letting you guys in the Football Family know what is happening in the SSE Airtricity League. All we can do now is let the games begin.

 

 

 

One Out All Out

Over the years, the success of the SSE Airtricity League clubs in Europe has been minimal. It is probably fair to say that over the past twenty years only Bohemians, Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne have had any sort of luck when they travelled from this Island. It was always seen as an added bonus to get away to Europe and sometimes the trips were used as a jolly up. All that has changed in recent times and now the expectancy levels are extremely high from everyone involved. Dundalk set the bar high for this season after their exploits in last years competition. It was going to be very hard work this season for our clubs to progress and this proved to be the case after the results in the first legs  of the competitions this season, Dundalk were held to a one all draw in the Champions League against Rosenborg, Shamrock Rovers lost three two in the Europa League and in the same competition Cork City surprisingly lost one nil at home to AEK Larnacca.

Champions Dundalk were always going to have a tough game away against Norwegian side Rosenborg having been held one all in Oriel Park. They really put it up to Rosenborg and got off to a great start when centre back Brian Gartland gave them the lead, it was a superb start and it showed great character from Stephen Kenny,s men. They could have taken total control of the tie shortly afterwards when a bullit header from David McMillan from close range was tipped over by Rosenborg keeper Hansen. That save was to be the turning point of the tie and the home side got an equaliser just before half time when they scored through De Lanlay. Dundalk really gave it a go but it was an extra time from Vilhjalmsso that finally finished the tie. There was no shame in defeat for Dundalk and they did themselves and the SSE Airtricity League proud, in fact if a late chance by Benson had been put away, it would have put them into the next round on the away goals rule. Rosenborg now move on to play Celtic and that is a tie Stephen Kenny and his squad would have given their right arm for, alas it was not to be.

Runaway SSE Airtricity Premier League leaders side Cork, were to me the big disappointment this season. They have been doing so well domestically this season and after losing the first leg of their Europa League tie against AEK Larnacca one nil, it was a real shock to their system. The same scoreline in Cyprus put pay to any European dream for the men from the banks of the river lee. The Larnacca goal came in the 33rd minute from Taulemesse and that was the tie over. The Cork men huffed and puffed but did absolutely nothing that could have got themselves back in the tie. On a night when the Cork men said good bye to Sean Maguire and Kevin O' Connor who are off to join Preston North End, the temperatures in the stadium were intense and this had a big effect on the game tempo of John Caulfield,s men. It is hard to be critical of a Cork side that have been magnificent this season, but I really fancied them in this tie and their failure to get through was a big disappointment. It just goes to show now that expectations are a lot higher  for our clubs in Europe.

Shamrock Rovers went to the Czech Republic after losing their first leg three two against Mlada Boleslav. It was an extremely tough task for them to go and get anything in the second leg  and they duly lost two nil, making it five two overall. Two first half goals from the home sides Chramosta on eleven minutes and when Mebrahtu grabbed a second on the half hour the tie was well and throughly finished. Rovers put in a superb second half performance but they were never going to turn the tie around, their best chance fell to David McCallister but he was unlucky not to score. I am sure Rovers will be back next season but this years adventure was lost in the first leg.

Surely Cork City Will Win It Now

I have mentioned it many times in my column that in my opinion, the SSE Airtricity League is arguably the best in the world.

This season has been no exception as the clubs have battled it out in both the Premier League and First Division for the honours. In recent seasons Dundalk have been the leaders and have produced a style of football that is easy on the eye. Stephen Kenny and his squad of players have been a credit to themselves and last season they also had the added bonus of a superb European campaign. Dundalk's performances have laid down a marker for other clubs to follow and this season Cork have taken up the baton and have certainly put in a monumental challenge for Dundalk's title.

Last season Cork went so close, finishing second to a brilliant Dundalk, in a fact, that Dundalk side is arguably the best team ever to come out of the league. In last season's campaign, Cork actually beat Dundalk a couple of times and narrowly missed out on the title, but when John Caulfield's men were triumphant in the FAI Cup Final with a last minute winning goal in extra time you felt the pendulum was about to swing in Cork's favor. When we went into last weekend's fixtures Cork sat eighteen points clear at the top of the league, yes you read it correctly, eighteen points. If they wanted to now, they could possibly put out their reserve side for the rest of the season and still win the title. Dundalk is sitting in the second spot and to be perfectly honest, after losing three key players to new clubs they have been absolutely superb to regroup and get winning games again. To lose one player from a title winning side is hard but with three gone the whole dynamic of the squad has changed. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan joined Preston and Ronan Finn went to rivals Shamrock Rovers. Stephen Kenny's men have hit form this season just at the right time with European games only around the corner, maybe just maybe they can repeat their European exploits from last season once again.

This season has been no exception as the clubs have battled it out in both the Premier League and First Division for the honours. In recent seasons Dundalk have been the leaders and have produced a style of football that is easy on the eye. Stephen Kenny and his squad of players have been a credit to themselves and last season they also had the added bonus of a superb European campaign. Dundalk's performances have laid down a marker for other clubs to follow and this season Cork have taken up the baton and have certainly put in a monumental challenge for Dundalk's title. Last season Cork went so close, finishing second to a brilliant Dundalk, in fact that Dundalk side is arguably the best team ever to come out of the league. In last seasons campaign, Cork actually beat Dundalk a couple of times and narrowly missed out on the title, but when John Caulfield's men were triumphant in the FAI Cup Final with a last minute winning goal in extra time you felt the pendulum was about to swing in Cork's favour. When we went into last weekends fixtures Cork sat eighteen points clear at the top of the league, yes you read it correctly, eighteen points. If they wanted to now, they could possibly put out their reserve side for the rest of the season and still win the title. Dundalk are sitting in second spot and to be perfectly honest, after losing three key players to new clubs they have been absolutely superb to regroup and get winning games again. To lose one player from a title winning side is hard but with three gone the whole dynamic of the squad has changed. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan joined Preston and Ronan Finn went to rivals Shamrock Rovers. Stephen Kenny,s men have hit form this season just at the right time with European games only around the corner, maybe just maybe they can repeat their European exploits from last season once again.

When we went into last weekend's fixtures Cork sat eighteen points clear at the top of the league, yes you read it correctly, eighteen points. If they wanted to now, they could possibly put out their reserve side for the rest of the season and still win the title. Dundalk is sitting in the second spot and to be perfectly honest, after losing three key players to new clubs they have been absolutely superb to regroup and get winning games again. To lose one player from a title winning side is hard but with three gone the whole dynamic of the squad has changed. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan joined Preston and Ronan Finn went to rivals Shamrock Rovers. Stephen Kenny,s men have hit form this season just at the right time with European games only around the corner, maybe just maybe they can repeat their European exploits from last season once again.

Stephen Kenny and his squad of players have been a credit to themselves and last season they also had the added bonus of a superb European campaign. Dundalk's performances have laid down a marker for other clubs to follow and this season Cork have taken up the baton and have certainly put in a monumental challenge for Dundalk,s title. Last season Cork went so close, finishing second to a brilliant Dundalk, in fact, that Dundalk side is arguably the best team ever to come out of the league. In last season's campaign, Cork actually beat Dundalk a couple of times and narrowly missed out on the title, but when John Caulfield,s men were triumphant in the FAI Cup Final with a last minute winning goal in extra time you felt the pendulum was about to swing in Cork's favor. When we went into last weekends fixtures Cork sat eighteen points clear at the top of the league, yes you read it correctly, eighteen points. If they wanted to now, they could possibly put out their reserve side for the rest of the season and still win the title. Dundalk are sitting in second spot and to be perfectly honest, after losing three key players to new clubs they have been absolutely superb to regroup and get winning games again. To lose one player from a title winning side is hard but with three gone the whole dynamic of the squad has changed. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan joined Preston and Ronan Finn went to rivals Shamrock Rovers. Stephen Kenny,s men have hit form this season just at the right time with European games only around the corner, maybe just maybe they can repeat their European exploits from last season once again.

Last weekend Cork faced a tricky trip away to Derry and a point from the game is what was required. So with that in mind, manager John Caulfield must have been delighted that his squad came away from Maginn Park with all three points and had kept themselves clear at the top of the table. The chasing pack is been led by Dundalk and they took Finn Harps apart in Oriel Park, winning by four goals to nil. With such a big gap at the top of the table the story of this season could be developing at the bottom with former champions Saint Patrick's Athletic and Sligo stuck in real danger of been relegated. I mentioned it earlier in the season that three go down this campaign and unless both clubs get their acts together they could be for the drop. So as we go into the second half of the season it surely is Cork City,s title to throw away. One Cork player who has had a magnificent season is Sean Maguire and he has been signed by Preston, the team that seem to have a great scouting network keeping an eye on all the players in the SSE Airtricity League. Mind you with Simon Grayson now heading off to Sunderland I hope it will not effect those players careers. It is going to take a massive implosion from Cork City now if they are to fail in winning this years title. If and when they do as I fully expect, one man I will be delighted for is their manager John Caulfield, he is already a legend in the city for his exploits as a player and his legendary status will go off the richter status if his team can win the title. It can only be a matter of time now before we crown them champions and let them enjoy a long lap of honour.

Before this season kicked off, Division One was always going to be a dead rubber for a lot of clubs unless they were challenging for the one promotion spot. Every team going into this season knew what was on the table and in my opinion it has made a joke of the league and this is certainly something we do not want to hear. At the top it has become a three horse race between Waterford, UCD and Cobh Ramblers and the rest are just scrapping around for points to finish a season that has been over a long time ago now. Next season will be different for a lot of those clubs and I am sure they can not wait to see the back of this one. Waterford who sit top, are only four points ahead of Cobh Ramblers who are in third place and UCD are second, so you can see how tight it is and the run in could be very interesting. Whoever wins the place it will have been a very interesting journey to their achievement of league winners.

Eat Your Heart Out Mr. Beckham

Many supporters of the SSE Airtricity League call it the greatest league in the world and I totally agree with that sentiment. There have been occasions over the years when that statement sits well on the chest of most fans. Week in and week out, fans set out to see games and the unpredictability of the games throws everything up in the air. The weekend that just finished was certainly one of those to shout about and a few surprises were to be found as the results came in.

It has had a knock on effect for all sorts of reasons and people have lost their jobs over poor results and poor performances. This is all like a big melting pot and has all the ingredients that go into making something special on a weekly basis as we all watch the SSE Airtricity League.

The week that has just passed saw Sligo Rovers and Limerick part company with their managers. Dave Robertson left Sligo and Martin Russell walked out of the door at Limerick. The Sligo parting of the ways did not suprise me, as I feel Dave never really got it going at the Showgrounds.

I was astonished that Limerick and Martin Russell fell out of love as they have only been promoted to the Premier League and it is early days, but the form has not been great. Both these sackings, coming so early in the season just goes to show how worried owners are with three teams been relegated to the First Division this season.

On the field of play Bohemians played Saint Patrick's Athletic in a Dublin Derby and the away side took all three points after a four nil win, but the result although a shock, was not the story of the game. That came when Saint Pat's player Conan Byrne scored one of the best ever goals you are going to see in the SSE Airtricity League. Conan was just inside his own half when the ball fell lovely for him to have a long range shot which flew into the back of the Bohemians net. The goal has been shown over and over again this week on Social Media and TV and if you get a chance try and get a look at it. It was very similar to David Beckham's long range effort all those years ago against Wimbledon, but in my opinion the one scored in Dalymount Park last week was far better. There is no doubt it will be this seasons SSE Airtricity's League goal of the season as it will take some effort by somebody else to beat it. It was an astonishing win for Saint Pat's as they have had a rotten start to the season, a start they need to get out of their system and move on.

Elsewhere in the Premier Division there were wins for Bray Wanderers, Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and Cork City. John Caulfield's Cork City still lead the league and sit six points clear, Dundalk are just sitting behind and it is shaping up to be a cracker of a season.

In Division One, Shelbourne manager Owen Heary is really getting things across to his players and they are starting to put things right on the pitch. They are now four games unbeaten and last Friday they beat Wexford two nil. As we know momentum can mean a lot in football and Shelbourne certainly have that at the moment. It was a convincing two nil win and their goals came from Derek Prendergast and Dayle Rooney. The men from Tolka Park failed to win a game in their opening four matches but they now seem to have the belief that they can bag the one spot up for grabs in the promotion race. Waterford are sitting on top of the Division and are going to have their own challenge and in this league anything can happen.

So there we have it, another weekend gone in the greatest league in the world and the excitement levels are still on the way up. It is hard to work out at the moment who is going to win what, but in the Premier League Cork City are really putting on a great show at the moment and who knows it might just be their season. There is a long way to go this season in both leagues and if the early part of the season is anything to go by, it will be tense exciting and absolutely bloody mad if you are a supporter in the SSE Airtricity League.

Best League in The World is Back

Last Friday night saw the return of the SSE Airtricity League, like a lover who had gone missing it was great to have her back. Fans from all corners of the country fans made their way to stadiums in far away places to give support to the clubs they have grown up with and whom they hoped could give them a good start to the season. There is no doubt that the fans at this time of the season have high hopes for the months ahead and feel their clubs can go on and win trophies, sparking the mood for celebration. There is a long way to go before the medals are handed out and a lot of water will have to go under the bridge before then. The SSE Airtricity League as we know is technically a summer league and it would make you laugh that last week on the eve of the 2017 season we had storm Doris in Ireland. I saw a lot of photos from around the grounds showing a lot of problems within the stadiums, but with hard work from ground staff and management we kicked off on time and what a very interesting first weekend we had.

On the opening weekend in the SSE Airtricity Premier League there were victories for Derry City, Drogheda United, Bray Wanderers, Limerick, Cork City and the champions Dundalk. It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend and there were plenty of goals to be seen, in the six games played we had nineteen goals. The biggest victory of the weekend came in Limerick as the newly promoted side put five past Sligo Rovers. It was a magnificent result for the newly promoted side and their fans have found a new hero as their Brazilian striker Rodrigo Tosi scored a hat trick. Two further goals from Lee Lynch and Ian Turner added to Sligo,s woes and manager Dave Robertson has a huge job on his hands to raise the morale of his players after this defeat. Morale will also be a problem in Dalymount Park after the home side Bohemians were beaten four one by Derry City. It was a bad defeat, there is no doubt about that. I was extremely disappointed for Keith Long and his players as they were well beaten by what looks like a very good Derry City team. This could turn out to be a long season for the men from Dublin 7 and they will need to get things going in their upcoming games or they could be one of those clubs fighting to stay out of the bottom three this season. Champions Dundalk started off were they finished last season and won a tough battle against Shamrock Rovers. Stephen Kenny's personnel may have changed but his winning system is still working and they edged out Rovers by two goals to one. Although they lost the game, Rovers looked really impressive and I feel they will be the Dublin side that puts in a challenge this season for the title. All in all, the Premier League has started with a bang and it has the promise of an excellent season.

In Division One there were wins for Athlone and UCD with the other two games ending all square between Shelbourne and Longford Town and Cobh Ramblers and Wexford. The big game was the one played in Tolka Park between Shelbourne and Longford which ended in a nil all draw. Although it ended scoreless it was a superb game and neither side deserved to lose. I have no doubt these two will be fighting it out at the top end of the league this season. One other game that caught my eye in this division was the clash between Cobh and Wexford. The home side who are managed by Stephen Henderson, a lad who I have an awful lot of time for, really must fancy their chances having missed out in last season,s play off. It looked like they were cruising to all three points when Lee Duffy equalised for Wexford very late in the game. Cobh had taken an early lead in the game when Dean Swords scored a cracking free kick from about twenty five yards out. It was certainly two points dropped by the home side, but knowing Stephen as I do he will drill it into his players the need to compete and stay focussed to see out games like this.

So there we have it, the first weekend is over and done with. It gave us some great games and many questions to be answered and we will have the SSE Airtricity League back with us now until October. That is something I am delighted to say.

SSE Airtricity League on the Horizon

It has been a long, cold, dreary and wet winter in Ireland and the dark evenings have been very boring without any SSE Airtricity League games to go and watch. That feeling you get when you wake up of a morning and you know there is a game you can go and see, is second to none. It is all about to change and on February the 24th the league is back, something I for one am looking forward to. It will give me the perfect platform once again to air my views on what the fans over here believe to the best league in the world. The die hard fans at the moment will be trawling through the fixtures so as to plan trips to follow their beloved clubs. There is no doubt that the fans will suffer ups and downs, but believe me they would not have it any other way. So where will the trophies go and who will be victorious in October when the season ends. Clubs have been buying and selling players in the break so as to get their house in order for the challenge ahead. Let me over the next few paragraphs give you a small insight of what some clubs have been up to and where I see the trophies possibly going.

It will be a very interesting season ahead in the Premier League as the teams try and topple champions Dundalk. The Lillywhites will be there to be shot at and will have to plan for the season without two of their stars from last season. During the SSE Airtricity League close season, winger Darryl Horgan and centre half Andy Boyle have left and joined English side Preston North End. These two players were at the forefront of Stephen Kenny's championship winning side last year and will with a shadow of a doubt be a big loss. Manager Kenny waisted no time in getting involved in the transfer market and has brought in Michael Duffy from Glasgow Celtic. Duffy is a superb winger and his role will be to fill the void left by Horgan. Over their previous three title winning campaigns Dundalk have built their success on a fabulous back four and that is the way I expect them to go about their business this season. Last season Cork City were the challenger for Dundalk's title and I expect them to kick on and maybe go one better than last season's second spot under the brilliant management of John Caulfield. Their win in last season's Cup Final against the Lillywhites will surely give them the confidence that they can go on and win this season's title. I expect the team who will try and challenge from Dublin to be Shamrock Rovers this season. Former Leeds United and Republic of Ireland international Stephen McPhail has been appointed director of football at the club and has installed Stephen Bradley as manager. One other piece of news to come out of the Rovers camp is the signing of Ronan Finn from Dundalk. Finn has been installed as club captain and I believe this is a shrewd move from the management team. Ronan comes with bags of experience and has that winning mentality, having been part of a successful Dundalk side over the past couple of seasons. But with that Cup Final win under their belt I fancy this season could be Cork's year if they push on and believe.

In Division One it is a whole new ball game for the coming season if you excuse the pun. Due to a restructuring of the Premier League and Division One for the 2018 season there will only be one team promoted and no play off place will be available. The winners of the league will be promoted and the bottom three in the Premier League will be relegated. This structure was drawn up by the Premier Club Alliance and I know for a fact that a lot of clubs are not very happy with it. If you look at Division One it is quite possible that due to the fact only one team is promoted a lot of the clubs could have a difficult time if they get off to a bad start. The financial pressures on these clubs this season will be intense and we can only hope that the loyal fans will still turn out to see their clubs in action. On the field my overwhelming favourites are Longford Town to go straight back up to the top league, having been relegated last season. Cobh Ramblers under the leadership of Stephen Henderson could be a big threat after they missed out in the play offs last season. The romantic in me would love to see Shelbourne do it as there is no way a club with such a fine history should be languishing in Division One. No matter what, there is the prospect of a great season ahead and the long winter without live football to go and watch is over. Best of luck to all involved and let the games begin.

Irish Football - Time To Look Back 2016

As we move closer to the start of the 2017 SSE Airtricity League, it would not be correct of me to let last year disappear into memory without sharing a few thoughts on a year that was incredible in both domestic and International football for this little country of ours. At the start of the year a lot of people were so excited about a trip to France for the 2016 European Championships and many fans were visiting their local credit unions so they could get finance to go and enjoy the big party. It was also a time to look forward to the domestic clubs taking part in European competition. As the year closed out, everyone had to admit that 2016 would go down in history as a major leap forward in this country at all levels. It has been led by two managers who have had their sides focussed and well prepared. The two men in question are Irish boss Martin O'Neill and Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. These two guys have gone about their jobs with great passion and have taken their sides to the next level. They have both succeeded in their own different ways, so let us start the new year by looking back at the old one, a great year for Irish football.

At International level, in my opinion I am not sure what Martin O'Neill thought his squad could give him. By the end of the year he surely must have been delighted with the way things had gone. His teams magnificent performance in the European Championship must have given him great satisfaction and pleasure. The highlight of the tournament was the win over Italy and the last sixteen performance against hosts France. If I am to be totally honest, to lose to the hosts although disappointing, it was not a nightmare of a tournament as which the Irish had in 2012 when they did not win a match. As we came to the end of the year the squad kicked on and they now sit top of their group for qualification to the World Cup Finals in Russia next year. The highlight of the campaign so far was the one nil victory in Austria, a truly superb performance on the night. It was regarded here as the best away result for Ireland since Jack Charlton's squad went to Scotland in 1987 and beat the home side one nil. Three players have grown up at this level over the year and the boys who have become men are Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady. To have one good player in your squad is great news but to have all three now playing comfortably at International level is a huge bonus for O'Neill. Next up for the Irish is a home game against Wales and if they can win that, they will not only strengthen their own position in the group but it could also eliminate the Welsh. Overall it was a brilliant year for Martin O' Neill and a lot of credit has to go to his back room staff made up of Roy Keane, Steve Walford and Steve Guppy as well. Let us all hope that this year ahead can be even more successful and the Irish fans can get their visa application forms in for a trip to Russia.

The domestic game here at times does not get a lot of positive publicity, that is a story for another day, but the season just finished has been an exception, due to one club's exploits in Europe. Dundalk FC took what can only be described as a major step forward in European football last season. Champions League qualifying games against FH Helsinki, Bate Borisov and Legia Warsaw saw the fans flock to stadiums in their thousand,s to get behind what was fast developing into a great story. They were unfortunately unable to qualify for the group stages of that competition but that was not the end of the story. Their performances in the Europa League have now gone down in Irish football history. Alkmaar, Zenith Saint Petersburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv stood in their way of qualification for the knockout stages and what an amazing effort Stephen Kenny and his squad put up. Although they failed to get out of the group the whole campaign was a success. In the FAI Cup Final it was Cork City who were victorious and by winning the cup it stopped Dundalk doing the double. It was a superb season overall and Cork City pushed Dundalk all the way in both the cup and league. It was fitting that the Cork won the cup as they stepped up to the plate to challenge Dundalk.

As we go into 2017 everything is going along nicely in Irish football. I have no doubt that this year Martin O'Neill and his squad will push on all the way in the hope of qualifying for next year,s World Cup Finals. I feel in the domestic game Dundalk will still be up there to be knocked off their perch. I expect them to go well again in Europe and fully expect Cork to join them with a bit of a run. Shamrock Rovers could be the big threat to the top two and at the moment are building a nice little squad in preparation for the challenge. No matter what happens it all starts again in February and I for one can not wait.

Europa League Dream Over for Dundalk

If somebody had said to me at the start of this seasons Airtricity League that Dundalk would still be competing in Europe at Christmas time I would have thought they were the biggest comedian since Bernard Manning. Airtricity League teams very rarely, if ever, have any sort of run in Europe unless they are doing pre season training on the beach somewhere in a warmer climate. This season saw the opposite and a little bit of history was made by Stephen Kenny and his squad. They put up a serious challenge to get out of a Europa League group containing Zenith Saint Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar, Macabbi Tel Aviv and themselves. The road has been long and contained twelve games on the biggest stage of all, European Football. How they have gone about their business on and off the field has been incredible and going into their last qualifying game away in Tel Aviv, they knew that if the results on the night went in their favour, they would still be playing in Europe after Christmas, something that would have been unbelievable for a club that was down on its knees a few seasons back. So how did it develop on the night that could see dreams realised or hearts broken.

Unfortunately for Dundalk, after the home defeat in their last game against Alkmaar they knew their faith was out of their own hands. The permutations going into game against Macabbi were many, but a Dundalk win and Zenith win or draw in the Netherlands against Alkmaar would put them through. Stephen Kenny knew they had to keep it tight in Tel Aviv and for the first twenty minutes it was going so well. Disaster struck in the twenty first minute when defender Brian Gartland tried to play out from the back and got caught in possession on the edge of his own box by Chaim, who played in Medunjanin who in turn was taken down by goalkeeper Rogers to give the home side a penalty. Roger,s was very lucky to receive only a yellow card as some referees might have produced red.

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Chaim converted the penalty and it was an uphill battle for Dundalk from then on. The Lillywhites did manage to score an equaliser in the twenty seventh minute when Eli Dasa put into his own goal. In fairness to Dundalk it was a brilliant move and the defender was unlucky to see the ball hit off him and go into the net. Another pice of sloppy play gave Maccabi their second goal when Chris Shields gave away a ball needlessly in the centre of the park. The ball eventually found Miha who,s shot went through Gartland,s legs and past Rogers, the goalkeeper in my opinion should have done a lot better in trying to save the shot. For the rest of the game both sides gave their all but alas it was to be for Dundalk. It was a kind of strange atmosphere in the ground as the scores were coming through from Alkmaar, they were winning their match three two. On the night Dundalk could not do it and it was a big disappointment, but they leave the big European stage with their heads held high.

Although disappointed with going out of Europe, the players and management should be so proud at they have achieved. When the dust all settles on this story we will look back at where the qualifying wheels came off the track. In my opinion it was the domestic league ending that did for Dundalk in the end. They started off great in Europe this season and unfortunately due to the fact that the Airtricity League had a finishing date which could not be moved, meant games piled up on the Lillywhites and tiredness became a big factor. Although they had a break after the Cup Final, this itself led to problems, as not having competitive games can lead to players losing match sharpness in their legs and minds. What Dundalk have done has been incredible for themselves and the League and it has set down a marker for going forward. The other clubs in the league now need to step up to the plate and make big strides to close the gap between themselves and the Champions. The FAI need to learn from this Dundalk journey as well. It might be a good idea to extend the Airtricity League finishing date until qualification has finished in the group stage for the Champions League and Europa League. It will mean that the competitive edge will still be with the teams if they are lucky enough to be in the same position as Dundalk found themselves in this season. Let us all hope the powers to be have a good look at this when they compile a review of the season. After all, we only want to take this to the next level and give our Airtricity League teams a better chance on the European stage.

By David Meier

Dundalk's Europa League Slip Up

Last Thursday week Dundalk's Europa League match welcomed AZ Alkmaar to the Tallaght Stadium for another game in Dundalk's Europa League group. It was a game that the home side knew a victory would almost certainly see them qualify into the next stages of the competition. No matter what the result it has without doubt been a truly magnificent season for the Lillywhites.

Stephen Kenny and his squad of players have done themselves and the Airtricity League proud. They have without a shadow of a doubt brought football in this country to another level. A club that was on it's knees a few season's back has risen to incredible heights. The work that Stephen Kenny and his not to often mentioned assistant Vinny Perth have put in has been incredible. Winning another title has been the highlight of this season so far and they won that with such style. Going into the game against AZ Alkmaar was going to need a monumental effort to get the victory. So as the teams lined up in the tunnel to come out in front of yet another full house, the hosts knew qualification was in their own hands and if victorious they would go down in history as arguably the greatest side ever to come out of this small island.

It was unfortunately to be a very long and frustrating night for the home side. AZ came out of the traps very early and went at Dundalk from the very first whistle. They grabbed the only goal of the game in the tenth minute when a Tankovic shot found it,s way to Weghorst who scored. It was the last thing Stephen Kenny's men needed and in fairness to the Dutch side they deserved their lead. As we all Dundalk have been playing nearly three games a week in their final couple of weeks in the Airtricity League and after the Cup Final which was played on the 6th of November, they had not had a competitive match since. To keep things ticking over they played Brentford reserves in a friendly in London, a game which they lost. It was so evident in this  Alkmaar game that they had not played for a while as they struggled not only to find each other with the ball, but also in the first half it looked liked they were substantially off the pace of the game. The goal allowed AZ to sit back and defend their lead as a draw would suit them. Dundalk on the night never really created any clear chances and had to rely on scraps. A couple of headers by Kilduff went astray and if it had not been for some excellent goalkeeping by Gary Rogers the score could have been a lot worse. Ronan Finn nearly pulled the rabbit out of the hat late on in the game when his lobbed shot fell the wrong side of the post as everyone looked on with dismay. In my opinion it was a poor performance by Dundalk on the night and I know they can play a lot better, but on this night things did not fall right for them.

Although a defeat against the Dutch side was a blow, it is not the end of the run in the Europa League for Stephen Kenny and his players. They next travel to Tel Aviv to take on Macabbi in their last game of the group stages. Unfortunately it is now out of their own hands as to what way this will all turn out. The simple way of looking at it is, they need to win and hope Zenith who have already qualified will put in a good performance and beat Alkmaar in the Netherlands. It will be a ask for both of these things to happen and it will be in the lap of the footballing gods as to how things turn out. No matter what the outcome it has been an amazing season for Dundalk and their fans. They have given a real lift to football in this country and has everyone talking about their escapades in Europe this season, there is not a day goes by without someone passing a comment to me about it. One way or another we will know their faith next Thursday evening after the Macabbi game and let us all hope this historical year can end on a huge high and push this European dream into the next round, which will be at the start of next year, we can only keep our fingers crossed.

Shelbourne and Cork City are Cup Kings

If you are a football fan in Ireland, the one day of the year you do not want to miss is FAI Cup Final Day.

It is a day when no matter who you support, you put on a warm coat and hat and head to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The atmosphere in and around the ground can be something very special. The teams involved bring their own supporters and you also have a mixture of supporters from the other clubs in the Airtricity League.

This season competing in the two Cup Finals for both women and men where Shelbourne and Wexford Youths in the FAI Continental Tyres Women's Cup Final and Dundalk and Cork City in the men's FAI Daily Mail Cup Final. The men's Cup Final would see the top two in the Airtricity League clashing which on paper promised a cracker. It was also a day where we saw a repeat of last years finals when all four clubs battled it out as well, now that was something you do not come across very often. Over twenty five thousand fans  turned up to watch what were two excellent matches. It all kicked off just after midday and wrapped up just before seven in the evening. Over six hours of totally absorbing football from four great clubs. Let me below unravel what went on, so you can get a feel of what a great day it was.

First up was the clash in the FAI Women's Cup Final,  Shelbourne against Wexford Youths who got the party started. It is not very often the FAI get things correct but the decision to play both Cup Final,s on the same day in the same stadium was a great boost for the Women,s game. It puts it on a par with the Men,s senior final on a day that is all about the fans. On the day there was only going to be one winner as Shelbourne ripped their opponents apart and ran out five nil winners. It was a day Shelbourne,s  Leanne Kiernan will never forget as she bagged a hat trick. To score a hat trick is a great achievement but to do it in your senior cup final is something special. Her performance helped her win woman of the match and with three goals no one would disagree. I myself would like to give a special mention to the Shelbourne goalkeeper Amanda McQuillan who in my opinion made two world class saves to keep Wexford out. The two vital saves came when her side were one nil up and then again when they had added a second, if either of those two efforts by Wexford had gone in, the story could have been so different. It was sweet revenge for Shelbourne, who lost last season's final against Wexford but on the day this year they were just to strong.

By the time the Men's Cup Final was ready to kick off there was a smashing crowd inside the ground and the atmosphere was superb. Dundalk and Cork City took to the field having finished first and second in that order in the league. It was to be a game where both sides had the same amount of chances and either side could have won. Both sides got stuck into each other right from the start and referee Rob Rogers had to use all his experience to keep a tight grip on the game. Once the players realised the referee was not going to be messed about we had a great game. The two heavyweights of the league put on a great battle and the game was extremely tight. A couple of good saves by both keepers kept the game at nil all and the game went the distance and into extra time.

It was in the final minute of extra time that Cork scored to win the cup, but it looked for so long that the game would go to penalties as both sets of players were on their knees. The goal came from a long throw in from Steven Beattie that fell to Sean Maguire who hit a shot that deflected off a Dundalk defender and spun into the net at an agonising slow pace. From my seat in the press box I could clearly see the ball was heading wide before it took the deflection. It was a cruel way for Dundalk to lose out on a possible double double, but these things happen so often in football. For Cork it was revenge for last years final when they lost against Dundalk.

It was a tremendous day to finish off what has been a superb season of football and everyone already is looking forward to next season. Dundalk have two more huge games left in the Europa League and they will have to pick themselves up after this result. Next up is AZ Alkmaar and if they can produce the goods in  that game this loss will not feel so painful. Congrats to Cork who are closing in on Dundalk and with this victory it will give them so much encouragement for next season.