SSE Airtricity League Gameweek Two Roundup

As with every season since 2014, this year’s League of Ireland landscape was dominated by two clubs, with Dundalk and Cork City setting standards that nobody else could reach. After Cork usurped their Louth rivals to win the league in 2017, Dundalk came back with a vengeance to reclaim their crown while also seeing off their biggest rivals to lift the FAI Cup, repeating Cork’s double-winning feat from last year. In the end, Stephen Kenny’s side won the Premier Division at something of a canter, but the teams were neck and neck midway through the season; it was a relentless sequence of 13 consecutive wins between May and August which saw the Lilywhites pull clear at the summit. They ended the campaign with a record number of points (87) and goals (85) for a club in the League of Ireland Premier Division, a telling testament to how phenomenal they have been over the last five years.

Dundalk have seen several iconic players depart for English shores during Kenny’s time in charge, but two returning idols ended up having a huge impact on their triumphant year. Pat Hoban racked up 29 goals, a League of Ireland season record almost twice as many as the next highest scorer in the division, to put his disappointing stint across the water behind him, while Patrick McEleney returned from a torrid, injury-plagued spell at Oldham to excel in the second half of the season and score the winner in the cup final. In midfield, the long-serving Chris Shields enjoyed a phenomenal campaign, giving a masterclass in the 1-0 win away to Cork in September, while young Michael Duffy had such an accomplished year that some are calling for him to be called up to the senior Republic of Ireland squad.

Cork City finished this season with a higher points tally (77) than that with which they won the 2017 Premier Division (76), although this year they played three more games and they never reached the levels that they sustained in the first half of the title-winning campaign. The loss of crown jewels such as Sean Maguire proved too big a chasm for subsequent signings to fill, with the Leesiders lacking a genuine, bona fide match winner in their squad. They lost four of their five meetings with Dundalk during the year and manager John Caulfield came under fire for his overly conservative brand of football. Nor did it help that the usually rock-solid Mark McNulty committed decisive errors in big games, and once they lost at home to their title rivals a month before the end of the season, any lingering hopes of back-to-back triumphs were surrendered tamely.

Shamrock Rovers’ season followed a familiar pattern – high hopes of a title challenge in pre-season, a desperately disappointing start to the campaign to sink title prospects almost immediately, followed by a strong second half of the season to wrap up a European finish. At times during the year, it looked as if Stephen Bradley’s days in Tallaght were numbered, especially with the Hoops shipping a bucketload of goals prior to the mid-season break and losing all four league meetings to arch-rivals Bohemians. Once they tightened up at the back and recruited a settled goalkeeper in veteran Alan Mannus, though, they rediscovered their mojo and beat Waterford to third place. With Cork set to cut their budget significantly for 2019, Rovers can realistically aim for second spot next time around, but the gap to Dundalk is still a sizeable one.

In contrast to the Hoops, newly-promoted Waterford roared out of the starting blocks before fading after the halfway mark. Alan Reynolds’ charges were keeping pace with the top two after the first couple of months and they took the scalp of the big boys on a few occasions, but their form dried up during the summer and optimistic talk of a surprise title challenge was instead revised to making sure that they finished in a European qualifying position. Dundalk’s FAI Cup success meant that fourth was good enough for Waterford to enter the Europa League next year and the investment that Lee Power has ploughed into the club is reaping its rewards. Reynolds deserves enormous credit, too, for astute signings such as Ismahil Akinade, Courtney Duffus, Sander Puri, Lawrence Vigouroux (who was missed after he left in the summer) and Bastien Hery.

It was another middle of the road season for St Patrick’s Athletic, whose inconsistency saw the curtain come down on Liam Buckley’s seven-year tenure at Richmond Park in the closing weeks of the season. They rallied to finish strongly with Ger O’Brien in temporary charge and will hope for better things under new manager Harry Kenny in 2019. When St Pat’s were good, they looked slick and assured. All too often, though, they were nice to play against, not a trait that any football team should possess. The highlight of their year was probably the announcement that their Inchicore home is set to be redeveloped into an attractive 12,000-capacity venue.

When it comes to making silk purses out of a sow’s ear in the League of Ireland, Keith Long is the master of that art. The Bohemians manager has been operating off a threadbare budget at Dalymount Park, yet the form shown by the Gypsies during August and September was that of title challengers. It was just a pity for them that they were hovering close to the relegation zone prior to that hot streak, while they were horrendously unlucky not to defeat Cork City in the FAI Cup semi-finals. Defeat in the replay took the wind out of their sails a bit, but not before they had climbed into the comfort of mid-table. Players such as Dan Casey, Dinny Corcoran, Shane Supple and Fuad Sule had stellar seasons in the red and black, with Casey’s form earning him a move to Cork for 2019. Bohs have potential to climb back into the European frame; all it might take is a bit more funding for miracle worker Long. Also, like St Pat’s, they can look forward to an upgrading of their home ground, with Dalymount getting a long-overdue modernisation in the near future.

While the men from Phibsboro exceeded expectations, Derry City fell way short of their targets for the season. The Candystripes had started brightly, buoyed by their return to the redeveloped Brandywell after a year in Buncrana, and the goals of Ronan Curtis were keeping their flame nicely lit. Once he moved to Portsmouth in the summer, though, Derry carried far less of an attacking threat and were atrocious defensively, shipping a massive 70 goals during a season that couldn’t end quickly enough. Not even victory in the EA Sports Cup final could keep Kenny Shiels in a job, the manager paying the price for Derry’s shocking league form and, possibly, his dour public demeanour. The Candystripes underachieved in a big way in 2018.

The same could be said, albeit to a lesser extent, for Sligo Rovers. Nobody was expecting a European push from the Bit O Red, but to find themselves casting a nervous eye on the relegation places for most of the campaign was not what The Showgrounds faithful had in mind. Despite picking up some impressive away results, Sligo’s home form was abysmal and it came as little surprise when Ger Lyttle was relieved of his duties as manager towards the end of the campaign, his departure not exactly mourned by the Sligo faithful. They moved quickly to hire Liam Buckley as his replacement and, given the ex-St Pat’s gaffer’s wealth of experience in this league, it seems a shrewd appointment. While former Liverpool striker Adam Morgan had an abortive injury-hit spell at the club, the mid-season signing of Mikey Drennan proved a masterstroke, his goals ensuring that safety was secured with a few weeks of the season remaining.

After several brushes with relegation, Bray Wanderers finally fell through the trapdoor in 2018 and they fell through it face-first. They ended the season with a paltry 17 points and endured yet another summer of financial farce, with their players threatening strike action at one point. Years of mismanagement eventually caught with them and they employed no fewer than three managers over the course of a shambolic year. Experienced campaigners such as Garry McCabe and Aaron Greene looked a pale shadow of their former selves at the Carlisle Grounds and, in an increasingly competitive First Division, we might not see Bray back in the top flight for a while. It seems extraordinary to think now that, on the opening day of the season, they drew 0-0 at Dundalk – it turned out to be the Seagulls’ only away point from 18 games.

It was an equally depressing year for Limerick, who narrowly avoided the drop last season and endured a farcical sequence of bad news stories throughout 2018. Early season recruits such as Daniel Kearns and Conor Clifford had to be flogged in June once it became patently clear that cash flow problems at the club prevented their wages from being paid, with goalkeeper Brendan Clarke also being forced to move on. Other signings like Conor Ellis and Barry Maguire flattered to deceive and, week by week, the situation became increasingly desperate for young manager Tommy Barrett in his first season in charge. As in 2015, they were relegated after losing a play-off to Finn Harps, but whereas that time they died with their boots on, this year they raised the white flag all too readily. They roared straight back up from the First Division when they were last relegated, but their incredibly parlous financial state will make promotion a whole lot harder to achieve next year.

Alongside Finn Harps, UCD returned to the top flight, the Students winning the First Division convincingly under bright young boss Collie O’Neill. The college side also made it to the FAI Cup semi-finals, where they were edged out by Dundalk at Oriel Park, and will be a refreshing addition to next year’s Premier line-up. Fellow second-tier outfit Cobh Ramblers had a fantastic run to the EA Sports Cup final, where they gave Derry City a scare before losing 3-1. Standards in the First Division have certainly been raised in the last couple of seasons.

Unfortunately, the trend for League of Ireland clubs in Europe has gone in the other direction. Cork City were swatted aside by Legia Warsaw in the Champions League qualifiers before being thumped by Rosenborg in the Europa League repechage. Shamrock Rovers gave AIK Solna a good run but lost to the Swedish club in the first qualifying round of the latter competition, while Derry City were well beaten by Dinamo Minsk. Dundalk were the only Irish side to win a European tie in 2018, getting past Levadia Tallinn as expected before a heavy defeat to AEK Larnaca in the second qualifying round. Those disappointing results will harm the league’s European coefficient as, year by year, the impact of Dundalk’s Europa League group stage participation of 2016 subsidies.

In truth, it was an anti-climactic League of Ireland season. We knew with a good five or six weeks left that Dundalk would reclaim the title, with only Cork City mustering any sort of challenge. Shamrock Rovers and Waterford wrapped up third and fourth with ease, while Bray’s demise was inevitable and Limerick weren’t much better. It meant that the October fixtures lacked any real meaning, although the FAI Cup final was a better spectacle than in the previous two years. We also got to see not one but two goals scored from beyond the halfway line – Rhys McCabe for Sligo away to Limerick in April and Kieran Sadlier from his own penalty area against St Pat’s a few weeks later.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a tepid season after all!