The League of Ireland Premier Division is full of talented players, and we have set out to rank the top 25.
Judging them on several metrics – from potential to pedigree, a player’s importance to their team and their ability to produce when required, as well as if they’re worth the admission alone – we have ranked the players competing in the top level of Irish football. This is ‘The 25’, a definitive countdown of the League of Ireland’s best players.
The scoring system took into account the following:
– Performance in pressure moments
– Importance to their club
– Worth the admission fee
25. Daire O’Connor
Dubbed the ‘Irish Messi’ and namechecked by Mick McCarthy, to say O’Connor has caught the eye would be an understatement. O’Connor scored twelve goals last season for UCD and was named in the PFAI First Division Team of the Year for his displays.
An attacking midfielder-cum-forward, capable of playing across the front-line, he has yet to hit top form for Cork but has time on his side to live up to the hype.
O’Connor featured as part of our Greenlight series earlier this year.
24. Conor McCarthy
Just 21 years of age, yet still one of the most established players at Cork City, Conor McCarthy has a huge future in the game and vast experience already under his belt. A graduate from their U19s side, he joined the senior set-up in 2016 and, after 22 appearances last campaign, solidified himself at the heart of City’s defence this season while chipping in with his fair share of goals.
A composed defender with huge potential, McCarthy was involved in Stephen Kenny’s first domestic under-21 squad earlier this year.
McCarthy featured as part of our Greenlight series earlier this year.
23. James Talbot
Bohemians had a tough task replacing Shane Supple, their reliable number one who was voted into the team of the season last year before retiring at the end of the campaign. Yet, they have found the perfect replacement in Talbot. The former Sunderland shot-stopper has kept 12 clean sheets already and made several important saves.
He has earned himself cult status with Bohs fans for his comments about Shamrock Rovers after the recent Dublin derby. The goalkeeper also has a fan in Mick McCarthy, who called him into the Ireland squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Denmark. Talbot only turned 22 a few months ago and his talent ceiling is high.
22. Neil Farrugia
The former UCD winger Farrugia was the subject of interest from a plethora of clubs in both England and Ireland before Shamrock Rovers won the race for his signature.
An Ireland under-21 international who scored and impressed on his debut for Kenny’s side against Luxembourg, the 20-year old’s ability as a left-sided winger has caught the eye over his last couple of seasons with the students.
Farrugia has just that cutting edge Stephen Bradley’s side needs with the injury to Aaron McEneff and if he continues to impress, the French-born winger won’t be in Irish football for too long more, as he garners attention from further afield.
21. Sean Hoare
The Dubliner established himself as a key part of Dundalk’s double-winning campaign last year and has excelled has in central midfield and right back, as well as in his natural position in central defence. Hoare previously won the FAI Cup with St. Pats in 2014 and would be a valuable addition to any team in the league. He has won a number of League of Ireland medals with Dundalk and doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.
20. Darragh Leahy
A fantastic addition to the Bohemians defence over the past couple of seasons, Leahy has been a constant at right-back. The 20-year old is defensively sound and a threat going forward. Leahy was involved in the PFAI Team of the Year last season and if he continues his performances in an exciting Bohemians side this campaign he’ll likely be involved in the XI for a second year running.
19. Karl Sheppard
A stalwart of Cork City’s success in recent seasons, Sheppard has won the league title and two FAI Cups since joining from Shamrock Rovers ahead of the 2015 season, scoring key goals along the way. The striker is the only player on this list managing to play professional football while suffering from arthritis.
18. Zack Elbouzedi
Formerly of West Brom and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, 20-year-old Zack Elbouzedi has found his feet at Waterford in his first season at the RSC. A talented attacker who can play both centrally and out-wide, Elbouzedi has been widely regarded as one of the standout players in the league this season.
His form has also led to him becoming a favourite of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland Under 21 setup, with his eye for goal from wide areas one of Elbouzedi’s finest assets. Waterford will do well to hold onto the talented attacker if he continues to progress his game in such impressive fashion.
17. Liam Scales
A talented player with a bright future, Scales has impressed for UCD this season, gaining admirers at international and club level. The central defender has been on trial at Manchester City but looks set to join Bristol Rovers. He is the ball-playing defender one would expect to flourish at a higher level and at just 20, has plenty of time to do so.
Scales was featured as part of our Greenlight series earlier in the year.
16. Sean McLoughlin
One of the league’s most highly-rated young defenders, McLoughlin has reportedly been on the radar of a host of English and Scottish clubs for quite some time. He is only in his second full season as part of the Cork City first team but has quickly become one of their most valuable players. A marauding centre-half who can find a pass with ease, McLoughlin is well equipped to succeed at the highest level.
McLoughlin spoke to Pundit Arena about his own future in a feature piece last year.
15. Mikey Drennan
Drennan said he was “disappointed” with his season so far, but the St Patrick’s Athletic striker has been the club’s most consistent player with six goals. A bustling, aggressive forward, capable of leading the line, running the channels and finding the net, Drennan still has the potential to be one of the league’s most prolific goal scorers.
It is also an achievement that the Kilkenny-native is playing at the top level of Irish football again after a two-year break with mental health struggles between 2016 and 2018. The former Sligo Rovers striker is on course to have his best season since netting 12 for Shamrock Rovers in 2016.
Drennan sat down with Pundit Arena last year to bravely open up on his own battle with mental health.
14. Jamie McGrath
Jamie McGrath’s injury this season derailed what was looking like another standout campaign at Oriel Park for the 22-year old. One of the league’s most talented young players at St Patrick’s Athletic, his move to Dundalk and subsequent physical development has taken him to the next level in his ever-improving career.
Voted the PFAI Young Player of the Year last season, McGrath can operate out wide but had been blossoming in the number 10 role with Dundalk this campaign before his untimely foot injury.
13. Robbie Benson
Prior to returning for Dundalk in the away victory over Shamrock Rovers, Robbie Benson hadn’t played since the season opener against Sligo Rovers after suffering a broken leg. However, the versatile Benson remains one of the most talented players in the league.
The complete midfielder, Benson has carved out a brilliant career in Irish football while also thriving academically. The 27-year-old achieved a perfect Leaving Cert, has a degree in maths and chemistry, and a masters in actuarial science. A maths genius but also a creative force for Dundalk, Benson is capable of dictating play, scoring consistently and often spectacularly.
12. Trevor Clarke
Back to his best after a lengthy injury lay-off for the majority of last season, Clarke has been a vital part of an excellent Shamrock Rovers defence this campaign.
Quick going forward and resolute in defence, Clarke has also been included in a couple of under-21 squads under Stephen Kenny, who despite leaving him out of the Toulon Tournament, is clearly a big fan of the left-back.
Still just twenty-one years old, and growing more and more since his return from injury after an initial burst on the scene, Trevor Clarke has all the tools to continue to be one of the league’s finest defenders.
11. Gearoid Morrissey
An all-action player in the centre of Cork’s midfield, Morrissey is comfortable on the ball and capable of scoring from distance. A key part of Cork City’s success over the last few years, Morrissey showed his class earlier this season with one of the goals of the campaign. He flicked the ball over an opponent on the edge of Finn Harps’ box before volleying it beyond Ciaran Gallagher, the first of two goals for the Cork-native in the game.
A powerhouse presence in Cork’s engine room, despite a poor season for the Rebel Army that sees them languishing above the relegation zone.
Morrissey sat down with Pundit Arena to discuss that goal and his career so far.
10. Patrick McEleney
As talented a player as you are likely to see, Dundalk’s attacking midfielder McEleney was a vital part of the Lilywhite’s European run and domestic dominance before a move to Oldham Athletic in 2017.
The switch to England didn’t quite work out but the 26-year-old returned to Oriel Park halfway through the last campaign and helped Dundalk reclaim the title Cork City had snatched from them the year previous.
Known for his scintillating skill and outrageous long-range efforts, injuries have hampered McEleney this campaign but there’s no doubt that, on his day, McEleney is one of the most entertaining players in all of Irish football.
9. Dinny Corcoran
Corcoran has been one of the most consistent forwards in the division over the past few years, hitting double-figures in four of the last five Premier Division seasons. The Bohemians forward was on course to do so again this campaign only for injury to strike against Sligo Rovers in May.
Before having his season disrupted, the Bohemians forward scored the winning goal in two Dublin derbies and showed his sharpness isn’t consigned to the penalty box with his appearance on quiz show Countdown.
8. Aaron McEneff
It feels as though McEneff has been a mainstay of the Premier Division for years, despite the hugely talented attacking midfielder being just twenty-three years old.
He spent three highly successful seasons at Derry City which saw him nominated for the PFAI Young Player of the Year, Player of the Year and being named in the PFAI Team of the Year in 2017.
McEneff moved to Tallaght and started off the season in sparkling form scoring five goals in nine games before an injury hampered his campaign.
7. Brian Gartland
One of Dundalk’s longest-serving players, Gartland has helped the Lilywhites win four league titles, two FAI Cups and two League Cups. The central defender was also part of the side that mounted a brilliant European run in 2016 and was made club captain ahead of the 2018 season.
With the club losing several key players over the last few years and Stephen Kenny – the architect of their success – moving onto the Ireland U21s, Gartland has been a mainstay. He is the glue that holds the most successful team in recent League of Ireland history together.
6. Chris Shields
A career bursting at the seams with accolades, Dundalk’s Chris Shields is one of the club’s longest-serving players and also one of the finest to ever don the Lilywhite shirt in a decade that has seen its fair share of quality.
Part of the history-making side of 2016 whose run to Europe will go down in the annals of Irish football folklore for years to come, Shields had the best season of his career last year as he was shortlisted for the Player of the Year award while also making the PFAI Team of the Season.
Shields has won four league titles, four domestic cups and has been the beating heart of a Dundalk dynasty since 2014.
In the early part of his career, Shields excelled off the field too with his Pundit Arena column.
5. Sean Gannon
One of the most decorated players in League of Ireland history, Gannon has won it all several times. The right-back has earned four league titles with Dundalk and a league title apiece with Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic.
Gannon has also featured in the PFAI Team of the Year for the last six years. The best player in his position in the league, Gannon has been an essential part of the most successful side in recent Irish football history.
4. Danny Mandroiu
Only in the league half a season, but Danny Mandroiu has already shown that he has all the talent to be a real find from Bohemians.
Cantona-esque as he saunters across the Dalymount turf with seven on his back and magic in his boots, Mandroiu has made his mark on the league thanks to a host of stunning long-range efforts and pinpoint free-kicks.
Playing off the front, the 20-year old’s penchant for magic at the biggest moments sees him as one of the league’s finest despite only being here half a year, and potentially moving on soon if he keeps his form current form up.
3. Michael Duffy
One of the league’s most talented players, Duffy has made a huge impact with Dundalk since joining the club from Celtic ahead of the 2017 season. The Derry-native has scored 28 goals in 88 games for the Irish champions from the wide-left position.
He was also named the PFAI Player of the Year for his performances last year as Dundalk won the double, and has been the subject of a tug-of-war at international level between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Duffy has subsequently stated his intention to play for the Republic.
Fast, direct and comfortable striking the ball with either foot, Duffy is a skilful winger who makes intelligent off the ball runs and is ice-cool in front of goal. It seems inevitable that the 24-year-old will make Mick McCarthy’s Ireland squad at some point.
Duffy spoke to Pundit Arena a couple of months ago about his own ambition and goals for the future.
2. Pat Hoban
One of the finest goalscorers the league has ever seen, Hoban’s return to Dundalk last season coincided with the Lilywhites reclaiming the title while he grabbed a record 29 goals in the process.
The quintessential frontman in a team filled with perennial winners, Hoban broke the club’s goalscoring record this season when he found the net for the 70th time in a Lilywhites jersey.
Strong, quick and as selfish as they come in front of goal, the 27-year old is on course to be the league’s top scorer for the third time in his career. One of Irish football’s finest.
1. Jack Byrne
Since returning home after a difficult spell in British football, including at Manchester City, Jack Byrne has been a key part of Shamrock Rovers’ title challenge.
The midfielder has scored some cracking goals and chipped in with important assists, but his impact has gone beyond mere statistics. Byrne is the brain of Stephen Bradley’s side, a gifted midfielder experiencing the best spell of his career who was rightly included in the senior Ireland squad back in March.
Go and watch him play in Irish football while you can.
Byrne recently sat down with Pundit Arena to speak candidly about his career thus far, his love for football and his future ambitions.
The scoring system took into account the following:
– Performance in pressure moments
– Importance to their club
– Worth the admission fee