As the League of Ireland season kicks off tonight, all eyes will be on Dundalk’s four-in-a-row title quest even if the manager with history in his grasp won’t countenance personal accolades.
Stephen Kenny isn’t interested in the fact he would become the first manager to achieve the feat, as the Shamrock Rovers conquerors of the 1980s were managed by Jim McLaughlin and then Dermot Keely, but the Lilywhites boss is probably more concerned this will be his toughest assignment.
Dundalk, like all the Premier Division teams bar Cork City and Bray, commence the campaign with a weaker squad.
The riches amassed from their European adventure are being funnelled into infrastructure rather than wages.
At the opposite end of the division, the last-minute decision of the FAI to relegate one-quarter of the 12 teams puts at least six clubs in real threat of drifting into the First Division.
Manager: Keith Long
Fake news that sounds true: So concerned are Bohs at the barrage of attacks they’ll face this season goalkeeper Shane Supple’s contract contains a clean-sheet bonus incentive.
True news that sounds false: This is due to be the last season Bohs play at Dalymount before they relocate to Tolka Park for two years while their ground is being redeveloped.
Key addition: Georgie Poynton – Dundalk loanee has long been tipped to make an impact, so a run in the Bohs side should provide the platform to shine.
Last season: 8th.
Prediction: 9th. A tough season beckons for a club limited by budgetary constraints. Relegation has to be avoided.
Manager: Harry Kenny
Fake news that sounds true: Bray’s reputation as a yo-yo club has been boosted by the enlarged relegation trapdoor.
True news that sounds false: An expanded budget has enabled the club implement a full-time set-up to challenge for a European spot.
Last season: 6th.
Key addition: Keith Buckley – had gone stale at Bohs and should relish the new challenge.
Prediction: 7th. Expectation follows the Seagulls now but it remains to be seen if they can deliver.
Manager: John Caulfield
Fake news that sounds true: Cork have brokered a deal for Sligo Rovers to become a feeder club, building on the consistent flow of personnel in recent years from the Bit O’Red to Turner’s Cross.
True news that sounds false: Mainstay centre-back Kenny Browne walked out last week to join First Division outfit Waterford.
Key addition: Jimmy Keohane – a stylish midfielder capable of complementing the combative Greg Bolger.
Last season: 2nd.
Prediction: Champions. The bridesmaids won’t get a better chance of gracing the altar. No excuses acceptable this time.
Manager: Kenny Shiels.
Fake news that sounds true: Kenny Shiels will have a weekly slot on Monday Night Soccer broadcasting his gripes about league facilities.
True news that sounds false: Demand may outstrip supply for tickets at home games as Derry have set up temporary base at the 2,000-capacity Maginn Park in Buncrana to facilitate the Brandywell renovation project.
Key addition: Mikhail Kennedy – on loan from Charlton Athletic, the 20-year-old local promises to be a major asset.
Last season: 3rd.
Prediction: 4th. The surprise packets of last season should improve but will be easier to read during the second season in charge under Shiels.
Manager: Pete Mahon
Fake news that sounds true: Drogs are on a crusade to sign Ryan Brennan from Bray in an attempt to make it a clean sweep of four brothers on their books from the locality.
True news that sounds false: Mahon has gone shopping overseas to sign Joe Efford and Ryan Masch, though obtaining work permits has delayed deals.
Key addition: Killian Brennan – his old head will be required for stability during a season that will test a relatively young squad.
Last season: Promoted through the First Division play-offs.
Prediction: 11th. Their manager is around long enough to appreciate the task ahead but he’ll have his troops readied for battle.
Manager: Stephen Kenny
Fake news that sounds true: Lilywhites chiefs have armed Kenny with the funds to replace Andy Boyle, Daryl Horgan and Ronan Finn.
True news that sounds false: The club have yet to ditch their artificial surface, replacing last year’s pitch but not with a full-grass version.
Key addition: Conor Clifford – a player genuinely capable of exciting crowds.
Last season: Champions.
Prediction: 2nd. Are an inferior outfit for the loss of three mainstays and will face a tougher contest from Cork.
Manager: Ollie Horgan.
Fake news that sounds true: That master of psychology Ollie Horgan is tipping his side to be the division’s dark horses.
True news that sounds false: Paddy McCourt is back in the north-west but after joining Harps and not Derry.
Last season: 10th.
Prediction: 12th. The overachievers from last season won’t be so fortunate this time.
Manager: Shane Keegan
Fake news that sounds true: Four years after an FAI facilitator recommended only one club for Galway, all football factions in the county have got behind the project.
True news that sounds false: By design or not, the vast majority of Keegan’s charges are from Connacht.
Key addition: Ronan Murray – Mayo striker who was once a favourite of Roy Keane’s at Ipswich Town.
Last season: 9th.
Prediction: 10th. Keegan has swapped one relegation slog with Wexford for another in the west.
Manager: Martin Russell
Fake news that sounds true: After failing to recruit the Greek players he hoped would prevent relegation in 2015, benefactor Pat O’Sullivan is now scouting the Chinese market.
True news that sounds false: Former Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien has taken a deep interest in the club having attended Markets Field during their promotion tilt.
Key addition: Brendan Clarke – keeper with a plenty of silverware from spell at St Pat’s.
Last season: First Division champions.
Prediction: 6th. Expect a mixed season in Limerick, with results influencing their ability to sustain last year’s strong attendances.
Manager: Stephen Bradley
Fake news that sounds true: Bradley was likened to Dave O’Leary last season for blooding several “babies” and now wants to keep the average age of the side in the teens.
True news that sounds false: Record Ireland goalscorer Robbie Keane remains a live transfer target. While the Tallaght man remains a free agent, a return to his local club is possible.
Key addition: Ryan Connolly – another Mayo native reaching his peak years.
Last season: 4th.
Prediction: 3rd. The time has come for Rovers to back up their talk and resources with results.
Manager: Dave Robertson
Fake news that sounds true: Sligo will be the fittest team in the league this year having undergone a rigorous boot-camp programme designed by former Royal Marine Robertson.
True news that sounds false: For the first time in 12 years, Gavin Peers will be playing for a League of Ireland side other than Sligo, having left for St Pat’s.
Key addition: Matt Stevens – the teenager on loan from Peterborough might be the latest import to warm the hearts of Sligo’s frustrated fans.
Last season: 5th.
Prediction: 8th. Too many unproven players to demand consistency.
ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC
Manager: Liam Buckley
Fake news that sounds true: Longest serving boss in the Premier considers the absence of European football for the first time since taking over in 2011 as a blessing in disguise for their domestic plans.
True news that sounds false: Few wingers enter the pantheon of the League of Ireland 100-goal club but Conan Byrne is just one strike off it.
Key addition: Alex O’Hanlon – former Liverpool trainee has hit the ground running.
Last season: 7th.
Prediction: 5th. Holding onto Chris Fagan was essential but keeping him fit and scoring is the priority.
Five players to keep an eye on
Jamie McGrath (Dundalk)
Exciting winger has switched from St Pat’s to the champions with accolades ringing in his ears. Won’t be a guaranteed starter at Oriel Park but will vie with Michael Duffy for a place in an attack naturally weakened by Daryl Horgan’s exit.
The former Ireland U19 man will be given opportunities by Stephen Kenny.
Sean Maguire (Cork City)
Been around the league for two years now but still has the capacity to exceed the high standards he’s already set for himself.
Last season’s FAI Cup final match-winner possesses more than just the vital commodity of goals in his repertoire and may entice additional offers from foreign clubs to those received in 2016.
Maguire could be the difference in whether or not City land their first title since 1995.
Aaron McEneff (Derry City)
Kenny Sheils moved swiftly to tie the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder down till 2018 as McEneff starred on his first full season at the Brandywell. Now free of the injuries which punctuated his progress at Spurs, the playmaker will be to the fore again.
Along with his younger brother Jordan, the pair are switching allegiance from Northern Ireland.
Don’t rule out eventual senior recognition for Aaron, following the same route as fellow Foylesider James McClean.
Shane O’Connor (Limerick)
Once Cobh’s promotion charge ended in the play-offs, Stephen Henderson was always likely to lose his wideman, O’Connor.
The Cork native, who spent three years at Liverpool, is approaching his 27th birthday and has the nous and guile essential to cut it in the top-flight. More sturdy than spectacular, he’ll be at the heartbeat of Limerick’s bid to consolidate.
Kenny McEvoy (Waterford)
While Dylan Connolly is the pacey winger of the Premier Division, the speed merchant in the second tier will be McEvoy, now back with his hometown club.
The winger was on the subs bench for a couple of Europa League matches at Spurs only to move on when further breakthrough chances dried up. His creativity should be a joy.
Three managers under pressure
Liam Buckley (St Patrick’s Athletic)
A seventh-place finish for St Pat’s last season generated speculation over Buckley’s future, but club chairman Garrett Kelleher opted against axing the man who has delivered a league title, FAI Cup and two League Cups since he was appointed five years ago.
Without the funds from European qualification, the wily boss is working to a lower budget that sees his squad contain a mixture of youth and experience.
That should translate into lower expectations but reality could dictate otherwise.
Harry Kenny (Bray Wanderers)
In contrast to Buckley, his former assistant Kenny is under pressure to prosper at Bray due to the wages and contracts handed out at the club.
Dylan Connolly signed a bumper new deal to stave off Dundalk’s interest while Gary McCabe and Keith Buckley haven’t arrived from Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians respectively for the prestige.
Bray will be looked on to take points off the title chasers and avoid banana skins at the opposite end. Otherwise, Kenny could become the latest victim of high turnover in the dug-out by the Wicklow coast.
Stephen Bradley (Shamrock Rovers)
For all the talk of strategic planning at Rovers, their fans live in the here and now.
Slack was afforded to the youngest manager in the league after he took over from the sacked Pat Fenlon in July but the mistakes he admitted to, such as playing three at the back in the home thumping by Cork, won’t be tolerated again.
Rival bosses John Caulfield and Liam Buckley have rightly pointed to spending levels by Rovers as indicative of their title ambitions.
Happy endings are not associated with Rovers managers in the modern era, leaving Bradley to attempt to buck the trend.
Key plotlines to follow
Is more European progress possible?
Following a disastrous previous year, when all four teams failed to get past the second round, 2016 was the historical high point for Irish clubs on the European front. Can this season be so joyous, eliminating any talk of Dundalk’s feat being a one-off?
Success for the Lilywhites last season bumps them up a round in the Champions League draw but will likely increase the difficulty of opposition. Cork will be back in the Europa League aiming to go one better and reach the play-offs. Shamrock Rovers and Derry City complete the quartet.
Will Waterford make First Division a parade?
Having dropped the United in a rebranding exercise, it is full steam ahead for the southeast project spearheaded by Lee Power, the former Ireland B international turned millionaire businessman. With just the First Division champions earning promotion, there are fears of a non-event campaign, with the Déise potentially running away with the title.
Longford Town, relegated from the top-flight, and Pat Devlin’s Cabinteely have designs on challenging that theory. Shelbourne, Cobh and UCD will also make things interesting.
Will clubs be bitten by financial reality?
Avoiding more embarrassment should be an FAI priority. We don’t want to see a repeat of the situation that saw an Athlone fixture postponed over unpaid wages.
The governing body like to talk up the supposed financial health of clubs under their stewardship, but the fact that Waterford and Wexford both left debts behind by setting up new companies this season makes a mockery of club licensing.
If one of the league’s top players in Kenny Browne needs a second job to make ends meet, as he revealed yesterday, then the aspiration for a professional domestic league is still light years away.
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