SSE Airtricity First Division play-off semi-finals

1st legs - Wednesday 3 November
Bray Wanders v Galway United, Carlisle Grounds, 7.45pm
Treaty United v UCD AFC, Markets Field, 7.45pm

2nd leg - Sunday 7 November
Galway United v Bray Wanderers, Eamonn Deacy Park, 7.45pm
UCD AFC v Treaty United, UCD Bowl, 5pm

Familiar foes

There are pluses and minuses to the way the First Division is organised.

In the 2017 season, just the champions were promoted and there were no play-offs. This was the allow for the restructuring of the two League of Ireland divisions, to leave 10 clubs in each tier.

It meant that in that year one club - Waterford - went up and that for at least five clubs there was little to play for for a large chunk of the campaign.

Shelbourne led for a large part of the season in their way to the title - and promotion

In 2018 the play-offs returned to see the clubs in second to fourth place involved, while the last two seasons have seen a second semi-final introduced to allow the club finishing fifth to have something to aim for.

It keeps the competition alive for more clubs for a longer period, and in that sense it's certainly better to be with the play-offs than to be without them. The one obvious down side is the repetition. The clubs involved in the semi-finals this week will be meeting for a fourth and then fifth time - hardly ideal.

Granted, there is no perfect system, and what is very clear from looking at the earlier meetings this season is that there's very little between Bray and Galway, or UCD and Treaty.

Caulfield looking to return to the Premier

This is the end of Galway's fourth season in the First Division since their relegation at the end of the 2017 top flight campaign. They had spend three years in the Premier Division at that stage.

In John Caulfield they have one of the most successful managers in the League of Ireland in the last decade. The Bronx-born 57-year-old brought a Premier Division, title as well as two FAI Cups, to Leeside during his stint there.

Throughout this season Shelbourne's run to the title has regularly been described as a 'runway' or 'inevitable', and yet after 27 rounds of fixtures The Tribesmen were just six points off the Tolka Park side. Not exactly a hair's breadth, but not far off all the same.

Indeed Galway inflicted the only defeat Shels suffered before they had the title wrapped up.

John Caulfield

And they were on their own in second, five points clear of UCD in third.

They have a spread of scorers throughout the team with forward Ruairí Keating having hit 10 goals, alongside Wilson Waweru who notched eight. Indeed Waweru scored at Terryland when the sides met a couple of weeks ago, as well as in the one-legged play-off semi-final last season at the Carlisle Grounds.

Having reached the play-off final last year, only to lose out to Longford, Galway will be determined to go a couple of steps further this time around. They head east with four wins in their last five games.

Bray's last stint in the top flight came in 2018 when they were distantly relegated.

It ended a 14-year stint among the country's elite clubs, and came after a tumultuous period where rumours of Wanderers leaving the Carlisle Grounds were rife. The club were also sanctioned for failure to play players on time and the future of their participation in the League of Ireland was even in question in some quarters.

Bray chairperson Niall O'Driscoll

The arrival of Niall O'Driscoll mid-way through that campaign seems to have led the club back onto the straight and narrow once more and the time might well be rife for them to return to the Premier Division.

They won six fewer games this season than this evening's visitors to the seaside, and yet contests between the two clubs have been evenly matched this season. Three games, a win each, two goals scored and two goals conceded.

While Galway finished a full 14 points clear of the Seagulls, this tie carries much promise with it.

The concern for followers of the Seagulls might be their recent form, which has seen them lose five of their last seven games.

Meetings this season:

7 May: Galway 1-2 Bray
16 July: Bray 0-0 Galway
22 October: Galway 1-0 Bray

UCD's last stint in the top flight was the stuff of nightmares.

While other clubs around the league often take the best of what the university side can nurture either before the new season has started or after the previous one has ended, 2019 saw the Students lose high profile players in mid-season as the wheels came off.

Gary O'Neill, Neil Farrugia and Conor Davis - who had all been important players in the squad - all departed as then manager Collie O'Neill did his best to keep the show on the road.

And yet the nature of the set up at Belfield means that there's a constant turnover of quality young players to come in and make the side competitive.

Last season they reached the play-offs semi-finals and lost out after extra-time time to a Longford side who would go on to gain promotion. This season they threatened to mount a title campaign early on but like the other clubs in the division, they simply couldn't keep up with Ian Morris's Reds.

Watching games at the UCD Bowl is about more than just being able to impress your mates down in the pub years later.

"Pffft, I saw Conor Sammon/Robbie Benson/Liam Scales when he was still at Belfield"

The club in the last decade has prided itself on trying to play soccer the "right way" and you're sure to see attractive fare on offer at the Bowl.

Does it translate into much? Well UCD were the top scorers in the First Division this year, as they were last season. Republic of Ireland under-21 international Colm Whelan has contributed 18 of those 44 goals this campaign as he set a new goals in a season record for College.

Former Sligo man Liam Kerrigan also earned an under-21 international call up and he acts as the College's play-maker in chief from midfield. He's also good for a goal, having found the back of the net 13 times in this campaign.

So what's the issue then? Well, manager Andy Myler would be the first person to tell you that they could tighten up at the back. They've conceded 38 goals in the regular season, higher than any of the other play-off sides, and it could well be the thing that prevents them going back to the Premier Division later this month.

They had a wobble after being knocked out of the FAI Cup at the quarter-final stage by Waterford, but those three defeats aside, UCD have been in good form since early August.

Jack Lynch(Treaty) battles for possession with Mark Dignam and Paul Doyle earlier in the season

Having a soccer club in Limerick is clearly a good thing, but it's probably fair to say that Treaty have over achieved this campaign. Manager Tommy Barrett predicted on the RTÉ Soccer Podcast before the season started that it would be a "slow burner and a slow build" for the club.

In their first season since joining the league they finished in fourth place. Granted Barrett was able to bring in players with experience in the League of Ireland, with the likes of Marc Ludden, Anthony O'Donnell, Joel Coustrain, Conor Melody, Stephen Christopher, Joe Collins, Dean George and Kieran Hanlon, amongst others, arriving having played with other senior clubs previously.

The worry for Barrett might be their form in the final third of the season as the managed just two wins in their last 10 games. In that time, they lost four matches, including defeat to UCD a couple of weeks ago at Belfield.

Much like the other semi-final though, these two clubs have been fairly evenly matched in head-to-head contests, with the Students winning the meetings at Belfield, while Treaty took three points from the game at Markets Field.

Meetings this season:

7 May: UCD 3-2 Treaty United
16 July: Treaty United 2-1 UCD
22 October: UCD 2-1 Treaty United

The East Coast Premier Division

A discussion that regularly comes up around this time of the season is the distribution of clubs in the top flight. With four Dublin clubs set to be playing there, and two more from Louth, in 2022, might it be better for the game here for one of Bray or UCD not to go up?

Does the League of Ireland need a representative from the south-east, or one of the western seaboard's cities, or another from the north-west to make it a more truly 'national' league? It's a debate that's sure to rumble on.

For now, we can look forward to two intriguing two-legged ties between this evening and Sunday. The clubs who emerge here will meet in the final, to be played at a neutral venue on 19 November.

The winner there will then go into the promotion/relegation play-off against the club which finishes ninth in the top flight.

That battle between Drogheda, Dundalk, Waterford and Finn Harps looks set to go down to the wire.

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