Hot shots ready to follow Horgan across the water
It was no surprise to League of Ireland fans, from a long way out, that Dundalk's Daryl Horgan was the hottest property in the league last year, and would be cross-channel-bound at season's end. However, not so many would have predicted that clubmate Andy Boyle would accompany Horgan. Although Boyle was the first name on manager Stephen Kenny's teamsheet every week, the skills of the centre-back were seldom commented on, except in the case of a rare mistake.
Spotting emerging talent has become one of the pleasures of the League of Ireland in recent years, culminating in one-third of the present Republic of Ireland squad being graduates of the league. So, as the league gets ready to kick off on Friday, who are the candidates most likely to follow in the footsteps of Horgan and Boyle, and eventually make the step up to international football?
In the case of Horgan's successor, there is one stand-out contender: Bray Wanderers' flying winger Dylan Connolly. His pace is electric, reckoned by veteran league watchers to be the quickest they have ever seen. In fact, last season saw Horgan uncharacteristically red-carded when he was reduced to a desperate lunge on Connolly after a fruitless chase back the length of the Carlisle Grounds.
Connolly has already tasted English football, having spent some time with Mick McCarthy's Ipswich, but he couldn't settle there, and looked a more complete player under Harry Kenny at Bray last year. It will be a major surprise if he is still with Bray in 2018.
The cast to find a successor to Boyle is more extensive, as the standard of play in the league has improved in recent seasons. And, while Dundalk and Cork City have earned most of the accolades, there is talent right through the league.
In defence, we're spoiled for choice, led by two classy left-backs in Cork's under 21 cap Kevin O'Connor and Bray's Junior international Kevin Lynch. Left-sided players are highly sought-after, and these two have the qualities that should attract the scouts: defensively sound, good going forward, with an excellent delivery from that left peg. Conor McDermott (Derry), Sean Hoare (Dundalk) and Gary Boylan (Sligo) are other defenders whose progress will be worth watching.
Midfield offers a range of proven and unproven talent. Derry's Barry McNamee and Aaron McEneff and Dundalk's Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney have shown the vision and technical ability so important in the engine-room, while McEneff, Benson and McEleney are also dead-ball experts. On the other hand, Conor Melody (Galway), Brandon Miele (Shamrock Rovers), Kieran Sadlier (Sligo Rovers) and Oscar Brennan (Bohemians) have the talent but have still to prove it at the top level of the league.
For Miele, 2016 was like 'second season syndrome' after his dazzling 2015, while under 21 cap Sadlier didn't deliver as regularly as one would expect in his first season at the Showgrounds. More consistency is needed from both players in 2017. Right-winger Melody needs to get a full season under his belt, while Brennan, who can also play centre-back, is making the jump from First Division Cabinteely, but should still make an impression in Dalymount.
Finally, up front - the perennial problem spot - we rest our hopes on two 19-year-olds, Thomas Byrne (Drogheda United) and Chiedozie Ogbene (Limerick). Byrne returns to his home town after a spell with Brighton, while Ogbene moved Shannonside from Cork City. Managers Pete Mahon and Martin Russell are expecting great things from these youngsters, but patience may be required as they settle into the Premier Division.
KEY SIGNINGS FOR NEW SEASON
Bohemians: Jamie Doyle (Shelbourne)
Bray Wanderers: Derek Foran (Sacramento)
Cork City: Achille Campion (Sligo Rovers)
Derry City: Mark Timlin (St Patrick's Athletic)
Drogheda United: Stephen Elliott (Free agent)
Dundalk: Niclas Vemmelund (Derry City)
Finn Harps: Jonny Bonner (Wexford)
Galway United: David Cawley (St Patrick's Athletic)
Limerick: Dean Clarke (Shamrock Rovers)
Shamrock Rovers: Ronan Finn (above, Dundalk)
Sligo Rovers: Chris Kenny (Wexford)
St Patrick's Athletic: Pat Cregg (Shamrock Rovers)
Friday: Bohemians v Derry City, 7.45; Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers, 8.0; Galway Utd v Drogheda Utd, 7.45; St Patrick's Athletic v Bray Wanderers, 7.45; Finn Harps v Cork City, 8.0; Limerick v Sligo Rovers, 7.45.
Friday: Athlone Town v Waterford, 7.45; Cabinteely v UCD, 7.45; Shelbourne v Longford Town, 7.45; Saturday: Cobh Ramblers v Wexford, 7.15.
Sunday Indo Sport