“The more things change, the more they stay the same” seems to be the biggest take-away as the League of Ireland settles into the 2018 season.
Last season’s top three in the Premier Division already look like forming their own mini-league in the summit, while many people’s picks to be the strugglers this year have already endured two of the most ruthless beatings that will likely be dished out in the entire campaign.
In the First Division, meanwhile, the “Battle of the Strikers” has an early frontrunner in Galway United’s Danny Furlong, while at United Park, the floodlight fiasco put the entire league in a terrible light, if you’ll forgive the pun.
So what did we learn from the last five days or so, as the season inches towards March?
The Premier Division’s top three are still out on their own
As we adjust to our new snow-based apocalyptic terrain where bread is now considered currency, it’s good to see that some things remain the same. Cork City already look the team to beat once again, and any doubts about their ability to come flying out of the traps have been put to rest with three wins from three. Sligo has traditionally been a tough place to go for John Caulfield’s men, and yet the the Leesiders brushed Rovers aside with a comprehensive 4-1 win on Monday.
With Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk drawing a blank against each other last weekend, meanwhile, both had the chance to get their first victories of the season at home to Bray Wanderers and Limerick respectively. What followed were beatings of such magnitude that the Mortal Kombat “FINISH HIM!” voiceover could almost be heard in the distance – Rovers dispatching Bray 6-0 on Monday, before the Lilywhites going two better 24 hours later by hitting their visitors for eight.
How Bray and Limerick react to this week could define their season
Bray Wanderers and Limerick were, fairly or otherwise, seen as the most likely strugglers in 2018 – in a league that once again now has just one guaranteed relegation place, the two teams with new managers were supposed to be the ones battling it out to avoid that fate.
And yet, both started the campaign with positive results, Bray getting a point at Oriel Park and Limerick winning in Sligo – indeed, the latter were unlucky not to make it two wins from two against Bohs the following week.
The task for both, now is to pick themselves up from two extremely brutal defeats. They aren’t starting from a clean slate anymore if opponents know that the two sides can be hurt this badly. Those results need to be put behind them instantly, or the danger of them happening again becomes that bit greater.
Cork City finally have their Seani Maguire replacement
The loss of Seani Maguire midway through last season could perhaps have derailed Cork City’s title charge if they weren’t so far ahead of the chasing pack at the time. Instead, while it only really delayed the inevitable, John Caulfield’s side were noticeably lighter in attack without their star front man. Karl Sheppard was deployed up there but his game seems more suited to the wide areas these days, while neither Connor Ellis nor Achille Campion were able to nail down the role.
Step forward, Graham Cummins. The returning hero already looks right at home as the focal point of City’s attack, as shown by his hat-trick at the Showgrounds. The defending champions will need a 15-20 goal a season player to help retain their title, and Cummins looks well poised to deliver just that.
The race for fourth could be wide open
Derry City may finally have earned their first victory of the campaign at Dalymount on Tuesday night, but having made a whole host of signings in the off-season, they still look like they haven’t fully gelled yet as a team. Based on last year, however, they must still be considered the favourites for that fourth European place and yet they have a number of challengers now.
Waterford, in particular, will have their eyes on fourth and after an opening set of games that seen them pick up six points from a possible nine they’re on their way to proving their credentials. St. Pat’s will be in the mix but one win from three isn’t the best start, which is also the case for Sligo Rovers and Bohemians. Limerick, too, have made a better than expected start and could be in the mix if they can bounce back quickly from Tuesday’s trouncing.
It could really be all to play for.
The Drogheda United floodlight shambles looks terrible for the league
Drogheda United’s match against Finn Harps was called off in a particularly farcical manner last weekend, as the referee deemed the floodlight strength to be unsatisfactory. Speaking to RTE about it, managers Tim Clancy and Ollie Horgan were clearly bemused by the development, as were the players and fans.
Outside of the subsequent statement, nobody seems to be taking responsibility for what happened, and that simply shouldn’t be the case. If, as Drogheda United insisted afterwards, they had applied to have repair works carried out on the floodlights then they are not to blame – but somebody is. The fact of the matter is that they were given a Premier Division licence and yet it was deemed that the stadium wasn’t in a fit state to host a night-time match – the first match of the season, even.
That’s not a good look for the league, by any stretch.