"It was a season like no other" is how every wrap up of the 2020 League Of Ireland season will start, and this one is no different.
It was a season like no other. We started out with the weather being too bad for a game to be televised and quickly followed with an all time classic that produced a Puskas nominee. Then a bunch of non-footballing stuff happened and we resumed at the end of July with a half season schedule, finishing with Dundalk hosting Arsenal in the Aviva Stadium for a Europa League group stage game. So even though the league season was halved and other competitions were cancelled, we've a lot to get through.
The Player of the Year
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, its Jack Byrne of Shamrock Rovers. His vision and passing make him the stand out player in the league. He's a consistent squad member with the Ireland national team, and is becoming a bit of a cause celebre with online fans and pundits calling for his international involvement to become greater. Byrne, obviously, has been linked with a move out of Ireland. We'll see what happens.
The Manager of the Year
To the surprise of many, including those Shamrock Rovers fans who were calling for his head only a couple of years ago, Stephen Bradley is the manager of the year. His Shamrock Rovers team went unbeaten through all 18 league games and did so with the best defence and playing quality attacking football. Bradley definitely had a rocky patch at the start of his career, and seemed unwilling to take the job on after his initial period in charge, but he's developed into a fine manager who has moulded a very talented squad into an excellent team.
The Game of the Year
We go all the way back to February for the game of year with Shamrock Rovers coming from behind to beat Dundalk in front of a record Tallaght Stadium crowd and an engrossed RTE TV audience.
Both sides entered the game having won their opening 3 games. The champions away to the team who beat them in the Cup final last year. Rarely has a League of Ireland game received so much hype. Ireland manager Mick McCarthy sat with future Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Nearby sat the most high profile LOI fan of them all; President Michael D Higgins.
For once, the game delivered.
Rovers took an early league before Jordan Flores's Puskas nominated wonder strike levelled things up. With a half an hour left, Pat Hoban put the champions in front but Rovers roared back and Pico Lopes equalised with just under 20 minutes to go. The atmosphere was electric as both teams went in search of a winner. In the 83rd minute, the ball was moved to Jack Byrne with his back to the goal about 25 yards out. Byrne quickly turned to face the brilliant Chris Shields and instantly shifts the ball a yard away from him and curls a stunning winning goal into the bottom corner. An amazing goal to win an amazing match.
The Comeback of the Year
This is the tightest awards race of the year.
Sligo Rovers lost all four games before the pandemic break. They hadn't even scored in the opening three games. When the league resumed though they won five of six and vaulted themselves up the league table. They didn't exactly run away from the pack but they did enough to finish in 4th place and qualify for European football next year. A noteworthy achievement.
The winner though is Finn Harps. They won their opening game and drew the next before losing six in a row. With four games left in the season they still only had two in their wins column. They beat Bohs in Dalymount, Pats in Ballybofey, lost to champions Rovers and, in a dramatic final night, beat Waterford at home to secure Premier Division football for 2021. Half of Harps' total points came after the 3rd of October.
The Newcomer of the Year
When the league eventually returned on the last day of July, it only did so because of WatchLOI, a new streaming service by the league in conjunction with RTE and their GAAGO platform.
With an exceptional price of €55 for all games, a "free" season pass was issued to season ticket holders of all Premier Division clubs. The service wasn't without its hiccups and it was far from a perfect product, but it was warmly welcomed by fans at home and abroad as we got to see our teams play every game. We won't predict who will be allowed in stadiums in 2021, and the murmuring from RTE suggest the numbers weren't great for WatchLOI, but it'd be a real shame if it didn't return in some form next year.
The Shock of the Year
When the quality of the Cork City squad is met with even the barest of analysis, their relegation isn't really a shock. Neale Fenn's reliance on, frankly terrible, players from the lower reaches of English football and loanees didn't pay off and they were in trouble from the start.
Fenn didn't last the season, and neither did City's status as a fan owned club. It was only three years ago when Cork City won the league and cup double and played in front of attendances that dwarfed all other clubs. A succession of bad decisions on and off the field since have seen them move from the model League of Ireland club to voting to sell up to Preston North End's owner Trevor Hemmings out of necessity and planning for life in the First Division. The speed of that slide is genuinely shocking. (UPDATE - A week after this was published Cork City announced that Hemming's Grovemore Ltd "will not be proceeding with their option to purchase Cork City Football Club at this time". Grovemore had hoped to secure a longer term lease with the Munster FA's Turners Cross but were unable to do so. It remains to be seen where Cork City will play next year.)
The Luckiest Man of the Year
After Dundalk lost away to Celje of Slovenia in the Champions League, head coach Vinny Perth was relieved of his duties. The 2019 champions hadn't won a league game since the restart and rumours of off field shenanigans rumbled on.
Those rumours were further fueled when Dundalk appointed Filippo Giovagnoli as interim head coach. The Italian was known to owner Bill Hulsizer through his work in American academies. Because he was living in the then "green light" country of Italy, he was available to move to Ireland without a quarantine period.
Giovagnoli quickly got fans and media onside with his affable personality and within 5 weeks Dundalk had qualified for the Europa League group stages again. He'd end the season winning the FAI Cup and being made head coach on a permanent basis.
So why is he lucky?
Because Dundalk's league season was still a disaster. They finished 22 points behind Rovers, and under Giovagnoli , they only beat the two relegated sides and a Derry City team in freefall. Post pandemic, they managed 14 points in 13 games. Also, Dundalk's Europa League draw could not have been better. Their excellent results in previous years had them seeded throughout and they beat the Champions of Andorra, Moldova (on penalties) and the Faroe Islands to qualify.
It may seem churlish to Dundalk fans, but you can't discount the element of luck when it comes to draws. Giovagnoli may turn out to be a brilliant coach. He'll be guided next year by Jim Magilton and still, presumably, have a relatively huge budget to work with. What happens with Dundalk and Giovagnoli next year will be one of the most interesting stories to watch.
The Young Player of the Year
Bohs manager Keith Long loves wingers, and his style of football has helped showcase their talents too.
Kris Twardek has moved on the Polish League but on the other side young Danny Grant was the revelation of the season. He has the number one trait that defenders everywhere hate the most; pure pace.
He isn't just pace though, Grant has all the tools an attacker needs and is sure to develop even more in the coming years. He has a very bright future ahead of him.
The Old Player of the Year
The two best goalkeepers in the league are 38-year-old Alan Mannus and 37-year-old Brian Murphy. Sligo's Ed McGinty might fly the flag for youngsters but the old men are a step above him just now. Mannus is the model of consistency so he just pips Murphy to the award.
A word too for Gary Rogers who won another European penalty shoot out the day before his 39th birthday and ended the season with yet another FAI Cup winners medal.
The Hope of the Year
No one knows what'll happen in 2021 in the real world, never mind in the semi-fantasy world of League of Ireland football.
We can only hope that next year fans are allowed return to the stadiums and that the promising work done off the field by clubs is matched by advancements on the pitch. Some great players will leave, but others will emerge.
Do we want 2021 to return to normality? Probably not, because while 2020 was a season like no other, the League of Ireland is also a league like no other, and we don't do normal.