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Dublin: 9°C Monday 17 May 2021

No surprise that LOI managers are getting sacked so quickly - it was inevitable

John O’Sullivan reflects on a turbulent week in the League of Ireland.

Sacked: Russell and Robertson.
Sacked: Russell and Robertson.
Image: INPHO

IN A WEEK where John Delaney’s new role on the Fifa Executive committee dominated many football headlines, two League of Ireland managers left their roles “by mutual consent.”

In a week where the Irish Senior Women’s team made headlines around the world when they highlighted what they believed to be a lack of support and communication from the FAI, the national association’s communication around the catalyst that led to both managerial casualties is still unclear.

Whatever supporters might think of the standards set by, and the reasons behind the departures of, Martin Russell from Limerick FC and Dave Robertson from Sligo Rovers, losing two managers by week seven of the season is unprecedented.

I cannot remember a season in the past where there has been such pressure on managers so early in a season, though in 2017, it was always likely to happen.

Early sackings became inevitable once the FAI announced that three teams, one quarter of the division, would be relegated from the Premier Division this season. The announcement came at a time when budgets were already set, players already signed, and plans already made. One month after the licences to compete in the league were approved, everything changed.

An environment was created which meant that the strategies which clubs had laid out for the season were hugely impacted. First Division clubs had the value of a top three finish in that division removed without consultation or communication and faced the fear that if a single club was to run away with the league, as Limerick did in 2016, then their crowds and motivation would fall, as would their ability to meet financial commitments already set down prior to the FAI decision.

Premier Division clubs unlikely to challenge at the top half of the league were placed in increased peril which was only compounded in the opening week of the season when Drogheda United, Limerick and Bray Wanderers all started strongly.

Sligo Rovers have had a very slow start to the season and find themselves second from bottom in the table. The board at Sligo clearly felt that Dave Robertson wasn’t the man to lead them out of the relegation positions. From their opening day defeat to Limerick FC, Sligo were on the back foot and struggling to get out of the relegation zone.

Limerick FC are a slightly different case, having been promoted comfortably last season, two of their three losses came against Cork City FC and Dundalk. There can’t have been much expectation of picking up points against either as a newly promoted side. Some supporters had highlighted a dissatisfaction with performances this season, but Limerick in eighth place didn’t really look like they’d get dragged into the relegation zone.

Life in the League of Ireland requires managers to manage the expectations of the supporters, boards and owners of their clubs as well as the players on the pitch. We’re in an environment where this has been made a much more difficult task by virtue of a significant structural change to the league made without consultation with all the clubs and announced so late. Even as things stand, the announcement only covers 2017 — no one knows yet what the 2018 season will look like.

I see more managerial departures as inevitable and then comes an even greater concern. The way the league is taking shape, it’s likely we’ll have five or six clubs around the relegation zone and two or three chasing a single promotion spot in the First Division. They will feel under immense pressure to add something to their chances and in the summer break, depending on league position, with a transfer window open, I can see clubs stretching themselves beyond their means in both divisions by adding players they believe are vital to push them up the respective tables.

After a number of years of reasonable financial stability on the pitch, there’s a huge risk that the 10-team league will set us back.

The other group that may feel nerves at that point are the players and managers of First Division clubs with little prospect of promotion. In years gone by, when First Division clubs were out of the running for promotion, many would release players and managers in the summer to focus on the following year, effectively ‘seeing out the season’ with young players.

In a week where the PFAI have taken up the cause of amateur players in a dispute with the National Association, they might find requests pick up from amateur First Division players this summer.

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