Welcome to the Balls.ie 2013 Airtricity League Preview. Get comfortable, it may take a while as we run through the top 20 storylines to follow in the 2013 Airtricity League of Ireland season.
1) Can Shamrock Rovers recover from last year’s debacle?
A new manager and a whole host of former players returning (at last count 8 former players have re-signed) have Rovers fans once again believing that they're title favourites. Bookmakers certainly agree. 2012 was supposed to confirm an era of domination for Rovers with Europa League group stage money funding the club. Champions in 2010 and 2011, surely 2012 was a formality? Then Stephen Kenny came in and blew it all up. Heavy defeats to Pats, Sligo and, most embarrassingly, Bohs eventually led to his dismissal. Rovers ended the season in 4th place. However in 2013 Rovers once again look the team to beat. They have the league’s biggest budget and signed 3 of the 4 nominees for PFAI Player of the Year in 2012 away from rivals (the 4th already played there). If Trevor Croly is as good a manager as his coaching reputation indicates then Rovers will be tough to beat. If he’s not and Rovers fail miserably again, who knows what will happen?
2) Can Sligo Rovers push on from winning the league title?
No doubt Sligo fans will bemoan the fact they’re not the number one story and I’ll be accused of Dublin bias. It might be true that their league win didn't get the credit it deserved due to the collapse of Rovers. (To Sligo fans, they’re known as “Shams”). However that’s balanced by the media fawning over them for the previous couple of years as the league’s best footballing side. Last year new manager Ian Baraclough changed things slightly and Sligo weren't afraid to go direct when needed. It worked immediately and Sligo comfortably won the league with games to spare. Now they have to recover from the loss of Mark Quigley and Jason McGuinness to Rovers (signing Evan McMillan from Bohs should help) and finally make a breakthrough in Europe. Sligo's recent European history has seen them lose to Albanian, Ukrainian and Slovakian opposition and they need to improve that record. If Sligo continue to pack the Showgrounds, they've every reason to think they can make that breakthrough and fight for league honours again. After years of financial struggles a team that consistently challenges for trophies has turned Sligo Rovers into a club that's growing and growing.
3) Are Drogheda United for real?
Drogheda finished the 2012 season in 2nd place as Pats faltered after giving chase to Sligo for much of the season. They also memorably beat Rovers in the League Cup final in Tallaght. Favourites for relegation in pre-season, manager Mick Cooke moulded his rag bag band of cast offs and journeymen to performances well above that billing. Led by the renaissance of Drogheda hero Fabio O’Brien, Drogheda rarely troubled headline writers but defied all those who thought their excellent start couldn't continue. They've added real quality in the midfield with the signing of David Cassidy (Shels) and Paul O'Conor (UCD) and their squad looks to have far greater depth than last year. Can they continue to punch above their weight and chase medals?
4) Can St Patrick's Athletic win something?
Pats flattered to deceive last year. Liam Buckley's team played some lovely football and were involved in classic games (beating Rovers 5-1 in Inchicore & losing 3-2 to Sligo (on the day they clinched the title) are probably the best examples) but they ended the season with only European qualification to show for it. For the first time in nearly a decade though, Pats have kept the majority of their squad together. James Chambers and Sean O'Connor left for Rovers, but in came the likes of Shane McFaul, Killian Brennan and Conan Byrne to replace them. Pats fans crave that elusive FAI Cup victory (it'll be 52 years and 7 final defeats by the time of the 2013 final) but Buckley believes this team can challenge for the league title. To do that Pats will have to fix their biggest problem from 2012; scoring goals. After two scoreless outings in the Setanta Cup already this season, that looks doubtful.
5) Will Thomond Park inspire Limerick?
Limerick are certainly one of the more interesting clubs in the League this year to many Premier Division fans. It's been 19 years since they last played a Premier Division game (the longest spell of any club in the first division) but with their relatively new owner backing them all the way, there's a huge opportunity for Limerick football to re-establish itself at the forefront of the League. While they have announced ambitions plans for a new home for Limerick football, it may take years to build. In the meantime they've moved to Thomond Park for this season and instantly became the club to play in the league's most impressive ground. They've hired a new manager, Stuart Taylor, and continue to add (mostly imported) players to their First Division winning squad from last year. Will the Limerick public back them by turning up every fortnight? If they do, the sky's the limit. They've certainly garnered RTE's attention as the first live TV game of the season is Limerick v Cork on Sunday March 10th.
6) Will Cork City return to the top table of LOI football?
In 2005 Cork City sold Kevin Doyle and went on to win the League title. It went downhill fairly quickly from there. Cork were competitive for the next couple of years but stars like George O'Callaghan, Roy O'Donovan and John O'Flynn left for the UK. Losing players was the least of their worries as a succession of iffy club owners (that's a legal term, you can google Arkaga and Tommy no-bobs yourself) saw the club's once-proud standing in Cork tumble. Just before the start of the 2010 season (and crucially before the licensing process was completed) Cork City were wound up. A separate license application was submitted by a group of fans calling themselves Cork FORAS (Friends of the Rebel Army Society) and they were admitted to the League's First Division for the 2010 season. FORAS played have a season with that moniker before successfully reclaiming the Cork City FC name. After a season of consolidation, Cork won the First Division in 2011 and with it promotion back to the top league. Last year they finished a solid sixth but expectations are rising in the south. Manager Tommy Dunne will be under pressure to put out a team that can beat any team on their day. Cork have some of the league's finest young talents in Gearóid Morrissey, Shane Duggan and Daryl Horgan so they're almost there.
7) Will Derry City build on cup success?
Derry are now the unquestioned modern-day cup kings in Ireland. They own the League Cup (or the EA Sports Cup as it's been called the past few years). Since entering the LOI in 1985 there have been 24 League cup competitions. They've won 10 of them and were losing finalists twice. You don't have to be a maths genius to figure out that this means they reached the final 50% of the time (to compare, the other 14 titles are shared by 10 clubs). Derry have won the higher-priority FAI Cup 5 times, and have reached 4 other finals. No club can better that in their time in the league. They, of course, are the current FAI Cup holders but can they build on that and improve on last season's fifth place league finish? They've added to an established squad with the likes of Marc Griffin and Paddy Kavanagh and their fans will be expecting more this season.
8) Will Stephen Kenny get redemption in Dundalk?
Stepehn Kenny's reputation took one hell of a battering last year. After varying degrees of success in his career with Longford, Bohs, Derry and Dunfermline, Kenny was seen by many as the safe choice to continue Shamrock Rovers' dominance in the LOI. With a large budget, and the guts of a team that had won back to back titles, it was a job any manager would have wanted. However Kenny made some awful signings and they ended up costing him the job (Kerrea Gilbert being the 'lowlight'). His team played a brand of football far from the exciting, attacking football he had promised Rovers fans on appointment. As ever, that would be forgiven if they were winning but they weren't, and he was, rightly, dumped. Dundalk sacked their own disastrous manager (Sean McCaffrey) midway through the season too. They only avoided relegation thanks to a play off win over Waterford. Things are looking up though. A new consortium has apparently given Kenny a decent budget to work with. He'll still need to perform heroics this year to make people forget about 2012.
9) Will Shelbourne break records for red cards?
Last year Shels had 10 men sent off, one every 3 games. That was twice the next highest in the league. Players they've brought in include the league's most booked player last season, Paul Crowley from Drogheda, and well known ticking time bombs Pat Flynn (Pats) and Robert Bayly (Longford). Already in pre-season we've seen;
Half time in Mervue and Shels are 1 up thanks to a Philly Hughes header, but down to 9 men after Pat Flynn and Robert Bayly see red.
— Shelbourne FC (@shelsfc) February 16, 2013
Pat Flynn sent off for a two footed lunge.
— Shelbourne FC (@shelsfc) March 2, 2013
Any side managed by Alan Matthews isn't expected to play nice football, but a team full of well known hackers and fruit cakes? Any cards total is possible.
10) Will Bohemians inspire more poetry?
Maybe not poetry but most Bohs fans enjoyed last year more than they thought they would. After seeing their dominant 2008/09 team ripped apart due to the realities of their financial gamble coming back to bite them, most expected last year to be a complete struggle. Instead they got to beat rivals Shamrock Rovers twice and generally see a very young team give their all. With so many young players though, mistakes were common and this year should be no different (even with experience like Owen Heary and Derek Pender in the side).
11) Will the President of the UCD Supporters Club in Serbia get to see the team play?
A great story from World Irish.com on a fervant fan of Irish football in Serbia who has adopted UCD as his team . He has yet to step foot in Ireland. Hopefully his dream comes true and he gets to visit the hallowed Belfield Bowl turf. When he does he'll get the see the usual UCD mix of promising players and young lads thankful for a second chance in the league. UCD's turnover of players is as high as any club but they continue to produce players for the league. Manager Martin Russell has been linked with bigger jobs too
12) Will Bray Wanderers give sport writers a reason other than Katie Taylor to mention their town?
They should name a stand after her and they should name everything else after Pat Devlin. The part time scout and friend of Kenny Dalglish isn't always the most popular person in League of Ireland circles but there's no denying what he's done for Bray Wanderers. Devlin has managed to hang on to young talent like Kieran-Marty Waters and brought back the experience of Gary Dempsey (Waterford) in what will most likely be another relegation battle for Bray. With Devlin still around the club, I'd never back them to go down though.
13) The League's best interview, Roddy Collins, is back. Can he inspire Athlone Town?
14) Who will win promotion and will there even be a First Division next year?
Supporters of clubs involved in the LOI First Division will tell you it’s a bleak place. In recent times relatively big clubs like Rovers, Shels, Derry and Cork have been down there but there’s no such club to add ‘glamour’ this year. Cobh Ramblers return after a 4 year break from the league. They join historic clubs like Athlone, Finn Harps, Waterford United and Longford Town and relative newcomers to the league in Wexford Youths, Mervue United and Salthill Devon. Waterford suffered another play off heartbreak last season but they’ve lost their two best players (Sean Maguire to West Ham, Gary Dempsey to Bray). That all means the division is wide open. Who finishes top maybe immaterial as calls for a one division league grow louder, at least from 1st division clubs. While some will argue that the league needs to have promotion and relegation in it, nobody can argue that the 12-8 split that sees 1st division clubs play the same 7 teams 4 times can go on. Expect league structuring (or tinkering) to remain on the agenda all season
15) What's going to happen the mess with Mervue United, Salthill Devon Galway United and GUST?
There's a book to be written about LOI football in Galway in the past 7 years, but hopefully this couple of pragraphs will give you the gist. After the 2006 season, all LOI clubs were asked to submit detailed proposals on how their club would grow. An Independent Assesment Group would award scores to teams based on their presentation and on 'marketability' and location. Galway United, with CEO (and Barings Bank shyster) Nick Leeson, who had finished 3rd in the First Division (effectively 14th overall) were awarded a place in the Premier Division based on this video and the fact the FAI wanted a team from Galway in the top league. In 2008 the LOI 'A League' was set up and a mix of reserve teams and new admissions played in it. 2 Galway county sides were added Mervue United and Salthill Devon. Mervue won an end of season play off for promotion to the First Division so 2009 saw 2 Galway clubs in the LOI 'proper'. Salthill won promotion to the First Division the following year so in 2010 so Galway provided 3 of the 22 League clubs. Mervue and Salthill finished in the bottom 2 positions. Galway United became crippled by mounting debts and had a historically bad season in 2011. Their board, led by Leeson, basically abondoned the club during the 2011 season and they failed to apply for a license for the 2012 season. Galway United Supporters Trust did apply, but after the deadline and werent considered. Salthill Devon rebranded themselves as SD Galway and moved their games to Terryland Park. Mervue and SD finished, again, in the bottom 2 spots in the league.
Still with us? An FAI commissioned 'independent report' released in October recommended that there should only be one LOI club in Galway. Something pretty much everyone with a basic knowledge of the league could have told them. FAI CEO John Delaney indicated it would be 2014 before this happened. GUST's application for a league spot for 2013 wasn't considered and Mervue and re-rebranded Salthill Devon continue in the First Division. Some of the Galway United directors who abandoned the club are also looking to become involved again. The excellent facilities of Terryland Park remain unused(at least in the League). Expect lots of back & forth all season as all stakeholders try and come up with a solution that will see Galway return to the heart of the League.
16) Will fans of League of Ireland clubs be as colourful as ever?
17) Who'll be the next player to join the likes of Doyle, Long, Coleman,Fahey, Hoolahan, Ward and McClean as regular internationals?
The last Republic of ireland squad had 9 former LOI players. This off season saw Sean Maguire (Waterford to West Ham) become the latest highly rated youngster leave the league for a crack at England (and it seems player do need to play abroad before they're considered). So who's next? Ronan Finn, at 25, will be hoping to make the transition from (arguably) the LOI's best player to international football in the same way Keith Fahey did (ie later than usual). His new Rovers team mate Mark Quigley has long been regarded as the most talented player in the league but at 27 he's probably too old to make the move. Derry have a host of young talented players and if Barry McNamee repeats his form of the end of last season he'll be attracting attention for more than just his hair. Cork's midfield may well be a pairing of Shane Duggan and Gearoid Morrissey and both look like huge talents. In the last ROI under 21 squad there was only one home based player though; Pats' Chris Forrester. Speaking of him...
18) Will anybody score goals as good as these two from Mark Griffin and Chris Forrester?
19) Will the FAI, the PFAI, the clubs and all of Irish football get its' act together?
Almost all of the FAI resources are allocated to the senior international team. For the Republic of Ireland to have any success at international level it needs to produce its own players. The only way it can do so is to have better coaches available to Irish kids, and have a clear path for them to become professional footballers. The FAI haven't made the connection between young Irish talent and professional football in Ireland. A talented 16 year old kid in Amsterdam, Barcelona or London works his schooling around football. A talented 16 year old in Dublin trains 2/3 times a week and probably works in a pub the rest of the week. Irish football, at the moment, can't sustain a professional structure because most money spent by Irish football fans is spent outside the country.
The only way Irish football can improve is through joined-up thinking and having clear links between schools and schoolboy leagues and have the top level of Irish football, the League of Ireland, provide employment for footballers when they reach appropriate age. It may take years for the LOI to have the necessary training and playing facilities to keep talented players in Ireland for their development, but it has to happen if the FAI want their game to grow. So will the FAI actively support the league and its clubs and help them grow? There are signs that they are starting to. They've put on marketing and promotion workshops recently and clubs are beginning to realise that they must work together too. It was only last season that the league lost Monaghan United, so it's too early to talk about clubs finally learning from the boom and bust LOI of the last ten years but the indictors are that most clubs understand how economies work now.
One of the downsides of this is the abundance of one year contracts offered. There's no stability in LOI employment now. The PFAI, the players union, constantly remind fans and media of this. However their constant snipes at league clubs over contracts, while attacking others for not supporting or selling the league well enough smacks of hypocrisy. In the past two years they've enraged fans of Bohs (for choosing to support 2 players leaving over wishes of rest of squad), and Pats (the Europa League debacle) . They timed the last 'one year contract' issue to coincide with Sligo Rovers receiving their league trophy. They annoyed many for not commenting and then commenting on the Zayed/Turner racism row. The PFAI have legitimate gripes but their methods can be counter-productive. For the League to grow the clubs need all the help they can get from the FAI, the PFAI and everyone else. The best players will always gravitate to the bigger leagues, but if the League can produce 3 or 4 internationals to every ROI squad, it would be a major achievement. To do that, it must be stable, secure and supported by the Irish football public.
20) And finally, will any of our clubs find themselves falling in love on their European travels this year?
The four teams in European competition this year are Sligo (Champions League), Derry, Drogheda and Pats (all Europa League). Last year Pats made themselves some friends in Europe;
@stpatsfc Thanx a lot! Unfortunately it`s not possible to play against our friends of St.Patrick`s again this year. See you next year!!
— Hannover 96 (@Hannover96) August 30, 2012
@stpatsfc : Congrats!!
— Hannover 96 (@Hannover96) September 18, 2012
— St Patrick's Ath (@stpatsfc) September 18, 2012
— St Patrick's Ath (@stpatsfc) September 18, 2012
So there you go, as comprehensive a 2013 Airtricity League preview as you'll find on one single webpage. No predictions though. If you learn anything from the above, I hope it'll be that predictions in the League of Ireland are useless. In the past 15 seasons, 12 different clubs have won the League or FAI Cup, and one of them doesn't even exist anymore.
The League may lose clubs again. It may also gain detractors here in Ireland too. What it won't do is lose it's ability to provide drama and excitement to the thousands of people who go to watch their clubs each week. Balls.ie will be bringing a flavour of that to you all season long.