It’s still early days in this seasons SSE Airtricity League of Ireland and here’s my predictions of what the league will look come the end of October.
1st – Dundalk
It’s hard to settle on a winner between the expected top 3 or 4 teams, but the defending champions to retain their title is the safest bet. Manager Stephen Kenny has done well to hang onto most of his key personnel, sans last season’s top scorer Pat Hoban, as well as adding the likes of Gary Rogers, Jake Kelly, and Ronan Finn (who will alleviate the burden of creativity on key man Richie Towell). The loss of Hoban to Oxford is a worry as he hasn’t as of yet been replaced by anyone of similar pedigree, thus The Lilywhites will be relying on David McMillan to make the leap from super sub to main goalscorer this time around. Despite this they still look to be the strongest side overall, and having the only all-weather pitch in the league will as usual be a big advantage to them at home.
2nd – Cork City
Cork were the surprise package of last season, expected to battle it out with Derry for a 5th place finish only to maintain a challenge for the league that they were expected to fall away from until the final day of the season where they were only narrowly edged out by Dundalk. A team that was prided on youth and fitness has been given an added boost of experience with the arrivals of former Ireland internationals Liam Miller and Alan Bennett, along with the encouraging duo of Gavin Holohan and Kieran Djilali from Drogheda and Limerick respectively. The Leesiders have arguably done the best business in pre-season and will likely push Dundalk all the way once again.
3rd – Shamrock Rovers
As with every coming season, Rovers come into this one having made considerable changes in the off-season. A more balanced influx this time around however means this one promises more (as is also the case every new season…). Rovers have struggled to establish a settled target man since the departure of Gary Twigg in 2012, but in signing Danny North they’ve gotten themselves a striker proven at this level, as well as 21-year-old Michael Drennan from Aston Villa and a potential return for Twigg in July, the Hoops have done what appears to be a adequate job in addressing their main weak spot. On top of this is their marquee signing of Keith Fahey from St. Pat’s, who will join a formidable central midfield already boasting a fellow ex-Irish international in Stephan McPhail.
4th – St. Pat’s
The Saints have already endured a shaky start to the season, being defeated 1-0 away from home against Rovers in a windy affair and far more comfortably last Friday against Dundalk, who knocked three past a nine-man Pat’s. A straightforward 3-0 win in between against Bray probably speaks more for how poor Wanderers appear to be than how Liam Buckley’s men will get on this season. The aforementioned loss of Fahey is a big one, an exit that has been remedied with the signings of two completely unknown quantities in American Morgan Langley and Togo international Cyril Kossi Guedjé. Pat’s will need both to add life to a team that – despite laden with quality – has been quite samey in terms of integral players in recent seasons, with the likes of Killian Brennan and captain Ger O’Brien moving further into their 30’s. It could be a difficult campaign for the FAI Cup holders, who will probably require another 20+ goal season from last year’s PFAI Player of the Year Christy Fagan if they are to have any realistic chance of regaining the title they won in 2013.
5th – Sligo Rovers
Despite encouraging beginnings, Ian Baraclough’s reign at Sligo fell to astonishingly low heights last year, a constant search for form resulting in him losing his job, as well as his replacement John Coleman soon after, culminating in a 5th place finish that saw them closer to 6th placed Limerick points-wise than the European places of the top 4. However it is this staggering underachievement that could lead to them becoming surprise underdogs in a similar vein as Cork before them. Most notably new manager Owen Heary has brought striker Dinny Corcoran with him from Bohemians, whose 9 goals in pre-season is cause for optimism. There’s as much hit as miss potential for the Bit o’ Red this year, but if everything is to click they may mount an unanticipated title challenge, if not a European spot should be the minimum expectation.
6th – Bohemians
7th – Derry City
8th – Drogheda United
9th – Longford Town
10th – Limerick
11th – Galway United
12th – Bray Wanderers