Daniel McDonnell's League of Ireland predictions: Dundalk to hold off Cork and claim four in-a-row
The 2017 League of Ireland season gets underway this Friday with Dundalk seeking a fourth straight Airtricity Premier Division crown. Here are all of Daniel McDonnell's predictions for the year ahead.
Manager: Keith Long
Last season: 8th
Winter business: They have waved goodbye to experienced members of the squad, and the departures of Roberto Lopes and Keith Buckley to full-time deals with Shamrock Rovers and Bray respectively will weaken them in midfield. Dinny Corcoran’s return might soften the blow of losing Kurtis Byrne to St Pat’s. Georgie Poynton arrives on loan from Dundalk.
Prospects: This year could be a real struggle for a club that is running a tight ship with the Dalymount renovation the main priority at the moment. Long is a clever manager and they have arguably the best keeper in the league in Shane Supple – the problem is they will really need him. They might have to look at strengthening if they find themselves in relegation trouble come the summer; being based in Dublin can make it easier to do short-term deals for lads that have been released or are out of favour at other clubs. It is conceivable, however, that they will fall on the wrong side of the cut line.
Manager: Harry Kenny
Last season: 6th
Winter business: They got the chequebook out early and often to attract a better calibre of player and move towards a full-time set-up. In addition to snapping up Buckley from Bohs, Gary McCabe, Aaron Greene, Derek Foran and Anto Flood have all signed up and the Seagulls also managed to keep Dundalk target Dylan Connolly because he was under contract for another year.
Prospects: The new faces join a relatively experienced core of solid players and the extent of investment means they will be expected to push for a top-half finish and maybe even European qualification following an extraordinary run under Kenny through the summer and autumn of 2016. The longer-term strategic plan hinges on the authorities overcoming hurdles off the park, and local opposition to plans to leave the Carlisle Grounds have planted a major seed of doubt about the viability of the whole project. Kenny will be hoping it isn’t a distraction.
Manager: John Caulfield
Last season: 2nd
Winter business: Retaining Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor was as important as any new signing. Conor McCormack brings experience and Caulfield has gone back to Sligo again to sign Achille Campion and Jimmy Keohane. Losing Chiedozie Ogbene to Limerick was a surprise and Kenny Browne’s surprise switch to Waterford was a factor in a loan deal for Burton’s Ryan Delaney and a move for ex-Reading defender Shane Griffin.
Prospects: They are under severe pressure to go one better in the league and they impressed in Friday’s President’s Cup with Maguire and O’Connor excelling. But Cork’s goal return last year was boosted by a handful of drubbings they dished out to poorer teams; on other occasions they were too reliant on Maguire. They have figured out how to triumph in individual battles with Dundalk but they may still lack the champions’ ability to cut open stubborn opponents with ease.
Manager: Kenny Shiels
Last season: 3rd
Winter business: They have lost key starters Niclas Vemmelund and Conor McCormack but Shiels has brought back the talented Mark Timlin in addition to perusing options outside the league for the second year in a row. The arrival of Mikhail Kennedy on loan from Charlton until the summer is an interesting one. Austrian pair Max Karner and Lukas Schubert opted to come back to the Brandywell.
Prospects: They surprised a lot of people last term and some shrewd judges believe they can push for the title this year. Shiels has star men in key positions such as impressive engine room operator Aaron McEneff and the predatory Rory Patterson, and look out for exciting winger Ronan Curtis. But the renovation of the Brandywell means they will be based across the border in Buncrana’s Maginn Park and they might just lose that home advantage which really can make a difference.
Manager: Pete Mahon
Last season: 2nd First Division (promoted via play-off)
Winter business: The Boynesiders came through a dramatic end to the season with a young squad and Mahon has added experience with Brennan brothers Killian and Gavin coming home. Ex-Ireland international Stephen Elliott is also hoping to get fit and play a part, while Mahon has high hopes for youngster Thomas Byrne, who has come back from Brighton.
Prospects: The cut from 12 to 10 is especially harsh on the Premier Division newcomers and Drogheda effectively came up ahead of schedule as they are still working with modest resources. Mahon says he is delighted with the application in pre-season and his team will have to get to the right pitch straight away. “We’re going to be down there scrapping,” he admits. The Brennan factor could give them a fighting chance but staying up might be too big an ask.
Manager: Stephen Kenny
Last season: 1st
Winter business: On the back foot from the start after key men Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle signed for Preston and then Ronan Finn dropped a bombshell by joining Shamrock Rovers. Kenny has targeted younger players with a point to prove and Jamie McGrath, Conor Clifford, Sean Hoare, Michael Duffy and Niclas Vemmelund tick the box. But they have big shoes to fill.
Prospects: Four in a row would be a stunning achievement but it’s doable if the senior members of the group can muster up to the energy to go again. Dundalk have a squad packed with attacking talent - although they have injury problems up front at the start of the season - and Patrick McEleney and Robbie Benson should thrive in their second season working with Kenny. They face a difficult start to the campaign but that should focus minds and avoid the feared hangover from an epic 2016. Overall, they get the vote because they can outscore their main rivals. The pitch improvements in Oriel will help them too.
Manager: Ollie Horgan
Last season: 10th
Winter business: Danny Morrissey is the big addition after a frustrating run of injuries at Cork, and Ciaran O’Connor’s loan switch from Dundalk will give Harps a new look up front. Kevin McHugh has retired and the demands of travelling made other players consider their position too. The well regarded Jonny Bonner is back in his native Donegal after a stint with Wexford and Caolan McAleer has experience in Scotland, while Paddy McCourt is on trial.
Prospects: The wily Horgan always predicts the worst and he said at last week’s launch that Harps would have been the favourites to go down with one automatic relegation slot – so three teams falling through the trap door makes things extremely difficult. A case could certainly be constructed for Harps surviving. If Morrissey and O’Connor click then their season could exceed expectations but they both have questions to answer; Horgan will probably approve of this prediction.
Manager: Shane Keegan
Last season: 9th
Winter business: The only club with a brand new manager in the door so there have been big changes in staff as well as playing personnel. Keegan is excited by the addition of Mayo pair Ronan Murray and David Cawley – the former is a striker with plenty of experience in England. The creative Gavan Holohan comes in from Cork but the departure of Ryan Connolly to Shamrock Rovers is a setback.
Prospects: Keegan has predicted they will be battling for their life from the outset and that comment applies to most of the division. This is his first chance to work in a professional structure and he will need to get the public behind the team from the start. Galway have impressed in pre-season and Murray looks capable of scoring goals at this level. Their ability to shore things up at the other end of the pitch will make or break them. Galway conceded 54 goals in 33 games last season and only the two teams that ultimately went down conceded more.
Manager: Martin Russell
Last season: 1st First Division
Winter business: Snaring Chiedozie Ogbene from Cork was a coup and the return of Ian Turner was unsurprising but Aaron Greene will be missed. Russell brought in Brendan Clarke, David O’Connor and 2016 squad member Dean Clarke from Dublin clubs but has also shopped outside the usual market with Brazilian Rodrigo Tosi and Frenchman Bastian Hery new faces to the Irish scene. Austrian Tobias Kainz could also sign.
Prospects: Steamrolled the First Division last year and will have to get used to losing games again because this will be much tougher. They have plenty of top-flight experience with Shane Duggan, Paul O’Conor and Lee Lynch offering strength in the centre of the park and that should be enough to keep them out of the bottom three even if their matches are likely to be high-scoring affairs. Defensive failings let them down last time around.
Manager: Stephen Bradley
Last season: 4th
Winter business: A lot of changes with Bradley installed next to sporting director Stephen McPhail and a range of personnel changes with Ronan Finn the marquee arrival and Paul Corry, Dave McAllister, Graham Burke and Sam Bone brought in from the UK. Roberto Lopes and Ryan Connolly were snared from other clubs in an attempt to add leadership.
Prospects: Stacked with midfield talent but they need ex-Dundalk youth Michael O’Connor to fire up front and keepers Tomer Checinski and Kevin Horgan to settle in. The absence of a really commanding centre-half is another concern about the spine of the team but they are making strides off the park that should make the club a smoother operation. Bradley is a gamble, of course, and patience may be required with a challenging opening run of games. But they have some very good players – don’t forget Brandon Miele – and can close the gap to top two.
Manager: Dave Robertson
Last season: 5th
Winter business: Robertson has again used his knowledge of the English market to bring in loanee attackers Matt Stevens (Peterborough) and Jonah Ayunga (Brighton). Kyle Callan-McFadden has been recruited from Orlando and Chris Kenny comes in after impressing for Wexford but despite losing Jimmy Keohane and Achille Campion to Cork, the retention of the in-demand Tobi Adebayo-Rowling and the talented Kieran Sadlier is significant.
Prospects: A dreadful start to 2016 left Rovers playing catch-up and placed question marks over Robertson’s future but they were a serious proposition in the second half of the campaign and registered wins over both Dundalk and Cork. That said, they were capable of throwing in the odd off-night. There’s an element of the unknown about how their new strikers will adapt to the league but the Bit O’Red should be well capable of finishing in the top half.
St Patrick’s Ath
Manager: Liam Buckley
Last season: 7th
Winter business: Promising youngsters Sean Hoare and Jamie McGrath left for Dundalk but Pat’s fought off interest in Christy Fagan and released some other players who didn’t really settle in Inchicore last year. Alex O’Hanlon had a big reputation in his youth and his progress is worth keeping an eye on after his release from Liverpool. Kurtis Byrne, Pat Cregg, Gavin Peers and Barry Murphy will add experience to the squad.
Prospects: This is Liam Buckley’s sixth season in charge and senior pro Ger O’Brien is now part of the coaching staff too. Skipper Ian Bermingham says the fitness levels have to improve this year and there has been a feeling in recent campaigns that the application level has been short of the required standards. They do have some good youngsters merged with senior pros who have been around the block but it’s hard to see them troubling the race for the top four. There’s a whiff of mid-table about this group.