League Of Ireland Launch this week
The SSE Airtricity League Premier Division returns tomorrow and make no mistake - this is Christmas Eve for thousands around the country. Such is the case every year, uncertainty lingers over almost every club due to the amount of off-season movement and nobody can really know what to expect from the majority.
The bookmakers have a clear picture that the title race is strictly between Cork and Dundalk, while Limerick are favourites to go down automatically. But what does Andrew Cunneen think?
While they’re a Dublin-based club and the budget distribution can never be considered like-for-like because of that, there’s still a lot clubs like Limerick could learn from how Bohemians do business. Beginning with playing staff – nobody’s on big money and that sets a precedent.
Due to previous financial issues, the fan-owned club are extremely conservative with expenditure. However, they counter that by getting business done early and efficiently. A period of stability is what’s required, and along with obliging coaching staff in Keith Long and Trevor Croly, they epitomise that.
It limits what they can achieve, but because of that engrained stability and lack of fear the club may hit the wall, they’ve inadvertently established a platform for themselves and overachievement seems commonplace at this point. Their marketing has been top notch and they’ve sold out their opening fixture.
Key Player: Keith Ward – one of the very players in the league who like to run with the ball. He’s worth the admission fee alone.
One to Watch: Dylan Watts – there’s a reason he got his move to Leicester City. Watts was the most technically superb young player I’d seen in the league since Sean Maguire.
Prediction: 5th. I have a rule with Bohs, and that’s to imagine their highest possible finish based on their squad – then improve it by one.
They’re a bit like an episode of Prison Break. There’s actors good enough to make it work, and the premise is set up for them to escape peril and ultimately prosper. However, those in charge of production seem to attract mediocrity because they’ve become products of that environment now and can’t establish anything else.
Now, take away the experience of Harry Kenny and substitute it with Dave Mackey. There’s little doubt that Mackey’s served his time in the industry and knows it well, but a lack of first-team management experience could bite him – particularly if the turbulence of last year rears its ugly head once more.
It’s a young squad of players, with sprinkles of experience on top. Paul O’Conor will be a key player for them this year, and he may see it as poetic justice if the Seagulls go on to relegate the club that released him last July. Ronan Coughlan also adds in that bit of extra spice, being from Limerick himself.
Key Player: Gary McCabe – he almost guarantees you goals. His early season form lifted them away from any potential trouble last year, and they’ll want the same in 2018.
One to Watch: Ronan Coughlan – living most of his life in Raheen, Coughlan moved to Huddersfield four years ago. He has ample quality and could well bang in more goals than anticipated.
Prediction: 10th – there’s just too many things that can go wrong at this club to be confident about them not finishing bottom.
Sean Maguire this, Sean Maguire that. They’ve lost Stephen Dooley and Ryan Delaney, but added Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, Colm Horgan, Aaron Barry, Graham Cummins, Danny Kane and Barry McNamee. It might be worth relaxing. A full season of Kieran Sadlier, too. They should be everyone’s favourites for the league title.
Much like Bohs, Cork did their business early. Yes, it’s a tad easier when you’re the champions, but everyone wants more money and they’re a fan-run club. The simple fact is that they work harder than most to make things right – and things, uncoincidentally – are right.
Consistency is key and it looks as though John Caulfield doesn’t have to wheel out the right-full merry-go-round this year. They’ll hit the ground running again. Cummins doesn’t have the same upside as Maguire had – even before he scored that many goals - but he does possess the same aerial prowess. With Barry McNamee, Caulfield may actually have found the attacking midfielder that’s long evaded him. If he gels, and he will, they’ll be even more potent in the final third and create more ways than usual to score goals.
Key Player: Aaron Barry – everyone’s taking about attacking players, but it’s unnecessary. There’s enough depth up that end, and you can shake up your forward players without creating massive disruption. Cork are associated with keeping clean sheets, and Barry has to meet those expectations.
One to Watch: Alec Byrne – from the endless conveyor belt of talent that is Cork City’s U19s, Byrne will likely feature in some EA Sports Cup games this year. His first touch and awareness on a football pitch are quite advanced for his age.
Prediction: 1st – they’re just too settled and focused while Dundalk are still signing players. Expect them to set a frenetic pace and have the squad depth to see out the final furlong.
This may be the hardest evaluation of the lot, but one thing certainly remains – Derry City were the best footballing side in the country last year and Kenny Shiels is masterful. You give him a box of crayons and he will produce something that resembles the Mona Lisa.
What a mixed bag of crayons this year’s squad is, though. They’ve actually got thirty players registered, per the league site – but not much is known about most of them. It just sounds like the beginning of another story that Kenny Shiels overachieves in. Despite the off-season turbulence this year, the Candystripes are returning to the Brandywell this year and that’s enough of a boost to steer them well clear of danger.
They did well to hold onto Aaron McEneff and the Hale brothers will be superb in the final third. I’ve seen enough of Ronan in Birmingham City’s underage games to know how much quality he has. They’ll be fine, if unspectacular.
Key Player: Rory Patterson – the onus can’t be on Ronan Hale to score goals – he leaves midway through the year anyway - and with the loss of Barry McNamee, Patterson must bounce back from a disappointing 2017 to net double figures.
One to Watch: Darren Cole – I’m not the only one saying this. It’s a league-wide-held opinion for a reason.
Prediction: 6th – there’s a real emphasis on youth in this squad, and while question marks hang over their goal threat, it’s hard to justify giving them a top-half finish.
This might be the most exciting Dundalk squad I’ve seen in some time, but they lack the sure-fire home run hitters that they’ve had in recent years. They’ve also had quite a disjointed off-season with the takeover being a real distraction, as well as the fact they’re still adding to their squad the day before the season kicks off.
The addition of Ronan Murray is the best signing anyone made in the League of Ireland and he’ll be my selection for top scorer. Behind him is a wealth of depth, and should everyone live up to their billing, they may even have a stronger squad than Cork City do. It’s just that they’re not settled, and it looks a group that’ll still be figuring out its best XI come April.
Stephen Folan has massive boots to fill, but the arrival of Dan Cleary this morning provides competition at centre half spots alongside Brian Gartland and Sean Hoare. Dean Jarvis may also jump ahead of Dane Massey in the pecking order. Competition is good, but balance is better. This may just be where they fall short but expect them to be as good a footballing side, if not better than ever.
Key Player: Dylan Connolly – he’s the selection because he may be the weak link. Teams will attack his lack of defensive commitment and get at full backs one-on-one. He needs to really step up on what he’s shown since joining the Lilywhites. If he does, they’re solid all over.
One to Watch: Jamie McGrath – the former St. Pat’s youngster has talent in abundance, and he’ll learn from a midfield positional group that is stacked. His development is interesting as he’s already a comfortable Premier Division starter, but there’s even more potential to unlock with him.
Prediction: 2nd – by the time they’ll have figured out their strongest XI and gotten their squad settled, Cork will be seven or eight points clear. It’ll be closer than last year, but ultimately – it’ll have the same result.
If you reckon this off-season has been turbulent, just think of 2015 and be grateful. Neil McDonald leaving the club to be an assistant at Scunthorpe said a lot – despite many not wanting to read between the lines.
However, this year’s squad contains one thing that 2015’s did not – and that’s a lot of experience. Tommy Barrett may well struggle in his opening games, but he probably wouldn’t have refused to play Vinny Faherty as a striker or persist with Conor O’Donnell in nets.
Cian Coleman will inject the energy you lose with Lee-J Lynch, while Wearen’s arrival means that Shane Duggan can try and regain some of the lost years of his career by playing in the hole. Whatever the end result of this season, Barrett should be applauded for making the switch that Stuart Taylor, Martin Russell and even Neil McDonald failed to pull the trigger on.
Barrett may need to lean on some of his seasoned pros in times of trouble for their words of wisdom. With the help of injury prevention exercises in pre-season, the first-year Premier Division manager will avoid the drop if he can let it be.
Key Player: Shane Duggan – remember when Shane Duggan was considered one of the best players in the league? He played as a box-to-box midfielder, with a particular emphasis on scoring goals from late runs into the box. If he scores ten goals, Limerick won’t go down.
One to Watch: William Fitzgerald – he may be the most talented youngster to ever come through Limerick’s underage setup. I’m including Paudie O’Connor in that.
Prediction: 9th – beating Finn Harps in a playoff. Some things just write themselves.
Another large budget, but the same culture and atmosphere that’s led them to underachieve for the last few years. Rovers can bring in Joey O’Brien if they like – they could probably bring in Kevin De Bruyne, but he’d have some fella from the East Stand lecturing him about how he has to do more to represent the big club that they once were.
They’re now caught in that odd place. The chasm between competing and the benefit of European cash. It’s worth remembering that their manager is thirty-three and cannot be expected to produce a season capable of matching the two sides ahead of them. He will, however, have a good squad because they benefit from UEFA money. It’s a really tough situation, but that Rovers squad should have enough about them to match Cork and Dundalk.
The simple fact is that they won’t, and nobody expects them to. It’s because of ill-discipline, a lack of a winning mentality (it’s understandably difficult when two teams are so much better than you) and struggling to find a goalscorer. Have they addressed any of those issues? Pre-season card count and a quick glance at the squad suggests not.
Key Player: Ronan Finn – it says a lot that Dundalk still miss him, with all their riches. This Rovers team should be built around him if they’re to move forward.
One to Watch: Lee Grace – it’s not so much an insight as it is a recognition – Lee Grace has the tools to be the best centre half in the country.
Prediction: 3rd – yawn.
What I think Sligo have in hand is a manager who’s talented enough to achieve success, with a board who believe that and won’t jump the gun on getting rid of him if a few bad results tar the opening stages of the season.
The problem with this Sligo squad is that it looks flashier than it is because of notable flair from former Liverpool striker Adam Morgan and Brazilian Eduardo Pincelli. Limerick had the opportunity to sign the latter and didn’t act on it.
Seamus Sharkey and Kyle Callan-McFadden could well be a solid centre half partnership, but the former’s form is shaky, and the latter has had a career plagued by head injuries. If they can both stay in rhythm, that’ll go a long way.
Key Player: Craig Roddan – while he took a lot of stick for some performances last season, he grew into his role when Rovers needed him most. It’s an area where Sligo aren’t blessed with leaders and he may have to be the communicator.
One to Watch: Caolan McAleer – honestly, one of the best young players in the league. The only problem is – you can only watch him if he’s playing. He picked up twelve bookings by mid-August in 2017.
Prediction: 7th – they’ll struggle for long spells, but there’s just enough stability at the Showgrounds to see them steer clear of the bottom two. Ger Lyttle knows the time of day.
St. Patrick’s Athletic:
What a difference a new season makes. After what can only be described as an abysmal 2017 season, the Saints are entering the new year with optimism because of some quality business in the off-season.
Before we even get going on their attacking threat, Pat’s have Simon Madden and Ian Bermingham as their full backs. That’s a better combination than any other club in the country. Kevin Toner will shore up their backline with his quality and that will, in turn, take pressure off Lee Desmond or Mick Leahy who will, presumably, line out beside him.
Killian Brennan, Owen Garvan, Ryan Brennan, Graham Kelly, James Doona and Darragh Markey. That’s quite the midfield six and it’s a combination of technical young players and experienced heads.
Insurance for Christy Fagan has always been important for Pat’s and when Fagan’s played poorly in the past, they’re largely struggled to find the net. The acquisition of Jake Keegan is one of my favourite moves in the off-season and his form at Galway United was excellent.
Add in Dean Clarke and Ian Turner for depth as well as the perennial brilliance of Conan Byrne and there’s no reason the Saints won’t be off to Europe again.
Key Player: Kevin Toner – again, it’s the only area on the pitch where they might be found out. Toner’s only twenty-one, but he’s played in the Premier League for Aston Villa. There’s enough pedigree there to suggest he can handle it.
One to Watch: Jamie Lennon – if you haven’t seen his goal against Firhouse Clover in last year’s Leinster Senior Cup, look it up. That technique is outrageous.
Prediction: 4th – a trip to Kazakhstan beckons as the FAI Cup will undoubtedly be won by Cork or Dundalk.
Everyone’s keen to pick them out as dark horses. Hold onto your horses for now – they’ve a lot to prove yet. The transition from First Division to Premier Division is overstated, particularly as Waterford have gone on to sign so many players with experience in the top tier.
What isn’t overstated though, is getting used to the league in general. Faysel Kasmi and Stanley Aborah are two of the players that fans seem most excited about, but they’ll take time to get used to the standard which they’ll almost definitely underestimate.
Waterford were a possession-based side that everyone sat in against last year. The transition to playing the counter-attacking style that best suits their squad could be tricky to come to terms with. The use of Ismahil Akinade is also a conundrum in itself as he’s best in a front two. If they opt for that, Premier Division sides will have an extra man in midfield. Bastien Hery is one of the best midfielders in the league on his day, but mobility isn’t a strong point.
They could well struggle early on and if morale is low, it’s a very tricky uphill task to regroup when attendances drop considerably at the same time.
Key Player: Ismahil Akinade – he’s key because they’ll likely set up to suit him, and that could take away from other areas that need stability. If they figure it out, he’s lethal.
One to Watch: Rory Feely – not only is ‘Touchy’ the best nickname of all time, Feely’s got a lot going for him on the pitch as well. Stepping away from the safety net of Inchicore will either make of break him.
Prediction – 8th – they’re better than Limerick, but not by a whole lot.