The term ‘business-end of the season’ may be more suitable for the League of Ireland First Division than almost any other league in Europe, as some Treaty United players are likely starting to realise. It would be tough to find another division on the continent whereas much importance is placed on a handful of end-of-season games as it is on our small island.
The division’s format is unusual, if not questionable: Fifth-placed Bray Wanderers are closer on points to the bottom of the table than the top yet have to win the same number of games as second-placed Galway United to achieve promotion. And of course, the greatest anomaly of these promotion play-offs is the very real possibility that none of the four sides involved will gain promotion at all.
That being said, one thing the current format does provide is a play-off series both thrilling and pressurised in equal measure. Something that won’t go unnoticed by the supporters of Treaty United and UCD over the coming week.
Markets Field will play host to the first leg of the tie between the two on Wednesday night before the teams meet again for the deciding clash at the UCD Bowl on Sunday.
The sides have already met on three occasions through the season, with UCD emerging victorious in the two games to take place in the capital, and Treaty United winning 2-1 in the sole fixture to take place in Limerick.
Perhaps worryingly for Treaty, the most-recent of those games took place less than two weeks ago, with two goals from Liam Kerrigan helping UCD to secure another three points over the Limerick men.
UCD rested several key players last Friday night on their visit to Tolka Park, including the league’s top scorer Colm Whelan. Meanwhile a few miles south, Treaty manager Tommy Barrett put out a close to full strength side for their win away to Cabinteely. Marc Ludden and Anthony O’Donnell were two of the only players conserved for Wednesday night’s tie.
A two-nil win at Stradbrook Road may not have had a major impact on the league table, but it was a much-needed morale boost for the Limerick side.
Before that, Treaty had only won one game in their last nine, and largely have their mid-season run to thank for their fourth position. The goals too had seemed to dry up for Barrett’s side prior to Friday’s victory, their fourth spot saved only by a reliable and strong defence.
In contrast, UCD arguably possess the best attack in the division. They’ve scored more goals than anyone else in the country (including Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers) and have scored four or more on several occasions through the season.
In their inaugural season as a League of Ireland team, United have surprised many by providing serious opposition to anyone and everyone who has visited Markets Field. Shelbourne’s early dominance has meant Treaty have dedicated a 27-game season solely towards qualifying for the play-offs, yet a single error on Wednesday night could render those efforts worthless in their pursuit for top-flight football in 2022. A fact that Tommy Barrett’s players must remain aware of.
The away goals rule will not feature, but one must feel it is still critical for Treaty to keep a clean sheet and get a goal of their own to bring to Dublin this weekend. However, UCD have only been beaten-to-nil twice all season, the last occasion coming in early July.
Bookmakers have the Dublin side as favourites to progress. But if there was ever a place for an unexpected result, it might just be in this strangest of play-off series.