Over the opening weekend of the 2023 SSE Airtricity League season, close to 30,000 football fans will be in attendance. It would be even more if capacity allowed but days before kick-off, we had several clubs announce they’d completely sold out. Is the LOI cool now?
The answer is still no, of course. It’s just a football league. A football league can’t be cool. It can be slightly more popular than it used to be but thankfully it’s still full of the idiosyncrasies that make it the #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld. What other league has teams signing full internationals while others may see their starters miss out because they’re involved in student football? 2023 sees a new club, new owners, new managers, new players and, seemingly, new fans. Let’s ask the big questions that need answers in our 2023 season preview.
1) Can Derry City stop another Shamrock Rovers 4-in-a-row?
Sometimes previews pretend that multiple clubs have realistic title aspirations but not this one, and to be fair, not many others this year have either. Rovers have set the standard high in recent times and once again added quality to their squad with moves for Liam Burt (Bohemians) and Johnny Kenny (loan from Celtic) being the most talked about. Such has been Rovers’ dominance over the past 3 seasons that they’ve largely been absent from the league build up – everyone knows they’ll be top two so there’s no story to tell. Well, there's Sligo Rovers fuming about Kenny being back in the league so soon after departing for Celtic, and Tallaght Stadium soon to have 4 stands, and Rovers selling over 4,000 season tickets, and Rovers possibly playing a midfield with only full internationals in it, and Justin Ferizaj being the next big thing but going for a fourth consecutive title is boring.
The story is Derry City and their challenge. Last year they started amazingly and finished strongly but a mid-season dip cost them a title run. Ruaidhri Higgins has added much needed depth to his squad as they attempt to find the consistency needed to challenge Rovers. Ireland under 21 international Ollie O’Neill arriving on loan from Fulham is the most eye catching but they’ve added proven quality in Adam O’Reilly (Preston, last year with St Pats) and have the exciting Colm Whelan (UCD) to come back from injury too. Rovers are still favourites, but City are likely to push them all the way this season.
2) Can either of Dundalk or St Patrick’s Athletic join the top of the league party?
Dundalk finished third last year – or joint second as head coach Stephen O’Donnell said this week - and it was universally praised as a fine season for the club after the disastrous 2021. They haven't added proven LOI players to their ranks though and are relying on imports from the lower leagues in England and Scotland. The hit rate on these players isn't inspiring but O'Donnell has argued that he couldn't compete with the top two for the quality players that were available here.
The fortunes of Dundalk and St Pats seemed intertwined last year after the manner of O'Donnell's move before the season but with both hoping to hoping to qualify for Europe again, they're likely to be grouped all season. Tim Clancy has also brought in form abroad but the most high profile signing, perhaps in the league, is Dubliner Jake Mulraney coming home after several years in the MLS with Atlanta United and Orlando City. Pats took a while to get consistency last year with Clancy claiming he was playing catch up after his appointment. He won't have that excuse this year. The Saints couldn't convert loan deals for Adam O'Reilly and Barry Cotter into permanent deals but they'll be hoping that overseas recruits Noah Lewis (Willem II) and Vladislav Kreida (loan from Flora Tallinn) hit the ground running.
#𝗦𝗔𝗜𝗡𝗧𝗦𝟮𝟬𝟮𝟯 | 𝗘𝘀𝘁𝗼𝗻𝗶𝗮𝗻 𝗜𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗻𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗞𝗿𝗲𝗶𝗱𝗮 𝗦𝗶𝗴𝗻𝘀 𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗦𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀
We are delighted to announce the signing of Vladislav Kreida on a season long loan from Estonian Meistriliiga club Flora, subject to international clearance pic.twitter.com/dphC2SazW7
— St Patrick's Athletic FC (@stpatsfc) January 12, 2023
3) Are Cork City back for good?
The fall of Cork City from double winners in 2017 to relegation in 2020 might never be explained properly. At least it's unlikely to be told without lawyers clearing all the rumours and innuendo that abounds. 2021 saw them steady the ship off the field with the FORAS owners cutting budgets to the bone and, effectively, starting the club again. After agreeing to sell the club to Preston North End's Trevor Hemmings before his untimely passing, they spent 2022 looking for potential buyers elsewhere while using predominantly local players on the senior team. They won the First Division at a canter and the crowds that had abandoned them since 2019, came flooding back. In the off season, the sale of the club to former Sonas Bathroom chief Dermot Usher was complete.
That time again...#CCFC84 pic.twitter.com/jnY6uChygR
— Cork City FC (@CorkCityFC) February 17, 2023
He's done the usual new owner bits about hiring a Director of Football and developing a new training ground but Usher understands that for most casual fans, the senior teams are all that matter. Colin Healy hopes his new squad of local players and Swedish-based recruits. Turners Cross is still one of the finest venues in the league and City were one of the first clubs to put up the sold out signs for the visit of Bohemians this weekend. If they can get a decent start, and get the fans to keep on turning up, it shouldn't be too long before they start challenging for Europe. It's unlikely to be this year but consolidation is the key for a successful 2023 for Cork City.
4) Will someone emerge from the mid-pack teams?
Sligo Rovers, Bohemians and Shelbourne finished 5th to 7th last year and every prediction you'll read have in similar positions this year too. Shelbourne had hoped for an injection of cash into the club and the first team but that didn't materialize but Damian Duff has still added LOI quality to his squad in the likes of Paddy Barrett (Pats). Sligo have once again looked abroad for their new stars with players coming from Sweden, Estonia and the Faroe Islands to join the already multinational squad. A disappointing 2022 saw Keith Long mutally-consented out of the Bohemians manager's gig and Declan Devine's first job was to offload some of the waste in that squad. He was fairly ruthless, and helped by moves to England for Ciaran Kelly and Rory Feely, and the Bohs squad is thinner than it has been in years. They do have an international flavour with Polish defender Kacper Radkowski joing on loan from Śląsk Wrocław only this week.
5) UCD, what is there to say?
UCD miraculously avoided the drop last year despite losing their two best players in mid season to injury and transfer and since then have lost more of their hotly tipped talents (Tommy Lonergan to Pats, Dylan Duffy to Lincoln, Evan Caffrey to Shels). They operate in darkness with the fans and media alike finding out their squad this week with the FAI releasing a media guide. No doubt some of the players will be excellent. The best of them will move on next year to full time clubs. In a league of booming attendances, they're still likely to host more away fans than home fans at every game. How do you describe how UCD exist, and sometimes thrive, in professional football to people with no interest in the LOI? You can't. They're the quintessential #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld club. Every single prediction has them finishing bottom, and literally nobody would be surprised to see them stay up.
6) Can Drogheda United compete as a part time outfit?
It's perhaps a bigger question than can be answered in a season preview but Drogheda United are the last remaining (non-UCD) part time team in the Premier Division. They're openly looking for investment but anyone with money knows there's no return on it in football worldwide, never mind our little league. So Drogheda United operate on a tiny budget compared to their rivals and hope to offer a platform for footballers who don't want to give up their day job (or studies). While everybody is picking UCD to be bottom, they're all saying Drogheda will finish 9th. There are teams in the lower tier that are full time. That shows the level that Drogheda are operating at. They were comfortable in 2022, but it gets harder and harder each year.
7) Can Kerry FC survive?
In the last 40 years many clubs have entered the league, and many clubs have failed. Longford Town (1984) and Wexford (Youths) (2007) are the only two that have survived from regions that haven't previously experienced league football. Can Kerry FC succeed where Monaghan, Kildare and Kilkenny ultimately failed? They've started brightly and said and done all the right things. Their recruitment is all local and head coach Billy Dennehy has emphasized that the club is a natural progression of the academy sides that have competed for a number of years now at the national level. Off the field, they've a team of backers who seem committed to the cause, spending a lot of money ensuring Mounthawk Park in Tralee is ready for an opening night sell out crowd against Cobh Ramblers. We, along with the entire LOI community, wish them well.
8) How will Waterford manage to mess up promotion?
The last two seasons have ended comically/tragically (delete one depending on your fandom) for Waterford with defeats (yes, plural) to UCD in the play off finals (yes, plural). 2021 was the year of sacking your manager the week of the game, 2022 was the year of missing penalties and forgetting how to defend. Their off season continued to be a rollercoaster with a game in Dubai being halted by rain, their best player leaving for "sister club" Fleetwood Town, Junior Quitirna leaving the country over "visa issues" and a host of players joining up only this week. Manager Danny Searle certainly did a fine job last year after Ian Morris was sacked but anything other than promotion will be a failure this season.
9) Are we forgetting about Galway United and the rest?
Kind of, yeah. They've been in "must get promoted" mode for a while now and yet, they don't get promoted. They have wealthy backers and led the First Division in the transition to full time football and yet, they don't get promoted. The venerable Ollie Horgan left Finn Harps to join John Caulfield's backroom staff and he, at least, knows how to get a team promoted. Like Waterford, anything less than promotion for Galway will be a failure and yet, not many are predicting they will be. The rest of league will struggle to compete with Waterford and Galway with only Harps likely to upset them. The midlands Towns of Longford and Athlone are struggling to capitalize on the boom in crowds elsewhere in the league. Treaty United may continue their growth while Wexford hope to move on after losing Ian Ryan to Bray Wanderers. Cobh Ramblers enter their first full season under Shane Keegan. Let's see how they get on.
10) What's the story with the crowds?
Last year saw many clubs break modern records for attendances. It has many outsiders asking "why?" - we even had a positive mention of soccer attendances in the Oireachtas. The following is a non-exhaustive list of reasons I've read/heard for the uptick in football attendances; people wanting to do something post lockdown, people being sick of the super clubs in England, clubs like Bohemians trying to change the world, clubs like St Patrick's Athletic working in their communities, brexit, the European Super League, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers making European group stages, the FAI Cup final becoming an event, the academy players feeling part of their clubs, stadium developments in Tallaght and elsewhere, "retro feeling" stadiums, better pitches than ever before, young players playing here before moving abroad, older players coming home after successful careers abroad, top class TV coverage (just kidding), top class online coverage (seriously), goals going viral, celebrity fans, pyro displays, songs that have upset some people, curry chips at the ground, an influx of players from around the world, local players on the teams, more professional club structures, social media in general and even, if rarely, the football on show being enjoyable to watch.
You can take your pick of which of those, often contradictory, answers you like. That's the beauty of supporting a League of Ireland club. It doesn't matter how you got there. You can start going because you were bored, because you saw a player shine for Ireland under 21s, because you're a psychopath who yearns for 8 months of misery each year - it doesn't matter. No one cares. Just go and enjoy yourself. Or don't. Whatever floats your boat. Here's to great, or terrible, 2023 season.