Galway United manager Shane Keegan expects competition to be fierce in what could be one of the closest League of Ireland First Division title races in years.
The Tribesmen are seen as many peoples’ favourites to bounce straight back up from last season’s relegation from the top tier, but Keegan expects a number of other sides to all be gunning for that automatic promotion place.
Speaking to Pundit Arena’s Irish football podcast the Mixer tat the SSE Airtricity League launch this week, the former Wexford boss feels that as many as eight sides in the newly-expanded ten-team division should harbour immediate ambitions of going up:
“I’m looking forward to it.
“I think it’ll be an incredibly competitive division. I’d say you’d do well to find a division in Europe where eight of the ten teams are 10/1 or less to go up before a ball has been kicked.
“You’ve probably got seven or eight of the teams thinking that the league is not beyond them and all ten teams thinking that nicking that fourth spot might be achievable so it’s going to lead to real excitement.”
Keegan disclosed that he and his Galway side aim to be in that conversation to be crowned First Division champions at the end of the year, but expects the playoffs to be tricky for any side that ends up in that position:
“There’s no point in trying to say otherwise, our aim is to try and go and win the thing. There’s probably at least five or six teams who feel like that but they might not say it out loud or publicly but realistically they do believe they can go and win the league.
“That playoff structure is going to be tough, to put it mildly and I think any team to even get the chance to play the Premier Division side before you have to go and beat the Premier Division side.
“It’s going to be tough with the way its structured this year, so there’s no doubt if you can grab first it saves a lot of heartache.”
While Keegan feels that the field is wide open this year, he went on to pick a couple of opponents that he feels could pose the biggest obstacles to his aim of first-time promotion:
“Off the top of my head I would have thought [Finn] Harps or Longford are the two best equipped. Harps have what they have for the last few years which is a real core, real physical strength, all of that kind of thing.
“They were short goals, now they’ve got Ciaran O’Connor, Michael O’Connor, John O’Flynn – mother of God! – they’ve enough goalscorers for the division now. Mark Timlin and Paddy McCourt creating the chances for them, they look like they’re going to be really, really strong.
“Longford seems to have put together a really strong squad. Look at the Darren Meenan signing – I don’t think any other First Division side could have the financial strength to pull off what they pulled off there…they look very good.
“They would be the two that would jump out at me but then, it’s probably the first year in a long time where UCD haven’t lost their best players, I mean they’re going to have Maxi [Kouogun] at centre-back, Greg Slogett and Gary O’Neil as a centre midfield partnership is going to be as good as anything in the division and Georgie Kelly up top banging in goals. That sets them up really well.
“Shels have managed to get Davy O’Sullivan in, Cabinteely have manged to keep hold of Marty [Waters]. If you’re a supporter of any team you can make a strong case for why your team is going to do fantastically well this year.”
Galway United begin their first division campaign on Friday night with a clash against Athlone Town at Eamonn Deacy Park, before a trip to Cobh Ramblers for their first away clash the following week.
To hear more from Shane, as well as Ollie Horgan, Ronan Finn and Liam Buckley, be sure to listen to this week’s Mixer Irish football podcast as we look ahead to the new SSE Aitricity League season and we also pay tribute to the great Liam Miller.