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'This weekend, full of hope, we can look forward to again being part of the #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld'

Our League of Ireland columnist John O’Sullivan believes there is good reason to be optimistic heading into the new season.

The Premier Division and First Division both begin later this evening.
The Premier Division and First Division both begin later this evening.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT’S THE MOST wonderful time of the year.

After five long months without live League of Ireland football, the days and hours leading up to the opening games of the new season are full of promise.

Your squad is injury-free and until 10pm tonight you’ve no evidence that your team may not be as good as suggested by ten minutes of dominance in a pre-season friendly.

Right now, we’re all contenders for the title, or Europe or for promotion. Those new signings might just turn out to be world beaters after all. This season will be different.

As I’ve read league previews across print media and social media and as the advertisements for RTE’s coverage pop up regularly during primetime TV, I’ve allowed myself to get swept away. There are reasons to be cheerful.

Two in particular, money and land.

Prize money has increased, through funds from the TRACKCHAMP deal struck late last season. There was understandable criticism of the deal when it was signed but whatever your thoughts on the streaming of games internationally on betting sites we have to acknowledge that the additional income into the league is welcome.

Particularly so, in that it has been passed straight to the clubs in such an open manner. It’s rare with league sponsorship deals that the direct benefits to clubs are clear and tangible.

Coupled with a slight reduction in affiliation fees means we now have a situation where, for the first time, no club will lose money to FAI coffers.

In a football world increasingly dominated by money, it seems bizarre that until this year, you might have had to win a trophy or qualify for Europe to break even on the entrance fee you paid the national association for the right to play.

The FAI should be commended on the breakdown of the additional prize money, as consideration has been given to where it was needed the most.

The increase means that clubs in the lower reaches of the Premier Division and those in the First Division which will ultimately benefit most.

The increase means a positive net swing of at least €10,000 for a Premier Division club towards the lower end of the table.

It’s equally encouraging, reflecting a new co-operation across League of Ireland clubs, that there was universal positivity towards the breakdown.

It is likely the distribution of the new prize money is related to the re-emergence of the Premier Club Alliance, another hugely positive advancement which I’ve spoken about recently.

Members of Cork City had even proposed allocating prize money won in 2016 into a fund to further the PCA’s goals.

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That the PCA have retained legal representation to work with the FAI as we face into the final year of the current participation agreement should not be seen as a negative.

It is a sign that the clubs want to present a united and serious front in negotiations after a history of in-fighting and allowing themselves to be divided and conquered.

What is encouraging is the sense that the FAI might be willing to engage positively with the PCA and that some of the initial mistrust that existed when the organisation was founded has dissipated over time.

It might just mean that everyone is now working to the same overall goals.

The FAI deserve credit for work last year and through the off-season to secure the future of Ferrycarrig Park in Wexford, ensuring that newly-promoted Wexford Youths have certainty over the facility.

Youths’ manager Shane Keegan has taken on a dual role at the club and will now look after much of the club’s commercial activity while also managing the first team, which fits with his own professional background outside football.

It’s a brave step which shows his faith in the club’s future.

It is further evidence of the growing emphasis on infrastructure and stadia within the league, a common bugbear for those who attend matches and complaint for those who do not.

The FAI have been very supportive of the Market’s Field in Limerick, which has proven a great success but also of the club’s training facility in Bruff.

Athlone Town Stadium will undergo redevelopment and extension, and the association has partnered with Cork City on an announced Centre of Excellence.

The redevelopment plans for Dalymount Park, revealed over the off-season are impressive and ensure that the home of Irish football should have a future to match it’s past.

We’ll have enough time through the season to be downtrodden, to claim referee bias, to lament a long away trip on a Monday night. There will be moments when we’ll be shaking our heads in disbelief.

But this weekend we can enjoy the football, enjoy being back among friends from Galway to Dublin, Ballybofey to Waterford.

This weekend, full of hope, we can look forward to again being part of the #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld.

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