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07 Jul 2022

The Commentary Box: Dermot Aherne looking to make big changes to Irish football

The Commentary Box: Dermot Aherne looking to make big changes to Irish football

New League of Ireland chairmen and former Louth TD Dermot Aherne. (Pic: Sportsfile)

Friday night saw Stephen O’Donnell’s debut in competitive  games as manager of Dundalk. A packed Oriel Park crowd saw a feast of football and one which produced four goals. Dundalk and Derry served up a night of good football and had the supporters rooted to their seats right until the end.

Any worries supporters may have had over the brand of football the new Dundalk boss would display were quickly dispelled, as Stephen O’Donnell’s youngsters tore into a side tipped to give champions Shamrock Rovers a run for their money in the title race this year.

Dundalk going forward were very good. They twice led but were only in front on both occasions for a short period when City quickly hit back. Yet despite the exciting game O’Donnell has a lot of work to do with his team.

The ease with which Derry could carve open the defence left one thinking that on another night the Foylesiders could have gone away with all three points. Derry have spent a fortune on this season’s team.

Yet despite all their purchases they did not strengthen their defence during the close season. And their frailties in this area were seized upon by a Dundalk team who were sensational going forward.

Stephen went with Nathan Shepperd in goal. The youngster did nothing wrong. But I was surprised Peter Cherrie did not get the nod. The Welsh underage international in no way could be faulted for the goals. Shepperd is a good keeper and I have no doubt he will have a good season this year.

Mark Connolly did make some basic errors at the back early in the game that on other nights would have been severely punished. Yet he did quickly settle. The Clones native got a great second goal that looked to have given the Oriel Park side all three points late in the game.

But Derry came back to quickly level for a second time. Andy Boyle played his first full game under his new boss. It took him a while to settle, but it’s very clear that he will form a very good partnership with Mark Connolly in the centre of the defence.

Dundalk were caught down the flanks at times and this is one of the issues Stephen O’Donnell must deal with. The full backs were very good though. Young Lewis Macari played so well as did Sam Bone. He showed his attacking prowess with a couple of excellent efforts on goal.

Robbie Benson was top class as he ran the engine room in midfield while Joe Adams, Paul Doyle and Dan Williams were also very good. Stephen Bradley deservingly won the Dundalk man of the match award. His darting runs into Derry territory caused them much trouble. And his lead goal was sensational.

Bradley was terrific. This youngster will have a very good future in football. He was sensational. Pat Hoban may not have got on the scoresheet; however his work rate was top class. Daniel Kelly came on as a sub in the second half and he caused endless trouble for the Derry defence.

Bradley, the on-loan Hibernian midfielder struck for the first goal on 32 minutes. He was released by Dan Williams before getting past Ciaran Coll and firing a shot from the right-hand edge of the box past Brian Maher.

Derry soon levelled when Jamie McGonigle got down the right. His cross found Joe Thompson who rifled the ball to the net. Derry twice before this saw two similar crosses into the box with nobody on hand to finish it off.

Dundalk dominated most of the second half and had their lead restored on 73 minutes when Marc Connolly did well to head home a Robbie Benson corner. But Derry quickly levelled again when James Akintunde put in a cross. Jamie McGonigle headed home.

McGonigle should have won it at the death. But saw his shot come off the crossbar in quick succession when it would have been much easier to score. The game was held up for a couple of minutes at the end because of a drone flying over Oriel. Thankfully the game quickly restarted and ended in a draw.

Post-Match Reactions

Derry City manager Ruaidhri Higgins said after the game that a draw was a fair result. And Dundalk’s man of the match Stephen Bradley said it was a game Dundalk could have won.

He had to be happy with his own performance. He did say he was happy with his team’s performance. Stephen O’Donnell told me the team can get a lot better. I asked him had the team got a bit of the Stephen Kenny DNA in it. He said not really, as all teams like to go forward.

Goal scorer and centre half Mark Connolly told me it was a great performance by Dundalk. He said they are a young team and emphasized Stephen O’Donnell’s philosophy of always wanting his teams to go forward.

He was delighted to get on the scoresheet. Mark says it was a good building block for his team and that’s how all the players saw it. He accepted he was not happy with how Derry was able to get in and score twice. But felt it was best not to dwell on the negatives and focus on the positives.

Greg Sloggett was a player who really stamped his authority at midfield when he came on as a substitute in the second half. He was able to show the strength needed in midfield at a key time of the game.

The Participation Agreement

Off the pitch, some months ago former local TD Dermot Ahern was appointed to a brand-new role within domestic soccer and named as chairman of the National League.

It oversees the running of the Premier and First Divisions in the League of Ireland as well as the Women’s National League at professional level along with elite and underage soccer.

Dermot told me it was a very interesting job. He says he has always been a Dundalk supporter and attended most games. Now he sees the other side of football and how it is being run. He says in his job you get to see both sides of a point of discussion.

Dermot points out that one of the first documents he has seen in his role as chairman are copies of participation agreements that clubs sign and acquiesce to abide by them. The agreements are legal documents and govern the rules that clubs must abide by to take part in the leagues.

He exclaimed that you would want to be a senior counsel to read it as it is 100 pages long. It covers all the issues of football including working conditions.

He says one of the issues it brings up are that clubs with both players at senior and underage levels playing for the Republic of Ireland or the North can have their games called off when the international teams play.

Now if any player is picked for any country, their club can get their games called off. He says the move has come a bit late for Dundalk as last season they had three internationals who were neither from the north or south and under the new rules Dundalk would have had the option of getting the games called off.

He says it effected Shamrock Rovers as well and will help them this year as players such as Roberto Lopes play for Cape Verde. Rovers can now get games called off if he is away on international duty.

He also points out that another big issue dealt with in the participation agreements are that when countries are playing at international level, such as the Republic or the North, that the domestic leagues both Premier and First division will take a break. Dermot does point out though that this is up to the clubs themselves.

The new Chairman also says there are also changes in the rules regarding the allocation of yellow cards. He says that the new rules will ensure that only serial players who pick up yellow cards may be suspended for big games such as cup finals if they have picked up enough for suspension.

He says that the league has been split into three sections. A player can accumulate several yellow cards. If you do not reach the mandatory five cards by the end of the first section, the previous cards are wiped away. The players can start afresh.

He says it’s a good system and would ensure that Chris Shields would not have missed the FAI Cup final in 2019 against Shamrock Rovers. Dermot says only serial yellow card recipients will now be punished. The Chairman added that the league will walk slowly as far as the new rule is concerned. But he feels it’s a good step.

Participation agreements were brought in when the League of Ireland clubs in 2006 all agreed that the FAI take over the league. Dundalk signed up to it leaving them legally bound to abide by it.

This was the year that at the end of the season the Lilywhites came second in the First Division and the won promotion play off against Waterford.

However the make-up of the both the first Division and Premier Division that season was not decided by a team winning a promotion/relegation play off, but by the number of wins the club had in their league over a specified number of seasons.

Dundalk’s win rate was dreadful over the previous few years as Trevor Anderson as manager won only 8 out of 58 games. There was uproar when Dundalk did not get promotion in 2006 but as the club had signed the participation deal, they had to accept the FAI ruling.

Dermot remembers slating the FAI at the soccer writer’s dinner over what happened. He humorously says what he said had really annoyed John Delaney, the then FAI CEO.

Better Facilities
The former TD feels the league’s integration with the FAI has proven to be a winner and that there has been a recognition now that it has worked when you see the number of players from the League making it into the international side.

He says the FAI now gets that it must heavily invest not just in players and the structures but also in ground facilities. The chairman has spoken at length with the FAI CEO Jonathan Hill about investing in ground facilities.

He says he is keen on pointing out what South Dublin County Council did to build Tallaght Stadium and that Dublin City Council intend on developing Dalymount Park as a top-class stadium.

What’s going to happen with Pat’s new stadium he thinks is incumbent on the government and local authorities around the country deciding to assist the development of Municipal Stadia which would benefit many clubs in the league. It also now looks like Tolka Park will be redeveloped by Dublin City Council like Dalymount.

This is great news because if people with influence like Dermot can push the government and local authorities into developing these stadiums, it offers clubs like Dundalk a way to play in the proper stadiums that they should be playing in and not a rundown ground like Oriel Park.

League Structures
Dermot confirms that a new Third Division is not even close, but he says the aspiration is there to develop it and that this is one part of the strategy. Dermot says the aim of a new Division is to ensure that those players coming through the age groups will go into a substantial league and not just an under 19 league.

He says that up to now many underage players went to the UK. But since Brexit their movement to the UK is more limited. It will mean a lot of the players will be staying at home and that as a result a proper structure or a tiered one will be needed.

Commenting on the current imbalance in the Premier Division Dermot Ahern said he was not happy at the fact that there were no teams from Munster there. He says that it must be looked at and that the authorities may have to look at the 10 team Premier Division being expanded.

He says maybe a rule will have to be brought in whereby there has to be a regional balance. But he says there are difficulties in that one team might do better than a team that would be guaranteed their place because of where they are from.

But because of a regional balance rule it would mean the better team could go down. The League Chairman says it’s terrible not to see teams like Cork, Waterford and Limerick not being in the Premier Division.

He says it’s just unfortunate that Shamrock Rovers are the most southerly club in the country, but that’s just the way the league turned out last season. Dermot feels the 10-team league ensures that teams are playing each other so frequently. He is not really sure that’s a great idea.

He was in favour of a league made up of many regional teams that were non-Dublin and was keen to emphasize he has nothing against Dublin teams. He says he would love to see the Galway’s, Limerick’s, Waterford’s, and Cork’s playing in the top division.

However, the league has to deal with the cards it’s been dealt. Ahern stated that even thoughts of a 12-team league are not on the radar yet. He says ultimately his group are responsible to the FAI board itself. An expansion of the league would have to be looked at going forward.

Women’s Football
Dermot says it’s magnificent to see the Women’s Leagues doing so well. However, he says they are adding a significant costs to clubs and the FAI and government must come forward and stand up and support this.

He says there is a great drive towards equality between the men and the women’s leagues, citing that there was now equality in the allowance the men and women’s international teams were getting. He pointed out that the sponsorship of the Women’s international team as being very good.

He says the standard that exists in women’s football has been magnificent. Dermot says that Dundalk have started at under 17 level in the Women’s National League and must work their way up over the next few years to the top division.

He feels Dundalk will have to work very hard on developing the women’s game as he says some clubs are light years ahead of the Lilywhites in terms of women’s football.

Dermot has always been there to help Dundalk in whatever way he could. But he stressed that now he is chairman of the league he must be neutral.

Bad Fan Habits
Finally going back to last Friday night’s game, I was very disappointed at some of the actions coming from the shed in Oriel and obviously a tiny minority of supporters there. They continue to light flares which are a danger to life most importantly. The flares are also forcing fines on the club.

RTE cameramen rightly said to me last season they would not be coming back to Oriel until the issue is sorted. They said that the letting off of flares hindered their coverage of the live game. They also said the fumes they were forced to breath in were a nightmare.

Now it may not be RTE’s official position of not returning to broadcast a live game because of the constant letting off of flares, but it is a disgraceful practice. Stadium announcer Mickey Duffy on Friday, just minutes before read out a notice to fans for no flares. It was disregarded.

Derry City fans were equally as culpable. They too let off many flares with two being thrown onto the pitch. I was furious when I heard a small section of Dundalk fans jeer Derry fans by chanting What’s it like to have a queen.

The same supporters chanted “You Dirty Northern B’s at the Derry fans as well. How dare they. The city of Derry, like no other in Ireland has suffered so much as a result of the political problems in the north.

To have this shouted at them, just two weeks after the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday was disgusting. The fight for better rights and conditions for nationalists has seen much of it come from Derry.

The club had to withdraw from the Irish League as a result of the northern troubles. They joined the League of Ireland in the hope they would not have to have such abuse thrown at them.

Dundalk has a long connection with the city of Derry. Their greatest manager Jim McLaughlin came from there.

And maybe before that tiny bunch of morons who abused Derry supporters on Friday ever repeat the same thing again in the future, they should realize that fans of most other clubs regard the people of Dundalk as being Northerners as we are only three miles from the border.

Have a safe week. And remember to be careful out there.

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