The SSE Airtricty League roars back into life on Friday night as the first round of Premier and First Division fixtures get underway.
After a season that saw Cork City end their twelve-year wait for a league title, three teams suffer the heartbreak of relegation and an endless amount of drama and brilliant goals, anticipation is high that the 2018 edition can match or even surpass last year in terms of quality.
Ahead of the new campaign, we asked our League of Ireland writers to make their picks for 2018 – who will be crowned champions, who is going down, and everything in between.
To begin – which team will be crowned Premier Division champions?
Rob Lyons: Cork City. They have strengthened that bit more impressively than their closest rivals while holding on to important players like Gearóid Morrissey, Conor McCormack, Karl Sheppard and Alan Bennett.
Simon O’Keeffe: Cork City, and I think last Sunday’s show of ruthlessness will have shown why. John Caulfield’s side look strong all across the attack this season and have the right balance in midfield. The new-look backline will need to gel quickly, however, with a handful of new defenders brought in over the winter.
Thomas Stafford: The defending champions have a very impressive squad once again this year and Graham Cummins should replace Seáni Maguire’s goals.
Which three teams will join them in the top four?
RL: 2. Dundalk. 3. Shamrock Rovers. 4. Derry. Shamrock Rovers are primed to genuinely challenge the top two while Derry aren’t quite up to the level of Dundalk or Rovers just yet.
SO’K: Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, St. Pat’s. Dundalk will be involved in the title race with Cork City once again, while Shamrock Rovers are in that awkward position of being behind the big two but better than the rest of the league. I originally had Derry City to finish fourth again but with they’ve made lots of new signings and could take a while to adapt, while Pat’s I think have made some very shrewd moves in terms of signings and re-signings.
TS: Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, St Pat’s. I fancy Rovers to pip Dundalk to second thanks to some solid squad additions. St Pat’s to vastly improve on 2017.
Which team (or teams) will be relegated to the First Division?
RL: Bray to automatically go down given their significant squad upheaval. Limerick will have to face the play-offs with too many squad changes also being their Achilles heel.
SO’K: Limerick. Losing a raft of their key players from last year in what had already been an indifferent season, and bringing in an inexperienced manager at this level, it just suggests, to me, that they are set to struggle this year. Bray could be in trouble too but I feel they’re more likely to find themselves in the relegation playoff.
TS: Bray. Lost key players in Cherrie and Buckley and vast changes under an inexperienced manager will make it tough for Wanderers.
Who will prove to be the best new signing?
RL: Barry McNamee. One of the players in this league that would walk straight into the starting XI of any Premier Division side. His vision and flair through the middle will give Cork City something they haven’t had as of yet in their midfield.
SO’K: The returning Pat Hoban made more headlines, but Dundalk’s acquisition of Ronan Murray could be just as important, if not more so. Fitting them both into the team could prove tricky for Stephen Kenny but Murray’s tremendous goalscoring ability means that he can be just as much of a threat from a wider role as he can as a focal point.
TS: Barry McNamee. The Derryman has been one of the league’s top midfielders for numerous years now and will only improve in a squad as good as Cork’s. He adds that extra bit of creativity in central midfield and is hitting the prime of his career.
Which team will prove to be the surprise package?
RL: Waterford. A newly-promoted side is rarely expected to threaten the top half, but given the level of investment at the club (evidenced in the signings of Ismahil Akinade, Bastien Hery and David Webster) the Blues won’t be putting limits on themselves.
SO’K: Waterford. An already solid squad has added some young stars from last year such as Bastien Hery and Ismahil Akinade, and added the experience of Dave Webster and John Kavanagh in defence and Gavan Holohan in the midfield. It suggests that they are looking to make a big impact in the top tier and they could just do that.
TS: St Pat’s. They can only improve on a poor 2017 and showed signs in the latter part of the season of what the side are capable of. A full pre-season will benefit Owen Garvan while Kevin Toner and Simon Madden sure up what was a suspect defence last year. European football a possibility for Liam Buckley’s men.
Who will be crowned PFAI Player of the Year?
RL: Kieran Sadlier. Assuming Cork City claim the league title, it’s a good guess that the Player of the Year accolade will also be heading to Leeside. Sadlier has steadily improved since coming back to Ireland and 2018 is likely to be the year he truly steps up to the next level.
SO’K: Kieran Sadlier. The Cork City attacking midfielder showed flashes of brilliance last year but readily admitted that he was a bit behind in terms of strength and condition after joining mid-season. With a full pre-season at Turner’s Cross behind him, however, Sadlier is ready to play key role in the team’s title challenge this campaign and really stamp his authority on the division.
TS: Kieran Sadlier. The former Sligo man has been excellent in pre-season and has real potential to light up the league. Has benefitted from playing under John Caulfield and looks far more settled than we he joined midway through 2017.
Which player will be the Premier Division’s top scorer?
RL: Ronan Murray. While Shamrock Rovers and Cork City both have goals in their team, Dundalk’s midfield is better set up to provide goals for the former Galway man, who proved last year he’s a deadly finisher.
SO’K: An attacking team like Dundalk is always going to score bucketloads, so it stands to reason that one (or, more likely, both) of their two new strikers will be there or thereabouts at the top. Ronan Murray is. I think, primed to maintain his strong form last year and score even more goals than in 2017. esepcially in a better team with a midfield dripping with creative talent behind him.
TS: Kieran Sadlier is an outside shot at 25/1 but while Graham Cummins is Cork’s main man up front, Sadlier could be the player to truly rack up the goals for the Leesiders.
Which team will be promoted as First Division champions?
RL: Galway United. They have the strongest squad and should go up as winners.
SO’K: Finn Harps. Ollie Horgan’s side made a brave fist of it last year but it wasn’t to be. The retention of Paddy McCourt is important as the veteran is probably now the nest player in that division, while the signings of Michael O’Connor, Ciaran O’Connor and John O’Flynn will bring some much-needed firepower to the team.
TS: Galway United. Galway manager Shane Keegan knows this league as much as anyone, winning it with Wexford in 2015. Danny Furlong (yet to be confirmed), Eoin McCormack and Stephen Kenny all bring goals and the Tribesmen look best placed to claim the title in 2018.
Which three teams will fill the FD play-off spots?
RL: 2. Finn Harps. 3. Cobh Ramblers. 4. Longford Town
Harps have made some clever attacking signings in Ciaran O’Connor and John O’Flynn while Cobh and Longford also look strong. Drogheda will also add competition here.
SO’K: Galway United, Conh Ramblers, Longford Town. Stephen Henderson and Cobh were very unlucky with the lack of a play-off last season and keeping the core group of that squad together, with another year’s experience under their belts, will see them challenge again. Galway United have lost so many of last season’s starting lineup but Robbie Williams and Ryan Connolly are important signings, and Eoin McCormack is set for a big season. Longford, meanwhile, have made forward strides under Neale Fenn and have made some strong signings in pre-season, including the impressive arrival of Darren Meenan from Shamrock Rovers.
TS: Longford, Finn Harps, Cobh Ramblers. Neale Fenn is putting a strong, experienced side together at Longford and they will be Galway’s main challengers for the title in my view. Ollie Horgan similarly has a healthy squad at Finn Harps with a lot expected of the O’Connor brother from Dundalk. Stephen Henderson’s Cobh continue to defy all odds and 2018 should be another positive campaign for a young but settled squad.
In this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we preview the 2018 SSE Airtricity League season, hear from Ronan Finn, Liam Buckley, Shane Keegan and Ollie Horgan, and we also pay tribute to the great Liam Miller.