2018 SSE Airtricity League team-by-team preview part 1
Manager: Keith Long
New signings: Karl Moore, Keith Buckley, Ryan Swan, Kevin Devaney, JJ Lunney, Darragh Leahy, Cristian Magerusan, Dylan Watts (on loan)
Player to watch: It’s always hard to pick out a standout player in Dalymount Park because it's usually very much a squad effort.
Dinny Corcoran will be aiming to be near the top of the scoring charts again, while Keith Ward showed his class on occasions last year.
Kevin Devaney has played some of the best football of his career in north Dublin and returns this year from Galway.
But JJ Lunney could be a real threat for Bohs. He will be given a more prominent role after opting to switch from St Patrick’s Athletic and is certainly one to keep an eye out for this season.
Biggest positive: The steady job done by Keith Long is admirable and he has been able to build one of the biggest squads in the league on a small budget, and there is more strength in depth this year as opposed to relying on some Under-19s.
There is stability, consistency and a growing support in Phibsborough. The rise in attendances show a positive feeling around the club.
The return of Keith Buckley, a real favourite at Dalymount Park, almost went unnoticed late on in assembling a 25+ man squad and Long has shown his ability to get the best out of his players. After a difficult season at Bray, he could also revel in being back in comfortable surroundings.
Biggest worry: Long’s willingness, and often requirement, to blood young players has worked wonders. Unfortunately two of those players moved on in the off-season with Wayne O’Hora signing for Brighton and Fuad Sule moving to Barnet. Izzy Akinade has departed for the full-time set-up at Waterford.
It’s hard to replace such great talent, and a cruciate ligament injury to new man Ryan Swan during pre-season leaves Corcoran the only recognised striker. Goals may be an issue if Corcoran doesn’t find the form of last year.
Ambition: Bohs came close to the European places last year – a remarkable achievement given their resources – and with that comes added expectation.
Quietly they will have an eye on the top four place but in a competitive division avoiding the play-off and relegation spot will be more than sufficient.
Manager: Dave Mackay
New signings: Paul O’Conor, Sean Heaney, Darragh Gibbons, Dylan Hayes, Jake Kelly, Dan McKenna (loan), Eric Donnelly, Cory Galvin, Rhys Gorman, Daniel Kelly
Player to watch: For much of the winter, doubt surrounded the future of Gary McCabe and Aaron Greene. They remain two of the outstanding players in the league and you can take your pick on who will shine brightest this season.
Dan McKenna has joined the Seagulls on a six-month loan deal from Wolves. He had already made his debut for the Republic of Ireland Under-19s and has been featuring for the development team at the Championship club.
Overall, recruitment hasn't been hugely positive for Bray. A flurry of signings when returning to pre-season offered a lot of encouragement but the rest very much looks like filler.
This could more a season of struggle than the talk of European football not so long ago.
Biggest positive: Firstly, that they have made it this far. Bray were granted a licence on Tuesday after a season that featured financial problems, match-fixing probes and press statements that will go down as some of the wackiest ever seen in the league.
They have kept some of the senior men mentioned along with Conor Kenna, Hugh Douglas and John Sullivan. That is a solid basis and McCabe has been named captain.
Paul O’Conor will always provide some goals from midfield after finding a new lease of life at St Pat’s towards the end of last season.
Biggest worry: Dave Mackay has worked at all level of the club from assistant manager to the youth team. He has proven astute in those roles but it’s a new challenge as first-team boss.
The squad is certainly not as strong as last year. Some of the additions to the squad are coming from First Division clubs.
Their pre-season form has not been great either, losing 3-0 to Wexford Youths and 3-1 to St Patrick’s Athletic, so it will be interesting to see how they start the campaign.
Ambition: Last summer it was to build an academy to rival Manchester United and Barcelona. This year it has to be to stay in the Premier Division.
Any injuries to key men could really see Bray struggle and they will rely so much on their experienced Premier Division men.
But at home, keeping that league crown in Cork will matter most.
Manager: John Caulfield
New signings: Barry McNamee, Aaron Barry, Graham Cummins, Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, Peter Cherrie, Danny Kane, Colm Horgan, Josh O’Hanlon
Player to watch: Where do you start? John Caulfield waited to replace Sean Maguire, Kevin O’Connor and Ryan Delaney and the spending spree in the aftermath of the Premier Division and FAI Cup win was the envy of every club in the country.
Barry McNamee has played every minute of his career at Derry City and spoke openly about needing a new chapter in his career. He turns 26 later this month and you still feel the best is yet to come from the talented midfielder whose creative talent and energy should see more goals in his game. The word in pre-season is he has quickly found his feet with the Rebels.
But there is one more outstanding attacking threat from midfield that could be the best player in this year’s league. Kieran Sadlier transferred from Sligo Rovers to Cork last July and scored the winning penalty in the FAI Cup final.
Eight goals from midfield may seem like a decent return but he is capable of so much more and this is the season the former West Ham man should take over the mantle of one of the leading lights in League of Ireland.
Biggest positive: An issue for Cork last year was over-loading their squad with the number of games mounting when competing on all front domestically.
Now they have a much bigger group to pick from. For example, right-back was a troublesome position with captain Johnny Dunleavy out for most of the season because of two injury problems. The solution has been to snap up the right-backs from Galway United and Sligo Rovers in Colm Horgan and Adebayo-Rowling, as well as Dunleavy, and that shows the options at Caulfield’s disposal. Peter Cherrie was the number one at Bray Wanderers and will be competition for Mark McNulty now.
Biggest worry: There may be a period of finding the best team for City. Karl Sheppard has been joined by Graham Cummins and John O’Hanlon in the attack.
Cummins was a City hero of yesteryear, scoring 42 goals in 62 games between 2010 and 2012 on their rise back through the league, but he wasn’t overly prolific in England and Scotland.
O’Hanlon is a direct replacement for Achille Champion, the target man that Caulfield always likes to have in his squad, with Mark O’Sullivan the previous version.
The Dubliner was a surprise addition given his return to the league from England with St Patrick’s Athletic wasn’t that impressive.
They could have done with another more natural goalscorer. But overall, Cork are well-placed to retain their title.
Ambition: It’s a simple task retaining a double isn’t it? But there is a expectation at the club to deliver trophies and John Caulfield knows that better than anyone.
Dundalk will be ready to come at their rivals with their new-look squad.
There is one thing missing from the City story – real European success – and when the Champions League comes to the Cross in the summer it will be a big night for the club.
Manager: Kenny Shiels
New signings: Dapo Kayode, Armin Aganovic, Gavin Peers, Jamie McDonagh, Rory Hale, Jamie McIntyre, John Cofie, David Hopkirk, Ronan Hale (on loan)
Player to watch: If John Caulfield hoovers up local talent, Kenny Shiels globe trots to find some gems and he was once again spent his winter looking to bring something new to the league. The eye-catching addition was former Manchester United player John Cofie, who once cost £1m as a teenager. Life hasn’t started too well for him after being sent off in a friendly with Drogheda United.
Shiels’ record is good. For any manager that brings players from abroad, a perfect record of successful imports is impossible, but Shiels has done well. Darren Cole arrived from Scotland last year and has all the ability to be one of the best defenders in the league this year, as shown in the 0-0 draw with Cork City on the night the Rebels claimed the title.
Armin Aganovic joins Cole in defence and already has experience of a season with Galway United, having played in Scandanvia in the last season. Rory Hale was snapped up from relegated Galway and his brother Ronan moves on loan from Birmingham City. Striker David Hopkirk has moved from Dunfermline after eight years in Scotland, and it should be another big year of progress for the likes off impressive full-back Conor McDermott and midfielder Aaron McEneff. The latter in particular is well-positioned to head back to England soon.
Big things are expected from Rory Hale after doing very well for Galway in their late rally to stay in the top flight last year. Former Shamrock Rovers man Chris Turner is set to join as well.
Biggest positive: Eventually Derry will move back home to The Brandywell and after a tough year in Maginn Park, it will be good to be back to where they belong with season tickets strong for the return. They may miss the first game or two for the season but it will create a wave of optimism at the club after some difficult times.
Young players are at the forefront of Derry’s success. Ben Doherty will replace Dean Jarvis and is ready for the step-up. Eoin Toal was drafted into the squad for a couple of games last season and the former Armagh City man showed why he could be bound for big things, with his manager saying he could be as good as Jonny Evans. Add in Gavin Peers and there is plenty to work with in defensive areas for City, albeit being somewhat light on full-backs.
Biggest worry: Shiels, despite occasionally venting frustration, has admirably gotten on with the job despite losing talent to the top clubs and he has continually brought in ready-made replacements.
But this is his biggest challenge. Barry McNamee, Aaron Barry and Dean Jarvis have moved on and it will take time for the new players to settle in.
The delay to the redevelopment Brandywell could see City play a run of matches of the season away from home at the start of the year. While there will be a backlog of home games to come if it is the case, Shiels will not want a situation of playing catch-up if they don’t start well
Ambition: Qualifying for Europe was a terrific achievement through the trauma of the loss of captain Ryan McBride and months of soldiering on in grief, while trying to focus on football. Shiels is keen to see his side challenge for the title but it looks too big a gap to bridge. A European spot would represent another fine season for the Candystripes.
Manager: Stephen Kenny
New signings: Dean Jarvis, Stephen Folan, Ronan Murray, Patrick Hoban, Ross Treacy, Karolis Chvedukas, Krisztian Adorjan (loan)
Player to watch: Ronan Murray scored 13 goals as Galway United were relegated and had a host of suitors before Stephen Kenny got his man. Patrick Hoban returns from England without hitting the heights he did in the League of Ireland.
If he can recapture the form of his first spell, then the loss of David McMillan and Patrick McEleney will not be felt.
Krisztian Adorjan, a former Liverpool player with experience in Italy, is an interesting addition on loan from Novara, with Kenny’s expecting big things from the 23-year-old. Lithuanian international Karolis Chvedukas has also moved to Oriel Park. Both received rave reviews for performances against Brentford on Thursday night in a friendly.
But there is more to come and unusually there is still business to be done by the Dundalk manager. The loan window closes in the third week of February and out of contract players can still be signed, so more movement is expected.
Hoban is the only out-and-out striker at the club so it probably is needed. Elsewhere it is very much the same and Jarvis will provided much better options on the left side than previously.
Stephen Folan has arrived from Galway after spells with Cork City, Limerick and Sligo Rovers.
At 25, it is time to build on all the attributes in his game that point to Folan being a top-class centre half and Kenny is the best man to bring it out of him. Regardless of the lack of quality around him in 2017, Folan was part of a Galway side that conceded 50 goals last year and this is a step-up.
Biggest positive: McMillan and McEleney have followed in the footsteps of Richie Towell, Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan in looking to find success in Britain, but it could have been worse for Kenny.
Robbie Benson’s move never materialised while Sean Gannon was close to signing for Shamrock Rovers, but ended up signing a three-year contract. Both are key men are form part of the nucleus that has Brian Gartland, Gary Rogers, Chris Shields and John Mountney.
The pain of seeing their grip on the domestic honours slip will be a huge motivation for Dundalk and if Murray and Hoban click from the start, it could be another exciting team to watch with two foreign imports backing them up in midfield.
Biggest concern: The small bit of late business Kenny has to do. Sam Byrne is rumoured to be joining from Everton on loan which would be a good signing but it’s not ideal to still be finishing the squad at this point of the year.
It has been a hard market for all clubs with many players departing for Britain and Kenny isn’t the only one with this complaint.
The Dundalk boss will be all too aware how Cork hit the ground running last year and City are in a better situation with their new signings mostly in from the end of last year.
But it's a minor complaint and they still have the vast majority of their business done and will be set to make a major play at getting their crown back.
Ambition: Win back their league title. It’s the goal of the new American consortium now running the club to be dominant team in the country. They have the right man in charge and you can see another battle with Cork City emerging.
It’s anyone’s call right now and we can certainly look forward to another fascinating battle to come between the rivals, starting on Sunday in the President's Cup.
Read Part 2 of the Airtricity League team-by-team preview here