The #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld returns today. It’s weird and wild and it’s the best football the country has to offer. Whether you’re a LOI snob, a die-hard, a blow-in, a normal sane person or even a hater, here’s that you need to look out for in the 2016 SSE Airtricity League season.
You can listen to a further LOI preview on our daily sports podcast, The Racket:
As is customary, we ask 10 questions;
1) Can Dundalk make it 3-in-row?
Since Shamrock Rovers won 4 succesive titles in the mid 80s, 4 teams have won back-to-back titles. Dundalk are hoping to go one better and become only the 4th side in history to win 3 consecutive league titles. They’ll need to do it without the talismanic Richie Towell. They may have the best player in the league in their midfield, but where are their goals going to come from?
2) Can Cork City actually win something?
Second for the last 2 seasons, John Caulfield can’t afford another trophy-less season on Leeside. He’s been backed by his board with Greg Bolger and Gearoid Morrissey coming in to form the best midfield in the country. With the backing of a big crowd, and a pretty deep squad, Cork can’t have any excuses this year.
3) Who’ll be top in Dublin?
The 3 Dublin sides in the Premier Division finished 3rd-5th last year with Shamrock Rovers winning the league of Dublin for the first time since 2011. Whether through choice or necessity (Pat Fenlon has spoke of budget cuts), the age profile of Rovers squad has changed dramatically in the last 12 months; the signing of Killian Brennan from Pats being the notable exception.
For their part Liam Buckley has build a new Pats team with 9 players coming in to join a corps that remain from the team that have won all 3 main national trophies in 3 years. Keith Long’s Bohs side look far more stable but bookies still make them the outsider in this trio.
4) What of the newboys?
You can’t get 2 teams separated by distance more than Wexford Youths and Finn Harps but both promoted teams have faced the same questions over the off season; can they do enough to survive? Harps have been here before and they know if they’re successful the people of Donegal will back them (they expect to sell out the opener v Derry). It’s all new for Wexford Youths. Their youg manager Shane Keegan seems to have a bright future but his budget is miniscule. If he manages to keep Youths up, he will surely be headhunted for the bigger jobs.
5) Who rebuilds faster; Sligo or Derry?
The big 2 clubs in the North West are both under brand new-to-the-league managers and they’ve both recruited heavily from outside the country. Sligo have had success with English managers and players in the past but there’s no guarantees that Dave Robertson is the new Paul Cook or Ian Baraclough. Derry brought in Kenny Shiels and the man from Maghera brings a fiery reputation. It could help inspire the crowds in Derry, or it could all blow up on him. Both clubs will be interesting to observe anyway.
6) After successful 2015s, can Longford or Galway United push on?
Longford and Galway won promotion in 2014 and both looked comfortable in the Premier Division last year. Longford finished in the top half but Tony Cousins hasn’t really added to his squad and they look closer to the relegation candidates than breaking into the top 5. Galway showed potential in flashes last year and Tommy Dunne has carried on building the team. Having come close to winning the EA Sports Cup, Galway feel they’re ready to challenge in the top half this year.
7) What’s going on at Bray Wanderers?
Having been in constant turmoil in 2015 (we catalogued the mess half way through the season), they responded by signing high profile players like Conor Kenna and Ryan Brennan to 2 year deals. Seasoned LOI fans understand that contracts mean little but there’s no doubt Bray are a lot stronger than in 2015. Mick Cooke is an experienced manager and he’s backed up by one of the bst coaches in the country in Harry Kenny. If Bray don’t implode, they’ll be a handful for every team that plays them this year. Oh their kit is the best in the league too...
8) Will anyone notice the First Division?
Fans of Premier Division clubs cry foul about the lack of media spotlight for the teams but it pales in comparison to the oblivion that is the First Division. The second tier is shaping up to be really competitive this year with Limerick the big spenders with UCD (with the shrewd signing of Kieran Marty Waters) and Drogheda United (under the stewardship of Pete Mahon) the likely challengers. Shelbourne have opted for a team of kids in similar fashion to Cabinteely (albeit at opposite ends of the LOI history scale...). Cobh will be better now that Stephen Henderson has had a full pre-season with them and Waterford... Well Waterford have Roddy Collins.
9) Will the Conroy Report be implemented?
The Conroy Report into the SSE Airtricity League was published in September. If there have been further discussions between the clubs and the FAI since then they have been done in secret. We know that fans haven’t been consulted. We know that the players haven’t been consulted since the publication came out. So are any of the proposals likely to happen? Pretty much every stake holder in Irish football accepts changes are needed, so who's driving this?
10) Is this the year of off the field developments?
Last week St Pats announced a link up with Crumlin United , to go along with their NUI Maynooth scholarship scheme. It provides the Inchicore club with a couple of calling cards for young players looking to break into the LOI. Shamrock Rovers members are about to vote on a proposal that may see their ownership stake reduced to 50%. In exchange they’ll receive a loan to build and maintain a top class academy for youngsters (and instil professionalism at board level).
Bohemians may be playing their last season in Dalymount Park before it is redeveloped by Dublin City Council. Derry will likely play 6/7 games away from the Brandywell as work commences there in August. There are more exciting developments planned for many other LOI clubs. One thing the LOI is never short is ideas and dreams. All they need is backing...
There'll be other storylines. There always is. Stars will emerge, others will fade. Last year St Pats were the bookies favourites and they ended closer to fifth than 3rd in the league. Dundalk were not everybody's pick, despite everyone proclaiming them a generational team after they steamrolled the league. Whatever happens, it's going to be fun. We'll bring you the best of the action here on balls.ie.