Before the 2016 season, we published a list of the 40 best players in the League of Ireland. There's been plenty of comings and goings since though, not to mention meteoric rises and precipitous falls, so it's time for an update.
The criteria for inclusion is simple; players must have played in the SSE Airtricity League and be signed for a club for the 2018 season. That's it. Some are young and have huge potential, others are on the back nine of glittering careers but these are the 40 best players in the League of Ireland.
Feel free to argue as, thankfully, football is a team game and ranking players like this is just for fun. Here we go (with the change from 2016 in brackets):
1 Aaron McEneff, Derry City (New Entry)
There is no more complete midfielder in the league than the 22 year old Derry man. In the last two seasons he has been the catalyst as Derry qualified for Europe each year. He can play anywhere across the middle but excels when driving forward and has an eye for goal too. He can definitely play at a higher level
2 Gearoid Morrissey, Cork City (+2)
Morrissey is the heart of Cork City’s midfield over the past 2 seasons since his return from England. Like McEneff, he can be described as a box-to-box midfielder with the added bonus of being physically imposing too.
3 Stephen O’Donnell, Dundalk (-2)
Previously at number one in this list, there’s no cleverer player than O’Donnell. He only drops as injuries pile up and becomes less of a main stay in the Dundalk engine room.
4 Karl Sheppard, Cork City (+26)
When Sean Maguire left mid-season, Cork effectively lost 2 high quality players as Sheppard moved upfront to replace him. Sheppard isn’t an out-and-out striker, but he is the best overall forward in the league and now likely back to playing off Cummins up front for Cork, he’ll no doubt be back to his best.
5 Trevor Clarke, Shamrock Rovers (NE)
Maybe the most exciting talent in the league, if 19-year-old Clarke can stay disciplined, he’s sure to have a long successful career in football. Whether that’s at left wing or left back is anybody’s guess.
6 Chris Shields, Dundalk (+3)
Mr Dependable. Shields is the very definition of solidity and is a huge part of Dundalk’s success over the past 5 seasons
7 Kieran Sadlier, Cork City (NE)
His manager thinks he’s the most exciting player in the league and Sadlier certainly has claims on that title. Outstanding for Sligo, he took a while to fit in at Cork.
8 Robbie Benson, Dundalk (NE)
2018 should be a huge year for Benson, for the first time he’ll be the main playmaker for Dundalk with Patrick McEleney’s move to Oldham opening that spot up for him. He’s capable of winning any game for Dundalk.
9 Ian Bermingham, St Patrick's Athletic (+3)
The best full back in the league for the past 6 seasons, Bermingham was outstanding as Pats clawed their way out of relegation last year. With a more settled back 4, he’s likely to continue his superb form in 2018
10 Greg Bolger, Shamrock Rovers (-8)
Bolger fell out of favour with Caulfield in Cork but was still captain of the league winning side (his second title). If Stephen Bradley can get him to his best, he’ll have the midfield general he’s been looking for.
11 Conor McCormack, Cork City (NE)
McCormack’s form last year was part of the reason for Bolger’s lesser role and the man from Louth deserved all the plaudits he received last year.
12 Barry McNamee, Cork City (NE)
A glaring omission from the 2016 list, McNamee is the archetypal mercurial midfielder. Playing outside the Northwest for the first time will be a big challenge for him.
13 Alan Bennett, Cork City (-2)
Seemingly ageless, Bennett was the linchpin of Cork’s title winning defence. He’ll be missed when he’s gone…
14 Ronan Finn, Shamrock Rovers (+10)
Finn can go missing in some games, but when he’s on form, he’s as good as there is in the league. Will benefit from Bolger doing the dirty work this year.
15 Ismahil Akinade, Waterford (+20)
While Corcoran scored the goals at Bohs last year, it was Akinade that was terrifying centre-halves with his pace and power.
16 Steven Beattie, Cork City (NE)
Beattie has filled in all over the park for Cork since his move from Sligo and his adaptability earns him a place here.
17 Graham Burke, Shamrock Rovers (NE)
Burke was sent off twice last year, but showed enough flashes to suggest he could be a huge player in the league
18 Brian Gartland, Dundalk (-3)
Andy Boyle’s departure didn’t help Gartland last year but he’s still a top quality defender when that’s all he’s asked to do.
19 Garry Buckley Cork City (+8)
Buckley will always be loved by his managers as his work rate is astonishing.
20 Aaron Greene, Bray Wanderers (NE)
Greene was Bray’s best player last year in a season that saw ups, downs and outright chaos.
21 Rhys McCabe, Sligo Rovers (NE)
A huge reason why Sligo stayed up last season, the ex-Rangers man brought some much needed quality to the team.
22 Owen Garvan, St Patrick’s Athletic (NE)
When you’ve played a ton in the top two leagues in England, you must be good and Garvan showed at the end of the season, how good he can be. Off the back of several injuries he took a while to get going in the league, but 2018 could see him shoot up these rankings.
23 Brandon Miele, Shamrock Rovers (-16)
Miele was top 10 in this list 2 years ago but has been very inconsistent since. No one doubts his talent though.
24 Bastien Hery, Waterford (NE)
The French midfielder was terrific for Limerick last year despite all around him crumbling towards the end of the season. Will be interesting to see how he gets on with the promoted team.
25 Rory Hale, Derry City (NE)
Hale’s arrival mid-season for Galway almost helped them avoid relegation. His paring with McEneff will have Derry’s midfield among the best in the league.
26 Michael Duffy, Dundalk (NE)
The lightning fast winger can give full backs fits when he’s on form.
27 Keith Ward, Bohemians (NE)
Joey Ndo thinks he’s the best player in the league. There’s no doubt Ward was a huge reason why Bohs finished in the top half last year.
28 Keith Buckley, Bohemians (NE)
Buckley will likely move to his preferred midfield spot back with his beloved Bohs this year. He was arguably the best right back in the league with Bray last year.
29 Gary McCabe, Bray Wanderers (-12)
McCabe pretty much gave up on doing anything attacking last year with Bray, but he’s still class going forward and as likely as any player to reach double figures in goals this year.
30 Lee Grace, Shamrock Rovers (NE)
Grace was relegated with Wexford in 2016, and on his way to being relegated with Galway in 2017 before being rescued by Rovers. He instantly became their best defender
31 Conan Byrne, St Patrick's Athletic (-15)
His drop here is really only as a result of Pats drop down the leagues in the past two years. Byrne remains a goal threat every time he steps on the field.
32 Ronan Curtis, Derry City (NE)
Curtis was on the verge of a move to Sweden in the summer and his form seemed to dip after that failed to go through. He continued to score spectacular goals though.
33 Dane Massey, Dundalk (-13)
Massey is vital to how Dundalk play, and he remains one of the best full backs in the country.
34 Killian Brennan, St Patrick’s Athletic (-24)
Top 10 when this list was done in 2016. Since then Brennan fell out of favour at Rovers and idled around with Drogheda for a short spell. Back with a manager who loves him at Pats, he was instrumental in their second half of the season surge in 2017.
35 Gary Boylan, Sligo Rovers (NE)
Boylan might be the best young defender in the league. He certainly has all the tools to make it.
36 Paul Keegan, Waterford (NE)
10 years after he was dominating the league, Keegan has a mentoring role with Waterford as he looks to be the leader on the pitch for Pat Fenlon and Alan Reynolds.
37 Shane Duggan, Limerick (-11)
Duggan has been incredibly loyal to Limerick since moving from Cork and this year might be his biggest test yet.
38 Dinny Corcoran, Bohemians (NE)
The top scoring player in 2017 that remains in the league, Corcoran scored an amazing 42% of Bohs league goals last year
39 Gavin Holohan, Waterford (NE)
Holohan was terrific for Galway last year, and adds to what could be an exciting midfield for Waterford.
40 Christy Fagan, St Patrick's Athletic (-37)
Voted player of the year in 2014, Fagan has struggled with fitness and form since. He’s on this list as on his day, he’s the best striker in league by a distance
There you have it. There's been plenty of players added to the league this year that could make the list for next year, and there are no doubt players you think more deserving. So go on, do tell us, who should and shouldn't be in the list?
Photo Credits: Sportsfile