IN AN OFF-SEASON full of managerial chopping and changing, the cards fell rather nicely for St Patrick’s Athletic’s old boss-turned-new boss Liam Buckley.
With the bright lights of a brand new season days away, those football-less Fridays in December seem like an eternity ago. It was back then that Pat’s provided the first taster of the new season, getting a jump on the horse-trading by announcing that they had appointed Buckley for his second term in the Inchicore dugout.
Not only did they get their man, but by moving early, Pat’s also allowed Buckley three full months to assemble a squad and plot his course for the term ahead, a luxury which has not been afforded to some of the other new faces in the Premier Division.
The first green shoots of that pre-season work started to peek through in the Setanta Cup defeat against Cliftonville. Pat’s were unlucky not to make more of the tie after dominating the return leg in Dublin for long spells, but the manner in which the new names gelled and played will have encouraged fans, despite the result.
Ger O’Brien, James Chambers and Christy Fagan all look to be valuable signings, as does John Russell who provided the creative spark in the 1-0 home defeat to the Reds before he was sent off in the second half.
Most importantly, Pat’s played the game in the way that is now Buckley’s hallmark: keeping the ball on the deck, playing out from the back, looking to use pace and width to create chances for their strikers.
There have been some teething problems as players adapt to his system and style but that much was to be expected, Buckley told TheScore.ie when we caught up with him.
“We definitely prefer a passing game. I think most squads in the country prefer a passing game, they put emphasis on it. It’s just that some managers do and some managers don’t.
It’s far more enjoyable for [the players] to do anyway, because they are footballers at the end of the day. They do like controlling and passing the ball and looking good, so we’re trying to develop our patterns of play through that.
We’re only at this a few weeks in relation to the bigger picture. We’ve brought 15 new players into the squad, so there is a bit of gelling together and teething issues that we will have, but we’ll get there.
“Good competition for places”
Where Buckley has signed, he has signed well and built a deep squad with plenty of quality. That became obvious in the two games against Cliftonville when he was able to alternate between two goalkeepers who held down the number one spot at their respective clubs last season — Bohemians’ Barry Murphy and Sligo Rovers’ Brendan Clarke.
Only one of the two can play on a regular basis though, and the manager knows that he needs to make his mind up soon.
“We’ve quality players across the squad. Brendan Clarke and Barry, they’re two top keepers and both of them got a game. We’ve alternated games the last few weeks, but obviously we’ll have to pick one of them from now on.”
In defence as well, he’s quick to point out similar competition for a regular spot in the first team.
With the back eight we have — two right fulls, two left fulls and four centre backs — there’s plenty of competition for places. Ian Bermingham and Jake Carroll are two great players. We’ve got Aidan Price to come in when he gets himself fit, along with Kenny Browne who’s done well, Conor Kenna, Pat Flynn, Ger O’Brien.
There’s good competition for places there, and good quality.
Jake Kelly in action against Liam Boyce of Cliftonville (©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan)
“We’re gelling it all together”
Pat’s begin their campaign at home to Bray on Friday night, a fixture which proved to be a banana skin on the second weekend of last season when Pat Devlin’s men came away with a shock 3-2 win.
Friday is the start of a long road though — one which will include another Europa League adventure for the Saints — and Buckley is not looking too far into the future.
“We’ve a whole new group from a staff and playing perspective, so we’re gelling it all together. We’ll hope that we can get off to a good start and see how we go from there.”
There’s no surprise when he picks out defending champions Shamrock Rovers and their closest pursuers of last season, Sligo Rovers, as the two to beat again this time around. Both are under new management in Stephen Kenny and Ian Baraclough, but Buckley’s not banking on that stalling their progress. If anyone would know, it’s the man who took over Pat Dolan’s title-winning squad after the first game of the 1998/99 season and promptly led Pat’s to the league again.
Rovers and Sligo “know that they’re going to have a good season,” Buckley says.
“They’ve got the same squads as they had last year and they’ve gotten stronger. Ok, there was a bit of management change but [in 1997/98] Pat Dolan won the league and I changed it around. Different shape, different players in the team, but I felt the momentum really kept me going.
You’ve got to mix it with them and then the rest of the other ten teams will be looking to see if we can get a few wins and get on their coattails and see what happens from there.