It’s a numerologist’s nightmare. Three defeats in four games. Three consecutive blanks drawn in front of goal. Three fan favourites jettisoned. Three points clear of the relegation zone.
As the three-month anniversary of his appointment as Limerick FC manager approaches, Neil McDonald is already fighting an internal war on three fronts. With a trio of clubs poised to plummet in October, the under-fire Englishman is absorbing potshots aplenty from fans, media — and players — alike.
Immediately upon arrival on Shannonside, McDonald made getting to know his players his number-one priority.
In suggesting a parting-of-the-ways to the club in April, predecessor Martin Russell tacitly admitted that he could do no more to motivate the personalities he assembled. What McDonald discovered was consistent with that point-of-view.
Among his new charges were many implicated in Limerick’s 2015 back-slide into the First Division wilderness. Despite a late-season resurgence, the Super Blues’ survival prospects were unable to overcome an abject 21-game winless run.
Robbie Williams, now of Cork City, made 30 league appearances that year, leading a defence that kept just one clean sheet. Midfielder Paul O’Conor missed just one game. Both, and others, were handsomely rewarded for their collective failure.
Some close to Williams, in particular, have irresponsibly peddled the narrative that his release — and those of O’Conor and Shaun Kelly — flew in the face of loyalty shown at the end of 2015. The truth, of course, is quite different.
Despite plying their trades in a part-time league throughout 2016, all three players, and a host of others, saw their full-time professional salaries maintained; a demonstration of unprecedented generosity, and loyalty, from Limerick chairman Pat O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan’s commitment to fending off better offers for his best players saw an overpowered Limerick walk the First Division; but how was his loyalty repaid?
Certainly, the actions of a nine- or ten-strong ‘Monday Club’ that hit Limerick City every week did not match the expectations that go with a full-time professional footballer’s contract.
Whether Williams, O’Conor, and Kelly were members of that club is anyone’s guess, but the noxious culture that pervaded the club then certainly persisted throughout the current season. Russell ultimately concluded that he could not address it. McDonald decided he was the man to do so.
As such, the Englishman should be lauded for his bravery; even if there is often a fine line between that noun, and another less palatable one.
Releasing first-team players, whatever its underlying justification, has given succour to critics inside — and outside — the camp; particularly in light of recent, predictable, away defeats to high-flying Derry City and Dundalk.
Some dissenters within the camp, who whisper outside it, have been lucky to survive the mid-season axe, and they would do well to heed the message that its swing was designed to communicate.
Those very whispers have helped to kibosh McDonald’s transfer market efforts too. Players talk to players, of course, and mid-season efforts to buttress the hodgepodge at the manager’s disposal have been undermined by some of his unhappy campers.
A recent loan deal, for example, that saw the club primed to recruit a useful Premier Division player, was nixed by the poison spread by a now-former Limerick squad member — who was well-remunerated throughout that facile 2016 season. Loyalty!?
The fans and the media
Fans who bemoaned, and continue to bemoan, McDonald’s axe-wielding need to hear this. Concerns about a looming relegation threat are understandable, but worried supporters know, deep down, that this drastic weeding-out is long overdue.
Unfortunately, because it is not being spelled out to them, by those who would whip up hysteria — to serve their own agendas, and defend their pals — they can easily overlook that inconvenient truth.
The Limerick soccer professionalism deficit does not begin and end with the players, after all. When one can trash a manager, and a club, for a performance he did not even witness — and get away with it — then we have a serious problem with the way we engage with the beautiful game in this city.
Conducting soft-serve interviews with recently-released pals also stands as an absolute disgrace, unlikely to be tolerated anywhere else on this island.
Historically, some players have been gifted unlimited free-passes, and even openly advocated for, while others — outsiders — represent easy targets. Far simpler to lay the blame at the doors of the likes of Conor O’Donnell and Patrick Kanyuka, than opine honestly on the performances of one’s pals.
The scale of McDonald’s task
In this toxic environment, where professionalism has long been optional, McDonald has his work cut out. Attempting to turn a that-will-do mentality into a can-do spirit, in the teeth of a growing relegation threat, may be a task beyond any manager — let alone one so new to the League of Ireland.
The former Sam Allardyce apostle has inherited a group of players that don’t really fit any system particularly well. The return of loanee Thomas Robson to Sunderland, for example, shortly after McDonald’s arrival, has brutally exposed the fact that his predecessor failed to recruit a left-back.
Two number 10s, and an off-form box-to-box midfielder, compete for two central midfield berths; thus making it nigh-on impossible to get the best out of any. The blindingly-obvious need to recruit a proper number six, to free up Duggan for third-man running, has existed long before McDonald’s arrival.
A woefully underperforming youth system, that has produced little relative to the massive investment inputted thus far, also bears some responsibility for the current player deficit.
The jury is out on Leeds United’s Paudie O’Connor; only Tony Whitehead has really made the breakthrough, thanks to his bloody-minded dedication, professionalism, and hard work.
A call to arms
The likes of Whitehead, and other ultra-dedicated local lads like Lee J. Lynch and Shane Tracy, are the players that Limerick’s fans should be lionising. Cork natives John O’Flynn and Stephen Kenny have also continually modeled how a full-time professional player should behave.
It should not matter a damn if Williams stars on his debut away to Drogheda United, or if O’Conor gets in the St Pat’s midfield at the first time of asking.
Sean Maguire flourished beyond anyone’s wildest dreams at Cork City, but his attitude reputedly stank towards the end of his time at Oriel Park. Does that mean Stephen Kenny was wrong to let him go?
It is the players who remain that the fans should throw their collective weight behind now. And their manager too; whose well-intentioned show-of-strength was commendably backed by a Limerick board that deserves huge credit for holding its nerve. Let’s hope that fate, and the three crucial home games to come, reward them for it.
You can follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112