After a traumatic nine-year spell in the First Division, 2018 will see Waterford make their long-awaited return to the top tier. 2007 was the last time that the Blues tasted Premier Division football and there is an understandable positivity around the club ahead of the upcoming campaign.
Lee Power’s investment in the Suirside club has yielded huge dividends and full-time Waterford appear well-placed to establish themselves as a Premier Division club. The core of last year’s First Division winning squad has been retained with valuable re-enforcements added throughout the side. Ismahil Akinade, Bastien Hery, Gavan Holohan and Dave Webster have all come on board this term and bring undoubted experience to Alan Reynold’s Munster outfit.
The astute signing of French central midfielder Bastien Hery from Munster rivals Limerick could prove to be vital for the Blues this season. Hery grew into his first League of Ireland season as 2017 progressed and impressed substantially in the latter parts of the year.
Having come through the ranks at PSG, the former Rochdale and Carlisle man played a key role in helping Limerick to avoid the drop and Waterford secured his signature despite the apparent interest of champions Cork City. He will play a vital role this year and should build on his already impressive reputation.
Key new arrival:
Mark O’Sullivan and David McDaid accounted for 23 of the club’s 47 league goals last year and with both having departed a replacement was clearly needed. Waterford have added a striker well-used to finding the net at this level in Ismahil Akinade and he will have to fire on all cylinders for the side to succeed this season.
The former Bohs and Bray talisman is still only 24 despite this being his seventh League of Ireland campaign and is now entering the prime of his career.
Winger Derek Daly enjoyed an impressive season in 2017 as Waterford marched to the First Division title. Joining from Chesterfield, Daly was named in the First Division Team of the Year and picked up the club’s Young Player of the Year award.
The 20-year-old Dubliner made 27 appearances, scoring on four occasions throughout the campaign. While the step up to the Premier Division will be a challenge, Daly appears well-capable of shining in the top tier.
One to watch:
Full-back John Kavanagh recently arrived on loan from last season’s double winners Cork City and could be a major player this year in the Waterford defence. Kavanagh initially broke into the City first team in 2013 and backed that up with an impressive season in 2014.
Injuries have hampered his career since, however, and he missed the majority of the 2015 and 2016 campaigns. In 2017 he went on loan to Cobh Ramblers and appeared to put his injury problems behind him, making nine appearances towards the end of the season for Stephen Henderson’s side. The 23-year-old has undoubted talent and this could be the year that we see the true return of the Corkman.
On paper Waterford have a healthy squad with enough experience to allow them consolidate their Premier Division status in their first year back at the summit of Irish football. Matt Connor and Niall Corbett are two the league’s finest young netminders while Kenny Browne, Paul Keegan and Dave Webster bring a wealth of defensive knowledge.
Former St Pat’s youth Rory Feely adds a lot of promise to the midfield and overall Reynolds has brought together a capable group of players at the RSC.
The one cause for concern is their attack and apart from Akinade there seems to be a lack of true goalscoring ability. If Gavan Holohan, Dean O’Halloran and Belgian recruit Faysel Kasmi contribute to the goals then that should not be a problem. Otherwise, life at the top may not be so easy for the men in blue.
Waterford should have enough to avoid an immediate return to the second tier and that would be viewed by many as a success. Moving on from that, it’s difficult to see them challenging at the higher end of the table so soon into their rebuilding project.
There is no shortage of ambition at the club, however, and this season could be the start of a promising few years on Suirside with European football the eventual aim.
Pundit Arena Prediction: 7th