LIMERICK FC manager Martin Russell is aiming towards a top six finish as the Super Blues mark their return to the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division, starting with Friday night’s game at home to Sligo Rovers (kick-off 7:45pm).
Having romped to promotion last season at the first time of asking, Russell is optimistic that his team can end the season comfortably clear of the relegation zone, a task that promises to be made harder with the bottom three finishers dropping to the First Division for 2018.
Adding that a slow start would not be a cause for panic, the Limerick manager said: “At the moment, we probably have a mid-table to top half budget, so that’s probably a realistic target and we want to try and finish as high as we can in the top half. However, other teams with a similar budget to ours will have similar aspirations.
“We had by far the best resources last year [in the First Division] but not necessarily so in the Premier Division, so we have to try maximise everything to compete and play towards the best position that we can achieve.
“It’s a tough league, particularly with three going down, and it’s a tough league for trying to get European aspirations. It’s going to be really challenging all the way through. Sligo had a bad start last year but if they had a better start they’d probably be in Europe. Galway had a good start last year but they fell away afterwards so there’s plenty of games.
“Ideally, we want to get off to a good start but it’ll pan out over the course of the season. Every game is one that we want to win and ultimately we’ll finish where we deserve to finish.”
Limerick’s opponents on Friday are a prime example of how a team can resurrect their season after a bad start. Sligo looked like relegation contenders in their first few games of 2016, but a superb run from the mid-season break saw them rise to an eventual fifth-place finish.
The Bit O’ Red have lost some core squad members over the winter, with Jimmy Keohane, Achille Campion and Gavin Peers among those to leave The Showgrounds, but they have retained the bulk of their squad and made some promising additions, such as Matthew Stevens from Peterborough and Shaun Patton from Derry City. Russell expects that Sligo will continue their positive momentum from the end of last season.
“I’m expecting a very big challenge. They finished last season just behind Shamrock Rovers just outside the European spots and they were one of the most in-form teams in the second half of the season. They had a poor start but they got stronger and stronger.
“They had a good squad and they’ve added to the group again to make them even more competitive and to have a better chance of getting into Europe this year. They’re going to be tough opposition to have in our first home game and that’s what the Premier Division is about. It’s about that quality of competition. We look forward to it and we’ll give it our best go.”
While Sligo have enjoyed some encouraging pre-season results, the same can be said of Limerick, for whom new signings Chiedozie Ogbene and Rodrigo Tosi have begun very promisingly. Russell has been true to his word that “we may get another player in before Friday, with two midweek additions to the squad.
Defender Thomas Robson (21) joins on loan from Sunderland, while 22-year-old Swedish full-back Thibaut Molinatti has signed from Enskede IK on a one-year deal.
Russell said of his off-season signings: “I’ve been really pleased with the new lads that have come on board and how they’ve integrated themselves into the group and made an immediate impact. It’s been good but the real stuff starts on Friday and we want to give it our best shot in a competitive league.”
Of the squad which won promotion so convincingly last term, the only notable departures are Aaron Greene and the manager’s son Sean Russell, but the Limerick boss was fully aware of the need to supplement the remainder of the promotion-winning squad with players of the quality that would be required for Premier Division football.
“We realise that this is a new challenge. The Premier Division is a different level and even within the Premier Division there’s different levels again. There’s some really strong teams that have European aspirations and this year it’s going to be particularly difficult because there’s many teams in a 12-team league that are looking to avoid the bottom three.
“It’s going to be a really competitive league all the way through and we knew that, to do well, we needed a stronger group. I think we’ve got something towards that. The lads who did well last year are being encouraged to keep improving and keep building on what they did last year. We hope that the new players who came in can add to it.”
Russell is indeed setting the bar high for a team that has come up to the top flight, but if Limerick can even go close to matching his pre-season ambitions, 2017 will be a more than satisfactory year for the Markets Field faithful.