Four observations from the League of Ireland this week

Dublin Derby shows The League of Ireland’s potential, title race heats up, Dundalk begin to find their groove, and other things we observed in the LOI this week.

That’s right, observed. Because who needs to learn things. Enjoy our new weekly column on Irish football:

The title race is well and truly on

The games are coming thick and fast this month in the League of Ireland, meaning things can turn around just as quickly as the next fixture comes around.

That’s how it has turned out for Shamrock Rovers, who appeared to have an almost unassailable lead in the league, but after consecutive defeats to Bohemians and Dundalk in the space of four days, that lead has been cut down to just four points with an extra game played.

Four points is still a decent lead to hold when you possess arguably the strongest squad in the division, but now that their aura of invincibility has been pierced, you would have to imagine that other teams will feel they can get something from Rovers if they follow the template set out by Bohs and Dundalk.

Points will be dropped between now and October, that is for sure, and they still have to face the teams in second and third twice more. We could be in for a hell of a season at the top end of the table.

Dublin Derby shows what is possible with LOI

Where else would you get Mick McCarthy, Robbie Keane, Stephen Kenny and the president of Ireland Michael D. Higgins all in one place? Well, probably at a senior Ireland international at Lansdowne Road, but apart from that, the only other answer is the Dublin Derby.

No one wants to miss this game, as evidenced by the huge crowds whenever these two rivals face-off, and last Tuesday night was no different. Bohs may have won 1-0, but the big takeaway from this game was that the potential of the league was there before our eyes. On few occasions has that feeling been so tangible.

Rovers possess facilities in Tallaght that are the envy of just about every club in the country, bar maybe Cork City and Derry City. Their rivals in red and black play in the dilapidated Dalymount Park, but assuming the plan for a brand new ground goes ahead, then they too will have a 6,000 seater stadium to host matches. The club’s ability to draw big crowds to games the past two years illustrates a greater need than ever to upgrade.

The Hoops have assembled a terrific cast of players, including former Premier League men Jack Byrne, Joey O’Brien and Dylan Watts, although they have greater resources than most to put together a strong squad to challenge for the top spot. The Gypsies have no such resources to rely on, yet they continue to punch well above their weight every season. The job Keith Long has done to recruit top players on little to no money is phenomenal, and is surely worthy of Manager of the Year one of these days.

On top of the community work that Bohs do, there is a terrific atmosphere around the club. The supporters feel a deep connection with the team, something that wasn’t necessarily there when they were winning trophies. Both of these clubs set an example for the rest of the league.

Dundalk back to their best

There was a real concern that the Lilywhites could be cut adrift in April, such was their poor form at the start of the season. Those fears can now be allayed after a terrific run of form.

Following successive defeats to St. Patrick’s Athletic and Sligo Rovers, Dundalk are now on a four-game winning run that includes huge victories over Bohs and most recently Shamrock Rovers. They are now just four points off the leaders with a game in hand.

The key element to their last two wins has to be the return of Patrick McEleney and Chris Shields, the most accomplished midfielders in the country, after layoffs from injury. Dundalk look far more assured with them back in the starting eleven.

It is somewhat worrying that the drop-off in performance is quite so severe when they are not around, especially considering Rovers’ strength in depth, which will be important going down the stretch.

Healthy state of affairs at the Carlisle Grounds

One of the most important weeks in the league this season, but this writer could not be found in Dundalk to witness a top of the table clash. Nor could he be found at Dalymount Park, where Bohemians, facing Waterford, were attempting to keep the pressure up on Rovers.

Instead, you would find him on the seaside enjoying Bray Wanderers take on Cabinteely FC in the East Coast Derby on a windy evening. Everyone ignored my suggestion for the N11 Derby, but I’m not bitter, not at all. I looked past this slight and went to the Carlisle Grounds anyway.

Bray Wanderers

Cabinteely have only been a League of Ireland team for four years but they have clearly taken big strides since then. They are no longer the startled earwigs of the First Division, finding themselves in second place after ten games. The team’s ability to pass their way out of trouble in tight spaces was impressive, and not something a spectator would necessarily expect at this level.

Despite Cabo’s flashes of good play, it was the Seagulls who took the lead in the 21st minute thanks to Jake Ellis. The hosts were more comfortable playing long and in the air, although the windy conditions made that strategy redundant at times. The visitor’s hard pressing made things even more difficult.

Just two minutes into the half and Cabo equalised through Vilius Labutis, whose name sounded like a spell from a Harry Potter film when it was announced over the tannoy. It was end-to-end stuff for much of the half after that, offering great entertainment for your 15 euro admission fee. A penalty was awarded to Bray after former Fulham man Dean O’Halloran was taken down in the box. Dylan McGlade couldn’t make it count though, as Stephen McGuinness saved his effort.

In the last ten minutes Cabo’s number 6, Jack Watson, picked up what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Even though it looked to be a bad one, he attempted to play on regardless, hobbled about on one leg as he chased the play in futility. After a few minutes of this, he finally gave up, his head in his arms and his right leg almost certainly in a worse way. The whole incident felt somewhat tragicomical.

It was the Wanderers who pressed hardest for the winner in the closing stages of the game, hitting the crossbar twice in injury time. A draw was perhaps a fair result, but it was even more endearing to see two local clubs in a healthy state. Bray have spent much of the last two seasons being the laughing stock of the league, while Cabo have been labelled ‘pointless’ by observers on more than a few occasions. The vibes around both clubs are positive, and talented young players litter their respective squads.

If Bohs-Rovers is the meanest, most hostile rivalry in the country, then this is the friendliest. Cabinteely fans sat unperturbed among the home support. In many cases the opposing fans knew each other, some of them were probably neighbours. The newness of one of the clubs, and its fan base consisting of mostly parents with their children, means this rivalry is yet to develop into just that.

The fact that no one really takes Cabinteely all that seriously might also play into that, but this might be the year where they earn the respect of everyone else in the league.

And just for kicks…

This is why they call it the Greatest League in the World.