While most national football leagues are progressing toward their halfway point, the League of Ireland is currently in close season. This is because the league is structured around a February to October schedule, more commonly referred to as 'summer soccer. Yesterday the 2018 SSE Airtricity League format was confirmed.
As is often the case, rule changes have been implemented. Much of the changes have taken placed in the 2nd tier of Irish football (First Division). This league will consist of 10 teams in 2018 (there had been between 8 and 10 for the past number of years) and involves an extended playoff scenario at the end of the season.
To quote the source above directly it says:
"The champions of the First Division will be guaranteed automatic promotion to the Premier Division where they will replace the team which finishes 10th in the top tier". This is standard practice.
The big change revolves around the 4th placed team where: "the 2nd/3rd/4th placed clubs will go into the promotion/relegation play-offs at the end of the season. The team which finishes fourth will play the team which finishes third and the winner of that tie will face the team which finishes second. The winner of that tie will then play the team which finishes ninth in the Premier Division in the final promotion/relegation play-off, with all play-offs played over two legs".
The reason the 4th place team is now 'lucky' is because 2nd and 3rd placed teams in seasons past (not the 2017 season) had entered a similar playoff.
Why might this have happened? Economic theory can help.
The First Division is effectively a closed system at one end (the bottom). In recent years, clubs have not been relegated to regional leagues (some have left voluntarily). This brings with it a certain set of incentives.
With 10 teams in a league it is important to keep all interested as long as possible. Relegation does this for teams fighting at the bottom. Remove the threat of relegation and teams could simply lose interest mid-season if only the top two teams were promoted. Offering the 4th placed team a shot at promotion should keep lots of clubs interested throughout the season. For example, a club in 6th, 7th or even 8th with five games to go might still be only a handful of points off 4th spot and a possible play-off.
Hopefully, this move will increase interest and activity in the all too often forgotten league in this country.