Welcome to the 2nd annual Balls.ie SSE Airtricity League preview. Just like the league itself, it won't always be about on the field action...
1) Can St Patrick's Athletic retain the title?
St Pats comfortably won the league last year and it was fairly surprising for everyone bar manager Liam Buckley who spoke in 2013 pre-season of a title win being his aim. There's no chance of the Saints flying under the radar this year. Not only are they the champions but they've made a couple of high-profile signings (earning the Galacticos moniker from Dundalk's Stephen Kenny). Pats are weaker at the back having lost Conor Kenna to Shamrock Rovers but their options in midfield are ridiculous. Pats fans voted Greg Bolger their POTY while Killian Brennan was voted POTY by his fellow pros and the FAI. Oh and they've added local hero and Irish international Keith Fahey, who showed with his goal against Sligo that if fit, he can be a star in the LOI.
2) Can Dundalk avoid 2nd season syndrome?
In 2012 Drogheda shocked everybody by finishing 2nd and most predicted they wouldn't repeat. They finished 8th last season. Many are predicting a fall for Dundalk but they have something Drogheda didn't; one of the best players in the league in Richie Towell. Dundalk's board have backed Stephen Kenny and they were the only club to spend a significant transfer fee in the off-season as they brought in the mercurial Daryl Horgan from Cork City. It may be harder for players like Towell and Pat Hoban to surprise people this season but if they can maintain their 2013 form, Dundalk will challenge again.
3) What trophy will Sligo Rovers win this year?
2010 - FAI Cup & League Cup, 2011 - FAI Cup, 2012 - League winners, 2013 - FAI Cup. It's been 5 years since Sligo Rovers didn't win one of the two main trophies for LOI clubs and with a strong, secure base there's no reason to think that run will end anytime soon. Manager Ian Baraclough kept every player he wanted and added John Russell and Paul O'Conor to his midfield. As with last year, Sligo's title chances fall to two things; the fitness of Danny North and how their new imports perform. English born, former Kenyan international Eric Odhiambo certainly made a good impression on his debut, scoring a hat-trick against Crusaders in the Setanta Cup.
4) Can Trevor Croly turn around Shamrock Rovers?
The last 2 seasons have been pretty disastrous for the biggest club in the country. From Europa League group stages to 5th place in the league and no European qualification at all in 2 seasons. Croly's deep squad did manage to win 3 minor trophies last season but none to appease their supporters' demands. This year the squad isn't as deep but it is most definitely Trevor Croly's squad. A raft of players were released while in have come a mix of quality experienced players like Conor Kenna and Simon Madden and young prospects like David O'Connor and Luke Byrne. Their last signing was their marquee signing with Stephen McPhail joining from Sheffield Wednesday. If McPhail's undoubted talents can help improve Ronan Finn, Gary McCabe et al, Rovers should be vastly improved.
5) How will Roddy Collins do with Derry City?
That question probably should be how will Derry City cope with Roddy Collins. The last time Roddy Collins finished a full, regular season in the Premier Division was 2005 with Shamrock Rovers. He was sacked half way through their losing relegation play-off. Before that the last time he completed a full season was with Bohemians in 2001 when he won the double. He was sacked soon afterwards. Wherever Roddy goes though, the media will follow because Roddy is box-office. It's almost exclusively self-promoted, but it's still box office. The Roddy Rollercoaster is back in the big time now with Derry. Let's all just enjoy the show.
6) Will Cork City get back among the challengers
No team finished stronger than Cork City last season with 7 wins in the last 10 games after the dismissal of Tommy Dunne. They've lost the spark behind that run with Ciaran Kilduff returning to parent club Shamrock Rovers and they've replaced him with Anthony Elding amongst others. Cork have been very busy promoting the season kick off and there's no doubt that if they can provide a competitive team, the people of Cork will be out in huge numbers supporting them.
7) How will Limerick do in their 2nd season in the big league?
Limerick had an odd season last year. They started with the novelty of Thomond and ended with 4 wins in 6. In between was very mediocre on the field. They struggled to score goals (scoring 5 less than anyone but the bottom 3) and earned 15 more cards (red/yellow) than anyone else. Manager Stuart Taylor hasn't really addressed the lack of goals and the recent loss of David O'Leary will hurt them too. Defensively the partnership of Oji and new-signing Mick Leahy could be excellent but Limerick may struggle to attract new fans to Thomond's wide open spaces.
8) Can Bohemians avoid a relegation battle?
Until Bohs sacked Aaron Callaghan midway through the 2013 season, they were headed for relegation (or at least a helluva fight). Interim manager Owen Heary did enough to keep them up and now he's been appointed full-time, optimism is high among Bohs fans that they can be pretty safe this year. They're still clawing their way through their financial troubles but with experienced players like Aidan Price and, crucially, Jason Byrne added they should have enough know-how to be competitive in most games.
9) How many times will Drogheda United finish runners-up this season?
Our guess? None. Drogheda had a remarkable season last year; following up 2012's league runners-up by reaching the final in the FAI Cup, EA Sports Cup and Setanta Sports Cup. Unfortunately they lost all 3 finals and then manager Mick Cooke. He's been replaced by former assistant and rookie manager Robbie Horgan. He must be working with a smaller budget as the squad is among the smallest in the league and contains plenty of recruits from intermediate football. It's going to be a steep learning curve for Horgan.
10) How will Bray Wanderers cope without Mr Bray Wanderers?
Apart from a couple of seasons in the early 90s, Pat Devlin has been involved with Bray Wanderers since 1986. He's flitted between manager and director of football in recent seasons but to pretty much everyone in irish football, he WAS Bray Wanderers. In this off-season, Bray decided to let Devlin go and bring in Alan Mathews. As you'd expect Devlin wasn't happy. Under his recent tenure, Bray had been unrelegatable (yes, its a word in the LOI). They've been involved in relegation play-offs in 3 of the past 5 seasons. The one year they did lose in the play offs, they were kept up due to the financial demise of Cork & Derry. New manager Alan Mathews can not claim to be unrelegatable, having gone down with Longford and played his part in Shels' drop last season. Bray are in trouble.
11) Will anyone notice UCD?
UCD only officially announced their new first team manager yesterday. Nobody really seemed too pushed. Most knew it was going to be Aaron Callaghan but apathy from Irish football shows were UCD is at the minute. They'll still produce good players for the league (4 of St Pats most important players last year came through UCD) but they'll never catch the national spotlight.
12) How will Athlone Town do after promotion?
Roddy Collins (single-handedly, if you believe him) won the First Division with Athlone Town and earned promotion back the Premier League for the first time since 1996. After their dispute with Roddy, Athlone moved to appoint Mick Cooke. Cooke certainly has the know-how to keep them up and his signing of ex-Drogheda players like Prendergast and Alan Byrne will definitely give them a bit of steel. On Newstalk's LOI show, Roddy predicting them to get relegated. But then he would, wouldn't he?
13) Will Galway FC be welcomed back?
Galway United died as a LOI club after the 2011 season. Football in Galway continued through Mervue United and Salthill Devon but they never received the backing of the city and county. Galway have had some encouraging results in pre-season and they're expected to challenge for promotion immediately. After the mess of the last 3 years, most in the LOI are hoping for some sort of success there.
14) Will Tony Cousins manage to not get Longford Town promoted again?
Longford Town have led the First Division in each of the last two seasons (and for most of 2013 too). Both times they've entered spectacular slumps and lost out in the promotion play-offs. This season he's recruited well again with Shamrock Rovers fan favourite Stephen Rice dropping down to a level he should dominate. Longford Town fans will not accept anything other than promotion this year.
15) Can Shelbourne bounce back?
Last season's performances may have been the worst in recent memory for Shels fans. They lost 22 of their 33 games and won only 5 times. They started badly under Alan Mathews, had a little bump under new manager John McDonnell, and then finished badly. Shels have got rid of pretty much all their experienced players and are entering the new season full of young, talented prospects. It might not be enough for promotion, but at least it will give jaded Shels fans something to cheer.
16) Are Shamrock Rovers B the first of many?
Rovers B team entering the First Division caused far more of a stir than it should have. They claim they're looking to develop young talent, other clubs complained about the FAI hand-picking Rovers and some claimed the First Division was devalued by their presence. The facts spoke for themselves though. The FAI needed an 8th club to fill the league and they needed one quick. No intermediate/junior team answered their call so they went with a B team. The complaints about competitive balance may prove to be true, but no one knows for sure and there's a long season ahead of us. We'll also see if other clubs are really looking for the same treatment next year as they have a season to prepare to enter their own teams.
17) Can anyone else get promoted?
Waterford United might. They're rebuilding again but they've been in the top 5 each of the past 5 seasons and always in contention for the play-offs at least. Finn Harps are probably concentrating more on the building of their new stadium but could strike gold with a new batch of local recruits. For Cobh Ramblers and Wexford Youths, just surviving the season may be seen as a success.
18) Who will replace Alan Kelly as top referee?
Alan Kelly was, by far, the best referee in the LOI but he's in the USA now. In terms of UEFA ranks , Ireland has 2 in the 2nd group; Neil Doyle and Padraigh Sutton. Doyle's reputation took a bit of a battering last year so Sutton may be the top ranked ref left. The newest Irish ref on the UEFA list though is Paul McLoughlin and he's already been picked for the President's Cup final and the first TV game on Sunday. Here's hoping he can fill Kelly's boots.
19) How many managers will last the season?
There are 20 League of Ireland managers and only one of them was in his position before the 2012 season. Longford's Tony Cousin was appointed before the 2010 season and is currently the longest-serving manager by double the length of tenure of the next longest-serving. Of the 20 managers, 12 of them are in the first season with their club. Only the last two league winning managers (Sligo's Ian Baraclough & Pats' Liam Buckley) have 2 seasons with their clubs in the Premier Division. Isn't that insane?
20) What kind of media coverage will the league get?
MNS is gone, replaced by the broader Soccer Republic. Despite some online huffing and puffing, the format change won't make too much of a difference as MNS always catered to a range of footballing issues. The signings of Keith Fahey and Stephen McPhail have garnered plenty of press and if traditionally big clubs like Rovers, Cork and Dundalk can challenge then the League should have enough in it to keep some of the spotlight. Whatever happens elsewhere, we here at balls.ie will have you covered.
As with last year, no real predictions as the "Greatest League in the World" © is just far too open for that. Last year Shamrock Rovers started favourites, Sligo Rovers went odds on and eventually Pats won. Dundalk went from the relegation play off to finishing 2nd. There isn't a league like it.
Whatever happens, enjoy the games!