Friday Night Lights: Restoring Kilkenny City to League of Ireland glory in FM23

Reviving a save I had originally planned for FM19 and began penning for FM21 before the podcast took over, I’m intending on starting the Football Manager 2023 journey with Kilkenny City, restoring a much-loved but very much extinct club to the FM universe.

It requires a little bit of work with the pre-game editor to change the status of Kilkenny City from extinct (more on how that’s done in another post), and some testing to make sure the club holds up in the league but coming from experience this should hold up nicely.

Let me introduce you to Kilkenny City and break down what’s going to be happening for my Football Manager 2023 save.

Kilkenny City: A brief history

Originally founded in 1966 and joining the League of Ireland in 1985, it wouldn’t take long for Kilkenny City to get their first taste of success – this in a hurling-dominated county.

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

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

Flash forward a few years. Having started to go to Buckley Park for games (me, that is), Kilkenny City won the First Division title in 1997 under Waterford legend Alfie Hale. Comfortably too, with Drogheda trailing by 11 points at the end of the season. They were heading to the big league or what is now the SSE Airtricity Premier Division. Brenden Rea was in the squad, Pascal Keane, Paul Cashin, Alfie’s nephew Richie and more.

I could have been 14 or 15 at the time. I’d already been to the Stadio Olimpico to watch Lazio play, Goodison Park to watch Everton and Aston Villa play but it was still hard to beat an atmosphere of your home town winning – and winning big – whether there was just a couple of hundred or a few thousand around the ground.

The good life didn’t last long and after managing just one win in their maiden season in the Premier Division, the Black Cats were relegated back to the First Division. A third-place finish in the league at the end of the 1999-2000 campaign saw Kilkenny beat Waterford in a promotion/relegation play-off to return to the top flight but again their status couldn’t be maintained.

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

22 years of senior soccer saw a league win, two promotions, two relegations and 20 managers. 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. They were Kilkenny’s club.

Extinct? Not any more

I drive by Buckley Park on my way to and from work, every day. Up until 2017 I had lived within spitting distance of the grounds where you could still get in through gaps in the wall before the N76 redevelopment kicked in and the area was cleaned up.

The old Amstel sponsorship is still on the main stand though in recent times, the grounds have fallen into serious disrepair. Some corners will tell you that the pitch is earmarked for a property development, others will tell you that with adequate funding it will at least be returning to a condition befitting the local Kilkenny & District Soccer League or opened up to a potential League of Ireland candidate.

Kilkenny City's Buckley Park, June 2022
Kilkenny City’s Buckley Park, June 2022. Screengrab/Facebook

There were nights the place was packed for games and Kilkenny couldn’t but win at home. So too there were Friday nights where you might have a hundred or two hundred at a fixture when you could get ten or twenty 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.

An aerial view of Buckley Park, courtesy Google Maps.
Buckley Park, approx 3km outside Kilkenny city centre on the main Callan-Clonmel road (N76) with Derdimus Park to the left edge of the photograph. Screenshot/Google Maps

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 underage ranks at Carlow Kilkenny FC develop. That club in particular have been making advances in recent years by working on a solid underage structure for both their mens’ and womens’ sides though they’re a few years away from making an application for a senior league license.

While the club is gone from the League since January 2008, they still exist with a history in the depths of the Football Manager database.

So, a quick dip into the pregame editor, about a few days of tweaks and simulations, and all of a sudden Kilkenny are back in the SSE Airtricity First Division and lining out at Buckley Park.

The League of Ireland: A quick lesson

If you’re unfamiliar with the way the League of Ireland works, let me tell you that the season plays out within a calendar year, much like in China, the MLS etc. That means pre-season begins in January/February time and you’ve got domestic games and cup competitions all the way through to October/November.

Yes, Irish clubs can qualify for and progress in European club competition, something that brings its own struggle for clubs when it comes to completing domestic fixtures, but rarely have we had a club progress past the group stages of European competition meaning they’re usually done and dusted in plenty of time for Christmas.

The 2022 season concluded on Sunday 6 November, two days ahead of the release of Football Manager 2023, clubs in the Premier Division starting a 36-game calendar on 18 February, concluding in November with no games played over the spring and autumn international windows. The league season begins with the Presidents Cup while all league clubs enter the FAI Cup as the main domestic cup competition.

In Ireland, there are two leagues in operation, the SSE Airtricity Premier Division and the SSE Airtricity First Division. In November 2021 it was announced the Bray Wanderers and Cabinteely would be amalgamated, reducing the teams in the First Division to nine with candidate club Kerry FC set to join the league in 2023. This season, in real life, the nine-team First Division played a total of 32 games each.

Games were traditionally played on Friday nights though in recent years and for the benefit of TV and LOI TV online, games are often run Friday through Sunday.

Unfortunately for Kerry, it will be Kilkenny in this instance to take up that tenth position, though the FAI’s five-year plan to roll out a Divison 2 structure would be most welcome. Football Manager, as it happens, with a ten-team league structure for the First Division runs it as a 27-game season as opposed to a possible 36-game season.

Plans for Football Manager 2023

This is where things start to get fun.

Again, in going back to the plans for FM19 and again at FM21 where some of the groundwork was laid, my plan at the time was to do three simple things

  1. Restore Kilkenny City to the SSE Airtricity First Division
  2. Gain promotion to the SSE Airtricity Premier Division
  3. Turn the club professional (they’re sem-pro)
  4. Bring a night of European football to Buckley Park

Of course, that means getting into the Premier Division and finishing inside the top four. In three consecutive ten-year simulations without human input for testing, the most Kilkenny has achieved is a fourth-place finish in the First Division and it took eight years to get there.

Ten years seems like a good window to get all this together. In an interview with last year, former club manager Billy Walsh called for a ten-year plan to see Kilkenny restored to the League of Ireland, at the time saying “we need a 10-year plan to bring Kilkenny back into the League of Ireland. There was never a footballing plan with Kilkenny City and that’s why we disbanded.”

“We need a proper coaching structure to improve the young players who are coming through. Where are the coaching structures that develop top-level players? They’re not there. That comes from the FAI and it has to be a concerted effort.”

It’s not asking for much, and while the dates (in terms of Fridays) won’t work, just the thoughts of having the fanfare of European football in Kilkenny the way Shels, St. Pat’s, Sligo, Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and others have experienced it in recent would send shivers down your spine when it’s in your own back yard.

This, coupled with Sports Interactive getting FM licensed for the big UEFA club competitions means we could very well see – and hear – a Champions League night at Buckley Park. One can dream.

Setting conditions, changes and planning for the long term

The task at hand is as above – re-establish Kilkenny City in the SSE Airtricity First Division, return them to the hallowed ground of the SSE Airtricity Premier Division and go one step beyond, get a taste of European football.

This isn’t a save about taking Kilkenny to a Champions League final (though I may have experienced dragging Kilkenny to a UEFA Cup showdown with Parma back in 2000 in the Championship Manager days), but at the same time, it’s not about going through the motions.

It’s about giving life back to a team whose time in the League of Ireland is the stuff of local legend, and turning them into a proper, professional outfit.

That means survival in a league where you’ve not existed in near on 15 seasons. It means developing youth facilities, coaching staff, and building a team from scratch without any prior relationships in place. Getting things tactically sound, scoring goals in a lower-league environment and building for the future is a big one.

To assist, here are a few things I’ve done for the club via the pre-game editor.

  • Wiped €120,000 of legacy debt that was held on file, flipping that figure to put €250,000 in the bank by way of supporters trust loan payable over a ten-year term. The model is community-based and reflective of figures that have been raised or are being raised by local GAA clubs in recent years. The loan arrangement makes the finances ‘insecure’ but hopefully manageable.
  • Added a €5,000 per year sports grant from Kilkenny County Council, in line with grants to sporting and arts bodies locally
  • Added a further €10,000 per year in team sponsorship, in line with similar commercial sponsorship arrangements locally
  • Up the reputation of the club from 1600-odd to match the lowest value in the League of Ireland First Division, roughly around the 3400 mark.

On starting the game, the option to not add players to sides has been removed, if only to prevent the squad from being filled with 15-year-old regens.

Working in media, I’ve also altered league conditions to

  • add pre-match and post-match press conferences around all league games
  • add in local media outlets and journalists, adding to the sense of realism (and giving those on the office a chance to see their name in lights, even if it looks a bit mad)

There are no parachute payments, no billion Euro transfer budgets, just some good will and a hope that wages, loans and the rest don’t kill things off. They didn’t over the course of two ten-season simulations, but nothing is impossible.

The semi-professional route

Kilkenny City, like Athlone, Cobh and others in the league will return as a semi-professional outfit – they’ve always been one. I can remember playing back in 01/02 and taking Kilkenny on a run from semi-pro to professional in about three seasons. Results, money and effort matter.

If you’ve never tried a semi-professional club in Football Manager, the status also has an impact on contracts in that dealings with players and staff will be part-time and given the short-term deals of 10-12 month, the club runs the risk of a high turnover of playing and non-playing staff.

The kits look right at home in the IKEA-furnished dressing rooms at Buckley Park

Training days too are limited with sessions only available three days a week for two of three sessions on each of those days, assuming, of course, you don’t have a match to be playing either. Given my tendency to pack out training sessions when playing with bigger clubs in bigger leagues, this will require a training effort to get the absolute best out of the small windows in the week that exist if we are to have any hope at success.

We’re predicted to finish bottom of the league from the outset but leading the club to the professional ranks is all part of the master plan.

We’ve been kitted out

Of course, a new start in the league requires new threads. I think the last sponsor to adorn the front of a Kilkenny City jersey was the now-defunct Kilkenny Voice newspaper so I’ve stuck with the media route and brought our own on board for a one-season deal with Umbro as the kit supplier.

The badge has been updated ever so slightly to put a more modern look on the type and introduce the motif of a castle tower, a nod to Kilkenny Castle and its history in the city centre.

I’ve put together three kits, leading with a gold home jersey with black trim on the collar and hips, reversed for the away strip while the third kit combines white, grey and black. The left sleeves of each bear the Tactical Manager badge.

Kilkenny City jerseys for the 2022/2023 League of Ireland season

Great expectations

To wrap things up, the board want the club to avoid finishing at the bottom of the SSE Airtricity First Division. The supporters are the same. Even the five-year plan is straight-forward enough – finish anywhere you want except bottom, work within the wage budget, and only offer one-year deals to players over the age of 32.

They seem reasonable rules to live by.

For me, I’m expecting it to be tough, testing, but above all great craic to bring Kilkenny back to life and finally invest some time in a long-term save.

The only real hurdle seems to be that in all the simulation work done this week to test the running of the league, the longest a manager has lasted averages six to 12 months with 12 managers in one 10-season iteration, Kilkenny playing true to life of the 20 managers they managed over a 22-year stay in senior football.

Let’s roll the dice and see what happens. This is Friday Night Lights. Up The Cats.

Kilkenny CIty hire McGuire

If you like what you read and you’ve managed to soak it all in, let me know what you think. Say hello on Twitter @tacticalmanager or hear me give updates to go along with season blog posts on The Football Manager Football Show with new episodes of the podcast available on Fridays.

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