Presenting The 2021 SSE Airtricity League Awards

Presenting The 2021 SSE Airtricity League Awards
By John Dodge

Only two teams in the 2021 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division season showed any sort of consistency. One finished bottom and the other won the league.  We knew both of these early on. All other clubs had good runs and bad runs. Some overachieved while others massively underachieved. Let's hand out some awards.

Manager of the Year - Stephen Bradley

Predictably, the manager of the year isn't even a manager. Shamrock Rovers head coach Stephen Bradley dealt with losing his best two players in the off season (Jack Byrne & Aaron McEneff) and his brightest star in the summer (Liam Scales) and guided Rovers to the second successive title at a a canter.  His detractors will say that a league title with that squad while others struggled is a bare minimum but why should he be punished because no one could sustain a challenge this year? The blot on his year was a meek exit in Europe to Flora Tallinn but he'll get a chance to put that right in 2022. Bradley remains the youngest manager in the top division.

19 November 2021; Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley celebrates at the final whistle of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Drogheda United at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Player of the Year - Georgie Kelly

2020 was a bit of a disaster for George Kelly. He was surplus to requirements at Dundalk and loaned out to St Pats where he struggled to make an impact on a team that couldn't score. He didn't exactly hit the ground running with Bohs in 2021 but when he did find his form, he became unstoppable. A return of 26 goals is exceptional in our league and has earned him a move to the UK for 2022. Oh and his last gasp equalizer against Derry in September is the goal of the year too.

Event of the Year - FAI Cup final

There were no spectators allowed into LOI stadiums until June this year. Nearly 5 months with no spectators was followed by several more of limited capacities. Bohs had the first mini-events of the year with their European adventures in the Aviva but for the rest of the league, it was definitely a slow building season attendance-wise. There were numerous reasons why the 2021 FAI Cup final became such a huge event but the majority of the credit must go to the clubs. Dublin rivals St Pats and Bohs went all out on the promotional front with celeb endorsements from the likes of Paul McGrath, Wendell Pierce and Johnny Logan supplementing the excellent work done by both clubs in their communities. For the first time ever, it became impossible to miss that the FAI Cup final was on, and the Cup final became a true showpiece ending for the season. While the football took a while to take off, the atmosphere was incredible and in the end, the Cup final brought the late drama it invariably does.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=414zYXWrM4M

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Horror Show of the Year - Dundalk

Dundalk ended last year in the Europa League groups but in last year's awards we spoke about how lucky manager Filippo Giovagnoli had been.  They began 2021 by announcing that Giovagnoli was no longer manager and that Shane Keegan had been promoted. Not many believed them.  Literally no one believed them when Jim Magilton spoke about how their signing of Han Jeongwoo opened up "up a whole new avenue for the club to showcase and enhance our brand, as well as the League of Ireland’s, in Asia". It got worse for Dundalk. Their international signings were disastrous and their local talents weren't much better. Local, and indeed national press, was consumed by the misadventures of Peak 6, Bill Hulsizer and a revolving door in Oriel Park that saw Derry reclaim the likes of Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney for next season. Former boss Vinny Perth was brought in for some stability and he did okay. It was only late in the season that Dundalk showed enough to drag themselves out of relegation trouble and even threatened a tilt at Europe. They had left themselves too much to do on the pitch but by season's end the club was back in local control and the Americans had left town. They'll start 2022 with former captain Stephen O'Donnell in charge after he jumped ship from St Pats. They'll be expecting to challenge again for honours quite quickly.

Rollercoaster of the Year - Marc Bircham/Waterford FC

It's a sign of how awful it was in Dundalk this year that Waterford weren't the biggest horror show despite having 2 owners, 4 managers, the only game postponed for Covid reasons, an assistant manager sent off for arguing about sock tape and a relegation.  Lee Power's last managerial appointment as Waterford owner was Ireland's Italia 90 hero Kevin Sheedy. He brought in Mike Newell as assistant manager. They lasted 9 games with Newell suspended for most of them for multiple red cards on the touchline. There were rumours of training ground bust ups but in the end the split was "mutual". Then COVID hit. Their under 19s were beaten 7-0 by Drogheda before they forfeited their next game against Sligo. Power sold the club to English businessman Richard Forrest who brought in Marc Bircham as boss. Their fortunes on the pitch changed and they were soon the form team in the league and had dragged themselves out of the bottom two. Waterford struggled down the stretch though and ended up in the play off with Bircham taking pot shots at anyone who crossed his path for the final 3 months of the season.

Then 3 days before the relegation play off, Bircham tweeted he had been suspended. Within 20 minutes Waterford confirmed he was sacked. Bircham went on on Talksport in England and claimed he was sacked for not playing the boss's son. Forrest didn't really clear it up. He brought in Ian Hendon to manage in the play off, with Bircham in the stands with Waterford fans. Waterford looked a rabble and were beaten by UCD. Forrest took a while to comment but he told local press last week that he's planning for 2022 and everything will be fine. We'll see how new boss Ian Morris gets on.

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Good News Story of the Year

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The amount of talented young footballers in Ireland is probably at it's highest ever level. Some of the young stars to emerge in 2021 may not be back for the 2022 season but players from all across the country will be looking to step up into gaps created. For the champions, Aidomo Emakhu popped up with a late winner in Europe, cup winners Pats saw 3 players under 19; James Abankwah, Darragh Burns and Ben McCormack, emerge as regulars. Sligo's Johnny Kenny might be the most exciting striker to emerge in a while. Bohs paired Dawson Devoy and Ross Tierney in the middle with Devoy winning the PFAI young player award and Tierney earning a move to the SPL. In the first division, UCD continued to develop players with Liam Kerrigan and Colm Whelan playing for the Ireland u21s regularly.  The future looks exceptionally bright.

The Early 2022 Pre-Season Winners Award

Shamrock Rovers have re-resigned Jack Byrne to supplement their title winning squad. Dundalk have brought in Stephen O'Donnell as head coach and look set for a whole new squad next year. Pats have promised that new boss Tim Clancy will have a competitive budget for 2022. However they all pale when compared to the moves made by Derry City and new boss Ruadhri Higgins. They finished the season well and secured European football and fueled by chairman Philip O'Doherty's new cash, they've added to their squad throughout the year. Local heroes Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney will be joined by the likes of Brian Maher, Will Patching and Cameron Dummigan.  It's still early days but could Derry be the club to put it up to Rovers next season? We'll be watching with interest anyway.

SEE ALSO: All 30 Men Who Have Played In The League Of Ireland And Gone To The World Cup

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