Second season syndrome?

With the Airtricity league kicking off this week, Sam Geoghegan and Daniel Keegan preview the Students’ prospects this season and assess their opposition

UCD have a mammoth task ahead of them this forthcoming season. Their one and only goal will be to stay in the top tier of Irish football. UCD exceeded all expectations last season by consolidating their position in the Airtricity Premier Division one year after being promoted. However, the question is can they avoid dropping down a division this season?

At the beginning of last season, UCD were hopeful, excited and eager for the new season to commence. The Students bounced straight back to the Premier Division as First Division Champions, overcoming a late surge by former giants Shelbourne. Buoyed by their first silverware in a generation, they started last season brightly and surprisingly well, with the 3-0 demolition of former champions Drogheda United being an obvious example.

However, it was impossible to maintain their overachieving form and predictably they began to fall down the table. If it wasn’t for the brilliant results at the start of the season, the Students could have be preparing for life in the First Division this term.

Credit where credit is due, Martin Russell and his staff did a fantastic job last season but the task ahead is arguably harder. Will the Students suffer from the dreaded “sophomore slump?” It will be difficult to stay up to say the least; their squad has been completely decimated by player departures and one can only wonder if they have the talent and experience to avoid relegation.

Russell’s job is therefore the most important element of the upcoming season. How can they cope with the core of the team departing? The McMillan brothers have gone onto pastures new with St Patrick’s Athletic, while top goalscorer Ciaran Kilduff has joined league champions Shamrock Rovers. Other notable departures include Keith Ward, Greg Bolger and Chris Mulhall. With a team so inexperienced and youthful, Russell has a tough job ahead.

It hasn’t been all one-way traffic on the transfer front, however, as James Kavanagh, Deen Marshall and Darren Meenan have signed for the Students in recent weeks. One has to ask the question where the goals will come from in the wake of Kilduff’s absence. His presence will be sorely missed and his goals provided the Students with a prolific striker who always seemed to come up with the goods just when UCD needed him to.

If a goal drought ensues in Belfield over the course of the season, it’ll be up to the defence to ensure it won’t be leaking too many goals. Former captain, Evan McMillan, will be sorely replaced missed and finding an adequate replacement is paramount.

This is a completely new UCD team that, come opening day against Drogheda United, will be almost unrecognisable from the team that finished last year. It is a vastly inexperienced squad. Russell will have to prove why such faith was put in him following UCD’s relegation in 2008. This is his toughest task. He will have to convince his fledgling stars that they have nothing to fear.

The Students must play with a certain fearless naivety to overcome their lack of talent, just as Blackpool are doing in the Premiership. But like the Seasiders, a fast start is crucial before the inevitable mid-season slump develops and threatens to derail the season.

Pre-season form has been encouraging with the goals flowing, notwithstanding the goalless bore draw against Lisburn Distillery in the Setanta Sports Cup. Superior fitness due to a younger squad might be the explanation, although this superiority must be utilised during the early stages of the season.

Meanwhile Derry City fans can look forward to a return to the top flight after a season in the second tier. Despite how impressive they were last year, the northern club will know the difficulties of the step up and will hope not to get bogged down in a relegation battle with the likes of Galway City and Bray Wanderers.

Bray have been camped at the bottom end of the table for several seasons and were saved from relegation in 2009 only because of financial problems in Derry and Cork City. They have opted for youth by signing three players under the age of 20, including Ireland U-19 International Conor Murphy, as well as retaining their entire squad from last season.

If Bray hope to stay up, they will need a much better start to the season than last year, which saw them pick up just one win from their first 20 games. They kick off their season away to last year’s runners-up Bohemians, in what will be a very intriguing encounter, after Bohs’ off-season from hell.

After suffering financial turmoil over the past few months, almost resulting in the club being liquidated, it is difficult to see Bohemians challenging for the league title, as they have done over the past three seasons. A winding-up order was placed in the High Court against Bohs in January, in a dispute over unpaid wages and a debt that they have since cleared.

Brian Shelley and Steven Gray were the two players to take legal action against the Dalymount club, after neither had been paid since November. Gray has been released, while Shelley, Bohemian’s sole representative in the PFAI Team of the Year last season, has left for Australian club Ballarat Red Devils.

Shelley is just one of a number of high-profile Bohemians players to leave, along with the likes of Paddy Madden, Paul Keegan and Jason Byrne. Despite their financial difficulties, they have managed to recruit seven new faces to amend for the nine who have left, but still don’t look to have the squad capable of mounting a serious challenge for a league title.

Shamrock Rovers rightfully start off as favourites for the league, having retained the services of 2009 and 2010 top goalscorer Gary Twigg. Defenders have struggled to deal with the ex-Derby County man’s aerial ability since his arrival to the league two seasons ago, and he has consequently bagged 44 goals in 63 appearances.

The signing of six players during the off-season, including Kilduff, has also bolstered their ranks. Rovers only won the league title on goal difference last season and with Kilduff and Twigg up front, you can be guaranteed that they will have quite a sizeable goal difference at the end of this season.

Looking at the squads, Sligo seem the only club capable of challenging Shamrock Rovers for first place. They have steadily improved over the past four seasons, culminating in an FAI and League Cup double last season, and a third place finish, just four points off the leaders.

PFAI player of the year Richie Ryan will be central to Sligo’s success. The ex-Sunderland man was outstanding last season, and was unable to play in the FAI Cup final, which he missed through suspension.

Overall, the Airtricity Premier League has never been anything short of dramatic, whether it’s action on the field or off-field turmoil. Fans can look forward to a very open season at both ends of the table and they are in for a treat if the last day of action is anything like last season’s climax, which was arguably the most exciting finale of any league in Europe.

And as for UCD football fans specifically, intriguing times are ahead of them. Will this be the last year of Premier Division at the Belfield Bowl or will Martin Russell direct another masterclass and conjure up the great escape? Only time will tell.