Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one: so contends Occam’s Razor, a widely-cited philosophical principle. But, in the poisonous realm of Limerick football, where codology reigns over philosophy, its loudest empty vessels make their own rules.
‘Man takes job closer to home’ is a simple story. Three hours down the road from his north-east origins, the chance to assist Graham Alexander at Scunthorpe United was always going to appeal to Neil McDonald. Particularly given the League One club’s burgeoning reputation.
McDonald’s abrupt departure from the Limerick FC helm was, of course, a shocking, and worrying, development. But that does not excuse the waves of innuendo and misinformation that have swirled in its wake.
Eager not to miss the chance to stick the boot in, local commentators gleefully performed their usual party trick: turning baseless assumption into accepted fact. Gifted with a like-minded audience, equally hungry for negativity, the simplest explanation just would not do.
A more palatable narrative, that McDonald decamped in protest at his paymasters’ incompetence, was spun, and willingly swallowed. It was alleged, for example, that the Englishman’s frustration with budget cuts, and unsecured targets, was the main factor driving his decision to return home.
Yet, according to authoritative club sources, this version of events could not be further from the truth. McDonald’s budget was not cut, nor — for that matter — was Martin Russell’s at the beginning of 2017. Social media statements to the contrary, irresponsibly parroted in Friday’s Irish Mirror, are unequivocally false.
The proof is in the player contract-offer pudding. After excluding the players who would not be retained for 2018, McDonald was party to the following decision: those asked to remain would be offered the same package they accepted 12 months prior. No more, no less.
The kind of package that was also offered to players on McDonald’s shortlist. Again, here, the assumptions proffered by Limerick’s exalted social media commentariat are wide of the mark.
According to club sources, all but three of McDonald’s preferred signings were secured; the vast majority of which were based in Ireland, not the UK. Of the two players lined up before Scunthorpe swooped, only one was UK-based. The other, as is now common knowledge, was Cork City’s Connor Ellis. None of the trio who demurred cited low pay as the reasoning behind their refusal. In other words, the budget was not a problem.
Speaking on Friday evening, in brief conversation with this website, McDonald was happy to dispel any rumours to the contrary. The 52-year-old confirmed his departure “had nothing to do with budget (cuts)”, and that he was “very happy” with the manner in which Limerick FC had treated him.
So, enough dosh was provided to meet his needs. But, to his credit, McDonald did not seem overly keen to spend it anyway. The Englishman apparently recognised what this city’s many financial illiterates refuse to: that the club’s current financial situation is completely, and utterly, unsustainable.
Many, too, still refuse to acknowledge the rationale behind moving on three first-teamers last July. Ignoring that which does not fit one’s preferred narrative is a common talent in Limerick. But a large slice of McDonald’s thought-process ran as follows: if Tony Whitehead can do what Robbie Williams does, at a fraction of the price, with a better attitude, why not let him do it?
And recent events have certainly vindicated that logic. Williams, released by Cork City, remains on the PFAI transfer-list shelf. As does Shaun Kelly, still plying his trade at amateur side Ballynanty Rovers. Paul O’Conor, whose services were not retained by St Patrick’s Athletic, signed for troubled Bray Wanderers on Friday.
In their absences, McDonald secured Premier Division safety for another year, with a respectable seventh-placed finish. Meanwhile, a far stronger Galway United squad — four of which were quickly snapped up by sides due to compete in Europe — limped lamely to relegation.
A late-October interview with the Irish Sun suggested McDonald remained willing to prioritise youth going forward, putting the club on a more sustainable financial footing. Thursday’s press release confirmed this notion, outlining that two of his goals, upon arrival, were “to thin the squad out as it was top-heavy and to give the young players a chance.” Mission accomplished, to some extent, in both regards.
In that sense, perhaps McDonald did not share others’ keenness to demand that Pat O’Sullivan sink more money into the Limerick football black hole. That is the real elephant in the room here, after all.
Innuendo, and outright lies, about budgets and targets, are one thing. But taking this opportunity to make fun of a man that fritters away a high six-figure sum, per annum, just to keep this show on the road is classless in the extreme. €40,000 in debt, and close to the wall, Limerick senior soccer was on its knees when O’Sullivan swooped to its rescue in 2009.
Since then, all three of O’Sullivan’s initial commitments have been fulfilled: Premier Division football, the creation of an underage pathway, and a Markets Field return. The latter, in particular, has been a huge success, blowing away the aspersions of its doubters, that persisted right up until its mid-2015 unveiling.
But ‘aten bread is soon forgotten in Limerick. The positives are always eschewed, and the negatives dwelt on. And, admittedly, there are negatives. O’Sullivan’s eccentric reign has been far from perfect, with a clear lack of footballing nous always evident. The chairman’s ear has been too easy to bend, leading to some unsuitable signings, both on the sideline, and on the pitch.
His boundless generosity has also proved a curse, rather than a boon, at times. It is unclear at this time, for example, if the club received compensation from Scunthorpe upon McDonald’s untimely departure. But, whether it did or not, stomaching the loss of one’s manager so willingly, at such a crucial juncture, is far from ideal.
O’Sullivan’s generosity also explains precisely why certain players had the gall to hold out for more money this winter. They have been spoiled before, caved in to by the club, and expected to be spoiled again.
Remember, some of the same players were handsomely rewarded for relegation back in late-2015. Premier Division remuneration was maintained, creating the year-long farce that was full-time professionals locking horns with youngsters earning buttons. Russell ultimately could not root out the complacency O’Sullivan’s bounty engendered. And, to be fair, few could. It took an outsider, in McDonald, to finally do so.
So, there can be no doubt that resources have been misallocated throughout O’Sullivan’s near-decade-long reign. But they are his resources to misallocate, after all.
This, again, is the bigger picture McDonald understood, that the whole city needs to wake up to and get its head around. All of the money is Pat’s money. Without him filling that high six-figure hole, there would be no David O’Connors upon which Limerick’s coterie of undesirables could unfairly vent their frustrations. There would be no Markets Field for them to do it in either.
Almost exactly three years ago, O’Sullivan issued a statement outlining how the club was placing a huge strain on his finances, and that it could not continue. But it has continued. And all he gets in return is jokes at his expense, from inexplicably smug observers yet to tackle a household budget, let alone run a business, and keep an unsustainable football club on life-support.
It is certainly true that the club desperately lacks a genuinely functional commercial department to attract local sponsorship. It is also true that O’Sullivan should consider ceding some control in order to access outside investment.
Ultimately, however, if this city wants success commensurate with its lofty expectations, the bottom line is that it should pay for it. Not expect O’Sullivan to do so. But how many of this club’s supporters would be willing to invest Cork City FORAS levels of cash per annum? How many of those who rant and rave on social media would be willing to find six figures, per year, to keep this whole insolvent mess afloat?
The answers to both questions are self-evident. The malign few that infest Limerick football, and the Pied Pipers who lead them, are at their happiest when there is something to whinge about. O’Sullivan, in reality an absolute saviour, is a convenient scapegoat in their eyes. McDonald’s departure is just the latest excuse to get the whips out and lash him.
For that ever-vocal minority of Limerick fans, unable or unwilling to see the wood for the trees, Occam’s Razor stays on the shelf, and the pipers’ tune is willingly sung. The only philosopher that might appeal to them is Homer; Simpson, that is.
‘Can’t Someone Else Do It’ was the slogan under which Bart’s dad ran for garbage commissioner; and won. It is a refrain with which Limerick football’s ungrateful empty vessels are all too familiar.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112