OPINION: League of Ireland footballers are like hamsters on a wheel

Derry City boss, Declan Devine has to contend with a growing injury list as the fixtures pile up at the early part of the SSE Airtricity League season.
Derry City boss, Declan Devine has to contend with a growing injury list as the fixtures pile up at the early part of the SSE Airtricity League season.

The 2019 SSE Airtricity League campaign is only four weeks old and yet its relentless scheduling of games is already taking its toll on teams.

It just doesn’t seem to make any sense to play so many fixtures at the start of the season in such quick succession, particularly when the weather and most grass pitches are at their worst.

The fixture computer certainly did Derry City no favours either when handing the Candy Stripes three games in seven days which included trips to south Dublin and Cork. Finn Harps faced six matches in 21 days which is just the nature of the league, but factor in two Monday night games in Dublin for part-timers and it starts to create its problems.

There’s no doubting there’s a direct correlation between the fixture congestion, and the spike in fatigue and injuries sustained by players. Okay, that’s when managers must rotate their squads but that surely just hands the advantage to the teams with the bigger budgets.

Dundalk were missing five recognised midfielders for their match against Waterford at Oriel Park and also had to make do without injured winger, Michael Duffy but still managed to steamroll the Blues in a 4-0 victory.

It’s only March so we’re not talking player burnout here and ask any footballer if they’d prefer training to playing matches and the majority, if not all, would state the latter. And don’t get me wrong, for supporters it’s fantastic to see so much live football but over time it’s ultimately going to have a detrimental effect on the quality of matches. While the Monday night games might be seen by the FAI as a necessity to cram in the fixtures, it’s not the ideal scenario for fans and part-time players in particular.

But there are already lots of instances of soft tissue injuries given the quick turnaround of games and the lack of recovery time.

Should clubs then consider reducing or altering the intensive nature of training during periods of fixture congestion?

Friday night’s game at Dalymount was pulsating but how good would it have been had Barry McNamee been on from the start or if the league’s top scorer, Dinny Corcoran, Keith Buckley or David Parkhouse and Greg Sloggett been on the pitch?

Of course the absence of some of those players offered a chance for young Aidy Delap to impress in front of Ireland U21 boss, Stephen Kenny and gave Gerardo Bruna and Conor McDermott some much needed game-time. However, Devine is working off a relatively small squad and will want to clear out some space in his treatment room in the coming weeks as games continue to come thick and fast.

There seems to have been nothing learned from the problems experienced last year and there’s clearly been little consultation between clubs and the FAI in the off season but I wouldn’t think there are too many League of Ireland managers in favour of the current format of the league,

Take Finn Harps for instance. Ollie Horgan hit out about how his part-time players have been expected to make the lengthy trip to Dublin to play Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght on a Monday night - their third trip to the city in their opening five games.

That particular fixture was brought forward due to Tallaght being used as a venue for the UEFA European U17 Championships in the summer but why not simply reverse the fixtures?

Players and staff would all have had to take half days from work or university. They wouldn’t have been back on their team coach until 10.30pm and back to their cars in Donegal until almost 2am. Then they have to drive home, go to bed, and get up at 6 or 7am for work the next morning. They then have to train once or twice again that week, before another game on the Friday and perhaps another game on the Monday of the next week.

And it’s not only simple logistical issues which have been concerning but the amount of matches to be played at this stage of the season on grass pitches which are naturally heavy and sore on the legs. Dalymount was cutting up badly in parts on Friday night and there was no surprise that quality football was at a premium for much of the game.

Keith Long calls it a ‘hamsters on a wheel’ situation and the Bohs boss believes the quality of matches are being effected. At Dalymount, Derry City had FOUR key players missing through injury as Sloggett failed a pre-match fitness test and Parkhouse (hip), Patrick McClean (groin) and Michael McCrudden (broken foot) also missed out. McNamee got just 10 minutes due to a troublesome hamstring.

Bohs were without two of their most effective and experienced players in top scorer, Corcoran and midfielder, Buckley - both missing out due to groin strains.

“It’s fatigue, it’s pitches pulling up at this time of the year. We want spectacles and the best players on the pitch going head to head,” said Long afterwards.

“It’s the same situation we were in last year. It doesn’t make sense to play so many games this early in the season, particularly when pitches are the way they are. You’re going to injure players and that’s what’s happened.”

Making matters worse for Devine was the severity of the suspension handed out to Jamie McDonagh. Anyone who seen his rash tackle on Trevor Clarke would agree it warranted a straight red card. It was silly and probably borne out of frustration. We can only assume that the additional three match ban was handed out for his part in the melee which ensued afterwards involving three or four Rovers players but from what I saw there wasn’t much in it. Perhaps the referee’s report offers more of an insight into whatever was said at the time.

Without that inside knowledge, it looks harsh and Devine described it as a ‘horrendous’ decision.

The FAI are clearly setting down a marker early on in the season as a deterrent. Dundalk coach, Ruaidhri Higgins and Harps assistant boss, Paul Hegarty were also dealt with three match suspensions for their part in an aftermatch melee.

So perhaps the early offenders are being made an example of by the Football Association of Ireland’s Disciplinary Control Unit. who are clearly not going to tolerate any inappropriate behaviour this season.