2014 provided League of Ireland aficionados with a deluge of entertainment that will be difficult to match this year.
The quality that is now within the league has made this writer question, is this to be one of the most competitive Premier Divisions we have seen in recent times?
Shelbourne, Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers have all experienced at least two years in a row being the title bearers, since the turn of the millennium. However, three different clubs (St, Patrick’s Athletic, Dundalk & Sligo Rovers) have won the league in the last three years, making predicting who will be champions more of a predicament in recent times.
The league is now littered with former Irish internationals and an epic season could very well be in store with several sides holding the belief they’re destined for glory.
This year sees Galway United and Longford Town return to the top tier of Irish football too. Both clubs have a history and a pedigree within the top division in the past. It’s just over ten years now since Longford won two FAI Cups in a row so the Town are without doubt a club which will be hungry for success at the highest level once again.
Speaking at the recent launch of the SSE Airtricity League, Pat Fenlon alluded to the fact that both these clubs are somewhat better positioned to challenge the established Premier Division sides than the clubs which have been promoted in the past.
“I think even if you look at both teams have come up, normally looking at the league the teams that have come up, you’d think they might struggle to stay in it but I don’t think that’ll be the case this year with Longford and Galway.”
Although one would be hard pushed to see either side breaking into the top half of the league and sustaining that position until October, they are sure to cause some upsets, particularly at home.
At the top end of the table there are potentially six sides who would look to stake a claim as the country’s best side. Sligo Rovers and Derry City will for many be outside the frontrunners but they will not be pushed aside easily.
Two managers who both know the league inside out, having just finished their playing careers in Peter Hutton and Owen Heary will give the favourites a run for their money.
Heary comes off the back of bringing Bohemians to a respectable seventh-placed finish, just behind his new team Sligo. The 38-year-old has signed some big names such as Estonian international Sander Puri and Danish striker Morten Nielsen.
Peter Hutton has had a tougher off-season, losing both Michael Duffy and Rory Patterson but he has brought in the likes of Cillian Morrison and Anthony Elding to provide the Candystripes with a solid attacking presence.
Looking to what most will see as the top four sides – Dundalk, Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and St. Patrick’s Atheltic – and there’s an abundance of talent to make the race for the title an intriguing one.
Most bookies have Pat’s down as the champions while the journalists’ favourites appear to be Cork City, if a pole taken at last week’s launch of the league is anything to go by.
Rovers look a lot stronger this season than they have in the past couple of years. They now have a squad and a manager which can be viewed as title challengers once again.
Fenlon will have used the off-season to formulate a plan, and he begins this year from a better position than when he first took over. The signing of Keith Fahey in particular is a real sign that the Hoops are on the up. They will be a difficult side to break down as well as being menacing going forward.
Dundalk have retained the majority of their squad, aside from Pat Hoban. Holding onto Richie Towell is a major positive for Stephen Kenny’s men and with the addition of Ronan Finn the Lilywhites will surely feel that they are capable of holding onto the biggest prize in Irish football.
The side that almost stole that prize away from them last season – Cork City – now have their shock factor removed but the signings of ex-Irish internationals Liam Miller and Alan Bennett illustrate the ambitions of the club. The one major loss is Gearoid Morrissey but midfield will not be a problem area for the Leesiders.
Liam Buckley’s Saints will have learned a lot from last season but they know they aren’t too far off the level of Cork City and Dundalk, winning just three less games than the pair last season. It became a two horse race in the end but if Pat’s can hold a sustained fight for the title this year they will be tough to shake off.
Last year was a classic between two sides, who fought until the final day. With five or six sides each capable of challenging, this year is set to be an unpredictable, yet enthralling title race.
We wait with eagerness on what could be a year to remember. The talent is there, the hunger too, now we await what is sure to be a colossal battle for the coveted Premier Division trophy.
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena