We’re now a little under a month away from the beginning of the League of Ireland campaign, and with pre-season now well underway for all of the Premier Division and Division One sides, most of them find themselves with more or less settled squads as the typical merry-go-round of players in the off-season is no longer in steady rotation.
In the not too recent past at this point in the year we’d become accustomed to the majority of teams becoming new-look season upon season as the general rule of season-long contracts for players meant the months of November to February became chaos you’d be forgiven for going into hibernation during, with it being near-impossible to keep up with which player had moved where.
St Patrick’s Athletic had been the main exception to this rule since Liam Buckley took charge as manager in 2012, as he built a squad with a nucleus of around ten primary players, with any additions merely being to supplement what he already had as opposed to the mass overhauls of first team squads that happened around them.
Bearing this in mind, it’s now ironic to see the Saints enter a new season with a plethora of new faces, while many of their Premier Division counterparts have conducted business in a similar manner to they did in those aforementioned years, surely thanks in no small part to the increased financial state the league as a whole finds itself in (he says while touching all wood in sight). Something which captain Ger O’Brien acknowledges himself.
We’ve been lucky enough at Pats where we’ve kept a large majority of the same group of players. With that in mind we’ve been a lot more settled (than other clubs) until this year where we’ve brought in a lot of new faces.
It’s a fresh group this year and we’ve a lot more younger faces. We’ve lost some very big, key players that have been very influential over the last few years. You take out Greg Bolger, Kenny Browne, Killian Brennan and James Chambers and you have four players that would’ve been guaranteed starters in the first eleven.
And the devil does lie in that detail – at a cursory glance, much of the first-choice players aren’t entirely unfamiliar names, but it’s more so the magnitude of the departures as opposed to the volume of them that makes this a time of uncertainty for Pats. Particularly the midfield area, of which Bolger, Brennan and Chambers were the stand-out, go-to performers.
We’ve had to replace them and Liam’s gone about it by bringing in young and – without being disrespectful – probably unproven players in terms of winning things. We’ve brought players in from Bray and Derry, so I think there’s a hunger there now which probably was lacking in the last couple of seasons.
Indeed, with the odd exception such as the brothers Billy and Darren Dennehy, and David Cawley from Sligo, much of Pats’ signings going into this season represent some kind of gamble. Mark Timlin and Graham Kelly are highly-rated, but have not yet had to perform at the level that will be required to compete in the way the Inchicore side intend to. Even former Ireland international Keith Treacy is being viewed as a punt as questions marks have been raised over both his fitness and mentality in light of his considerable drop in level since first making waves in England for Preston six years ago.
Though at the same time it could be necessary for this change to have come when it has, as an argument could be made that the inertia in place at Pats caused them to stagnate without progressing as they should have due to a lack of freshening up around the squad.
I think you find that when it comes to some sort of stalemate (within a squad) that it’s either the manager goes or he has to reinvent the whole squad again. Some managers prefer to do it in different ways but Liam has had to do it this year where he’s brought in nine or ten new faces that we’ve needed to integrate into the group. It is something that needs to happen because the squad had reached a time where it needed to move on but I think we can all look back fondly on it with that core group of players.
Of that there can be little argument – Buckley’s latest tenure has represented the most successful period the club has seen in a long time, with each of the main domestic trophies (Premier Division, FAI Cup, and the EA Sports Cup) being won by the Saints in the last three seasons.
But if this is to be a new era for Pats, it’s yet to be determined what to expect for them, or what their specific aims are. Generally, European qualification has been seen as the minimum requirement, and as far as O’Brien is concerned nothing has changed on that front.
I think to get top 3 and get into Europe is massive. To win the league is a massive achievement but European football in this country just blows everything else out of the water budget-wise because of how much is at stake and how little prize money there is (domestically). We’re not silly as players – we know the off-field situations clubs find themselves in – so it is important to get into Europe. But of course you want to challenge and win things. You’re not thinking about the money situation when you cross the white line, you’re thinking about the three points and trying to finish top come November.
The success of recent years has defined this Pats side, and has rather conveniently overshadowed the subtext that they now occupy the same underdog territory they found themselves in before their title-winning season.
This saw them go from one extreme to the other: expected to be in the European places without really troubling the title contenders in 2013 saw them what was perceived to be overachieve by going one better and actually winning the league, only for them to what was perceived to be underachieve in the following seasons where, despite their success in cup competitions, their title ambitions ultimately faded disappointingly early.
O’Brien notes this resemblance himself, and as such puts forth the notion that perhaps this could be a case of history repeating itself as the once again unfancied Inchicore outfit look to end a dominant Dundalk reign somewhat comparable to Sligo’s in 2013.
With us this year it’s similar to 2012 when Liam first came in and there was a lot of new faces. Nobody knew what to expect; were we going to challenge, were we going to be a nearly team, were we going to be mid-table, but we used it as a big platform and we were able to kick on and add more quality into the team in 2013 and we won the league so I think this season could be something similar…people need to be patient a little bit with us and you never know, we might just surprise people.