IT SEEMS LIKE it was only a few weeks ago that the 2012 Airtricity League season kicked off — and it was — but here were are already at the mid-season break. Time flies when you’re having fun, eh?
Admittedly, referring to the impending three-week hiatus as “mid-season break” is a bit of a misnomer; tonight’s round of games is only the 14th of the 33-game season but let’s not split hairs. What matters is that after tonight, domestic football will shut down until 22 June while all eyes turn to Poland and the country gets swept up by Euro fever.
It’s an unusual situation, forced upon the league’s organisers by a combination of summer football and a major championship, but it’s one which many of the Premier Division’s teams will welcome with open arms. Run your finger through each team’s squad list and you’ll find plenty of familiar faces struggling with injury and even more unnamed players labouring under the fatigue of a hectic opening three months.
Earlier this week, UCD boss Martin Russell — whose team have been hit harder than most by injury — said that he and his players were looking forward to recharging the batteries before getting back to business. It’s a sentiment which many will share.
But that aside, the break presents a natural and unavoidable opportunity for teams to take stock of the season so far, measure up their goals, and plot their course between now and the end of October. The winter off-season was something of a managerial merry-go-round with six clubs taking on new managers. Now is the perfect time for these clubs — players, managers, fans and board — to make a preliminary judgement on their new living arrangements.
Tonight is just one more game in the context of a long season but by 9.45pm, results could put a very different spin on the stocktaking which is about to commence.
Take Sligo Rovers for example, who are currently seven points clear at the summit. Ian Baraclough’s boys fell to their first league defeat last time out against UCD and then meekly surrendered their FAI Cup in the second round against Monaghan last week. They face a tricky test away to a young Bohemians side tonight who, despite their feast-or-famine pattern of scoring, have ground out some good results.
In light of their last two results, Sligo really need to win tonight to maintain their stranglehold on the league into the break. Lose, and they open the door for defending champions Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic to close the gap, possibly to as few as four or five points, depending on how results in Tallaght and Gortakeegan pan out.
Similarly, Hoops boss Stephen Kenny will grateful if they can reduce Sligo’s advantage at all tonight. Kenny’s bedding-in period in Tallaght hasn’t exactly been frictionless but Rovers fans’ disquiet will surely diminish once they are assured that their challenge hasn’t completely slipped away.
Tonight is only one game, one result for all of the teams in action. But it’s the result which they’ll have to sleep on for the next three weeks, so it had better be a good one.
Airtricity League fixtures (all Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)
- Dundalk v Drogheda United (Friday, 7.05pm)
- Bohemian FC v Sligo Rovers
- Bray Wanderers v UCD
- Derry City v Shelbourne
- Monaghan United v St Patrick’s Athletic (Friday, 8pm)
- Shamrock Rovers v Cork City (Friday, 8pm)
- SD Galway v Finn Harps
- Waterford United v Mervue United
- Wexford Youths v Athlone Town (Friday, 8pm)
- Longford Town v Limerick (Saturday, 7.30pm)