Ronán Daly takes a light-hearted look at the upcoming season for the Premier Division, looking at the off-season developments and future perspectives of each club
Domestic football returned with the presidents cup on the 12th of March between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk with the Louth club winning the annual curtain raiser for the 3rd time in the last 6 years on penalties. A hotly contested 1-1 draw saw rovers defender Liam scales score a Bergkampesque goal and Dundalk new boy Sonni Nattestad score and receive a red card. On top on the Faroe Islands international’s red card there were also 6 yellow cards in a game that was supposed to be a friendly, showing early on that these two are ready to the continue the rivalry which has gripped Irish football fans for the last two seasons. With the league season commencing on the 19th of March let’s take a look at the 10 teams competing in this year’s LOI.
Whether Dundalk fans like to admit it or not, Shamrock Rovers are the Champions of Ireland (even if it was a shortened season). When Rovers weren’t busy losing what many would Hoops faithful saw as God’s gift to the world, Jack Byrne, they were raiding both local and title rivals for their best players. 2019 PFAI young player of the year Danny Mandriou switched north for south Dublin joining from Bohs and Dundalk duo Sean Hoare and Sean Gannon also make the switch to Tallaght stadium. Rovers may have lost their firepower in midfield by losing both Byrne and Aaron McEneff, but Stephen Bradley’s men are still the side to beat this season.
“The hipsters” of domestic football have had quite the resurgence under Keith Long and their 2nd place finish last season was their highest in a decade. While their fans like to think of themselves as “the big club’ they lost the highly rated Mandriou to Rovers, following Dylan Watts and Roberto Lopes who have made the same switch from to north to south in previous years. They also have to contend without 2020 PFAI young player of the year, Danny Grant, who made the switch to Huddersfield. Keith Long has more than proven his ability to cope with big loses. Despite some these difficult results Bohs are still one of the most exciting teams in the league who will no doubt be a joy to watch again this season.
The lilywhites have dominated Irish football for 7 years now, winning 5 titles in the last 7 seasons. Chairman Bill Hulsizer seems to have had the strange revelation that the best way to win the title back off Rovers is to let two of your best players join them. However, the appointment of footballing director Jim Magilton seems to have steadied some of the off-field turmoil at Oriel Park. The FAI cup winners have looked outside of Ireland in the off season, bringing in 8 new players, from 7 different counties and 6 of which have never played in the league before. Promising signs from their presidents cup win show the Louth side aren’t quite ready to relinquish control on Irish football just yet.
The surprise package of last year’s LOI campaign Liam Buckley’s men manage to secure a 4th place finish and European football while playing some attractive football along the way. They seem to have this weird complex where they think that anyone else in the league knows that their full name is Sligo Rovers and not just Sligo, even trying to convince Shamrock Rovers fans that they are the “real rovers”. Sligo have some of the most promising young players in the league in Ed McGinty and John Mahon and their star striker Romeo Parkes has returned after a year absence from the Showgrounds and they’ll be looking to build on a successful 2020 campaign.
A team that looked full of promise after they finished 4th in 2018 having been promoted the previous season. Losing out on European spot on the final day last season and having their 2019 European adventures cancelled because they seemingly forgot they were actually a new club formed in 2017 and therefore could not get a European license yet have hurt the club. What was previously a well-funded squad with a lot of promise now looks like one of the most mediocre squads in the league. Veterans Daryl and Brian Murphy should add some experience to the team, but it could be a tricky campaign for the only club left representing Munster in the premier division.
Prediction: 9th (stay up via play-off)
St Patricks Athletic
Stephen O’Donnell’s first full season in management can best be described as mediocre after a 6th place finish last season. The former Dundalk captain has adopted a transfer policy of signing all his old mates that he used to play with in Oriel park with John Mountney and Paddy Barrett joining Pats after Robbie Benson had linked up with his old midfield partner the year before. On paper O’Donnell has put together a really solid group of players with the likes of Chris Forrester and Lee Desmond also in the squad. If he can get them to be as good on grass it could be an enjoyable season for Pats fans.
After a brilliant campaign in 2019 that saw Derry finish 4th and qualify for Europe, 2020’s 7th place finish brought the Candystripes back down to earth. Usually even when things are bad on Bogside they can rely on the league cup, which they have won a record number of times, to lift sprits. However, the FAI felt it was best to try make lockdown as miserable as possible for Derry fans by cancelling last year’s competition. Fan favourite David Parkhouse has returned after a successful loan spell in 2019 and they’ve also added Daniel Lafferty from Rovers and Will Patching from Dundalk to the ranks. If Declan Devine get them playing the energetic football they played in 2019 Derry could easily go for a top 4 spot once again.
While those of us who are fans of Ireland’s domestic league miss the matchday experience you would be hard pressed to find many of us who miss a 3-hour minimum bus journey to Ballybofey for an 8pm kick off in early March or October. Ollie Horgan is usually the first person to downplay Harps chances of survival every season but when it comes to relegation dogfights there’s very few managers in the country who are as experienced. Harps stayed up via the play-offs in 2019 and overtook Shelbourne on the final day of last to finish 8th, keeping Harps up without needing a play-off. They’ve kept hold of a majority of the players who kept them up last year and you’d fancy them to be a stubborn outfit once again this season.
Newly promoted Drogheda have had to contend with their noisy neighbours dominating Irish football for the last 7 years. A 3-year absence from the league, suffering play-off heartbreak twice in the process, has seen manager Tim Clancy build a solid squad of both young and experienced players. They still use the Lourdes hospital’s wi-fi and much like Oriel park their ground is stuck in the 80’s but they’ll be looking to avoid relegation for the first time in 3 premier division campaigns. Tim Clancy has developed a squad more than capable of doing so with exciting young players such as Conor Kane and David Odumosu as well as adding experienced players like Dane Massey, Gary Deegan and Dinny Corcoran.
Longford only managed a 4th place finish in last year’s first division but that didn’t stop Daire Doyle’s team from winning promotion via the play-offs. Incredibly Longford have got 5 Aaron’s in their squad for the upcoming season, despite there being no evidence to prove having so many Aarons will help their survival chances. Predicting Longford to head straight back to the first division isn’t a comment on the quality of their squad, they have a number of high-calibre players like Aodh Dervin, Robert Manley and Lee Steacy, whom a number of premier division clubs have tried to sign in recent seasons. One of the Aarons is highly rated youngster Aaron Bolger who is on loan from Cardiff City. Inexperience may cost Longford in the end but there is still quality in this squad.