Football Manager

Friday night lights: Making a return to Buckley Park with Kilkenny City AFC in FM21

Almost thirteen years to the day that Kilkenny City AFC resigned from League of Ireland, the club is back and under new management.

That new management is me, having been handed the task of overseeing the Black Cats’ return to league duties at a hastily arranged press conference at Buckley Park on Friday afternoon.

Before we get into the task at hand, let’s give you a little context.

A brief history of Kilkenny City AFC

Having joined the League of Ireland in 1985, the club’s first taste of success came two years later.

A busy Oriel Park saw EMFA – as the club was then known – see off Finn Harps 4-2 to claim the Irish First Division Shield in 1987. I was four years old.

The club renamed to Kilkenny City in 1989 and two years later they were in an FAI Cup semi-final. The City side that say had the likes of Dave Madden, Brian Stenson, Conor Best and Billy Walsh in the side.

Buckley Park, Kilkenny
Buckley Park, Kilkenny. Photo: Kevin Higgins via CC2.0

Buckley Park on the Callan Road hosted the game on Sunday 28 April, 1991 with a 3.30pm kick-off. The home side would lose to Shamrock Rovers and fall out of the cup.

Then the unthinkable happened. Having started to go to Buckley Park for games (me, that is), Kilkenny City won the First Division title in 1997. Comfortably too, with Drogheda trailing by 11 points at the end of the season. They were heading to the big league.

It didn’t last and after one win in the Premier Division, they were back down to the First.

The club went close in 2000, finishing in third place in the league but that was as good as it would get.

There was a fourth placed finish under Pat Scully in the mid noughties and when he left for Shamrock Rovers, things went down hill. Mixed results, player exodus, a revolving door of managers. The club played their last game – and lost – in November 2007 and resigned from the league two months later.

Kilkenny City were replaced in the league by Sporting Fingal, themselves dissolved in 2011.

The club were never amazing, never trailblazers. But they were our club.

Extinct no more

I drive by Buckley Park twice a day, every day.

There were nights the place was packed for games and Kilkenny couldn’t but win at home. So too were there nights where you might have a hundred or two hundred at a fixture – you could get ten times that at a club hurling fixture up the road.

But those nights where there was a buzz, where you could hear the roar, feel the energy off having your local team mixing it up in the League of Ireland, that was special.

The best opportunity these days for something like that to happen is getting a Kilkenny team out of the likes of Evergreen, Thomastown, Freebooters (at club level) or seeing how the under age Carlow-Kilkenny FC sides develop.

While the club is gone from the League for the past 13 years, they still exist with a history in the depths of the Football Manager database.

So, a quick dip into the pregame editor and all of a sudden Cabinteely are out of the league (they only joined in 2015 too) and Kilkenny are back in the Airtricity First Division and lining out at Buckley Park.

So now, we’re back – and it’s a major project

For those unfamiliar with the League of Ireland setup, it’s a summer league. Pre-season gets underway in January, games get underway in February and it’s all done and dusted come the late Autumn.

When we kick off the campaign, it’s going to be present day, January 2021, thirteen years on from the club’s departure from the League.

There might be 40 or 50 grand knocking about, but there’s no squad, no backroom staff and a league campaign that gets underway in four weeks.

For Scoreline.ie, I holidayed my way through ten years at Kilkenny, resurrecting the club from the dead in order to test the league and competitions with no changes or edits other than bringing them back to life.

Eight out of eleven seasons played ended with Kilkenny rooted to the foot of the SSE Airtricity League First Division. Of the other three, just one place better, finishing in ninth.

There’s no falling out of the League either, once you’re in, you’re in. Two divisions – Premier and First, but Premier is where you want to be. The bigger games, the FAI Cup, a chance of making the qualifiers for the Europa League or even the Champions League.

That’s my ultimate goal. It’s not about becoming the most successful manager the club has ever seen. It’s not about building up a bank balance or investing in youth or redeveloping the pitch on the Callan Road.

The first step is to get games back at Buckley Park, fans back through the gates that have been padlocked for years. Ultimately, it’s European football I want, in Kilkenny. Yes, there’s a lot of ground to cover to get there, but that gives you an idea of where my head is at.

What state is the club in?

Here’s the thing. I’ve given myself challenges in FM before, but none really like this.

The club has nothing, bar owning its 6,500 capacity grounds and the ability as a semi-professional outfit to get players for less money per week than they’d make in SuperValu or McDonald’s.

Finances are secure, there’s no transfer budget and the club roster until it’s filled by actual people, is home to plenty of 17, 18 and 19-year-old newgens. As for the board? They’ve made their objectives fairly clear. Finish bottom. Then avoid finishing bottom for the next four years.

Tactically, I’m going to try my Pisa setup that took me to the Serie B title. It might be a bit much as it was fairly relentless and in the end started taking its toll on the squad but I figure with the lofty ambition of finishing bottom of the league, I’ve got nothing really to lose.

The league has a few 4-4-1-1s and 4-2-3-1s in there but I’ll start out with the 4-1-4-1 to see how things fare out, though it does put a lot of work on the lone striker up top.

The Leinster Senior Cup doesn’t take place until much later in the year, but my first game there is in the second round (yet to be drawn) so in order to progress through two rounds I’ll be hopeful of picking up a few small county club sides along the way.

Staff-wise, I’ve got an assistant manager and head of youth development in place (C and B licenses respectively), along with a GK coach, fitness coach and a performance analyst who’s pulling a loft €20 a week. In the medical side of things, there’s a physio and sports scientist there as well.

Kilkenny’s pre-season preparation

We’ve got five weeks to make a squad of it before meeting Bray Wanderers in the first game.

My plan for updates on the blog looks like: End of preseason (Avengers assemble), ten games in, twenty games in, end of season review.

Follow live updates on the @KENMC056 twitter account.

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