After what felt like an endless offseason, the Airtricity League Premier Division finally returns on Friday night with a host of eye-catching fixtures to kick-off the new campaign.
Last season’s champions Dundalk will be looking to prove they can retain their crown in Stephen Kenny’s absence while a host of clubs look as though they may be geared up for a run at the Lilywhites.
With all eyes fixed on what could be one of the most fascinating campaigns in recent years, Pundit Arena takes a look at some of the main talking points ahead of the upcoming Airtricity League season.
How Will Champions Dundalk Fare In Stephen Kenny’s Absence?
Dundalk may have the distinct advantage of being able to start the exact same starting XI from the last game of their title-winning campaign (including a few strong additions) but they have lost a key part of their recent success in the departure of Stephen Kenny.
Three league titles in four seasons, including two trebles, Kenny’s success is undeniable, but how will the Lilywhites cope in his absence? They’ve replaced the current Irish U21s boss with the team of former assistant Vinnie Perth and ex-manager John Gill in an attempt to keep familiarity a key part of their success.
While losing Kenny, the ability to keep hold of last year’s PFAI Player of the Year Michael Duffy and the league’s top scorer Pat Hoban has been a massive boost, while Jordan Flores from Wigan, goalkeeper Aaron McCarey and former Watford standout Sean Murray all represent fantastic additions to an already strong side.
Gill outlined that he and the club were determined to show the world that Dundalk’s success was not simply down to one man, and it’s likely that the champions will have the bit between their teeth as a result.
Kenny aside, it should still be Dundalk who take home the crown come the end of the season.
Will Cork’s Rebuild Affect Their Title Chances?
A host of new additions as well as a number of high profile departures have seen a rebuild in John Caulfield’s side ahead of the new campaign.
Nine signings and ten departures, but a solid core of experience with the likes of Karl Sheppard, Gearoid Morrissey and Alan Bennett will likely help to settle things at Turner’s Cross.
The loss of goals in Kieran Sadlier could end up being a blow for Caulfield, after the 24-year old’s departure for Doncaster following a breakout season which saw him net 16 times in the league.
The signing of striker Liam Nash from Gillingham may end up paying dividends though, should he find form and fitness.
They’ll also be boosted by the return of Kevin O’Connor on loan from Preston, with the defender turned midfielder likely to add a wealth of quality to the Leesiders’ ranks.
It may be a season of transition for Caulfield and Co. but should their new signings hit the ground running they could be in for a more promising campaign than most think.
How Serious Are The New Contenders To Dundalk’s Throne?
On paper at least, this season has the potential to be one of the most competitive in recent years, at least that is the hope for many in the division.
Although Dundalk remain incredibly strong, the off-season has seen the likes of Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic make big plays for a title push.
Stephen Bradley’s men finished 2018 strongly and have bought well, signing Aaron McEneff from Derry City and the once of Manchester City Jack Byrne, who could be a huge asset in the division if the 22-year old can find form.
St Pat’s, who saw the departure of Liam Buckley towards the end of last season, welcome Harry Kenny to his first full campaign at Richmond Park, and like their Dublin rivals Rovers, have excellently navigated the transfer window.
Brandon Miele and Mikey Drennan both represent exciting attacking options while the return of promising young centre-back Ciaran Kelly after a spell at Drogheda is also a signing to keep an eye on.
It’s former Richmond darling Chris Forrester however who may prove to be the most shrewd piece of business, with the ex- Peterborough midfielder unquestionably one of the league’s finest players on his day.
After A Strong First Division Winning Season, How Will UCD Cope Back In The Top Flight?
Contrary to most people’s predictions Collie O’Neill’s UCD stormed to last season’s first division crown to secure a return to the top flight.
The students showed the best of their style and eye-catching football to top the table ahead of Finn Harps and gained a tonne of admiration in doing so.
Although O’Neill outlined that the easy on the eye, pretty style of football UCD play with won’t strike fear into many teams in the division they could be a candidate to surprise quite a few this season.
In Gary O’Neill, they have one of last season’s standout first division players and have kept most of their squad with youngsters Liam Scales and Neil Farrugia keen to impress at the highest level.
Defender Evan Osam’s injury will likely be a blow to O’Neill and the students but they should have just enough to survive this season back in the top division.