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Top 50 League of Ireland players of last 20 years

In Part Four of this week's series, Daniel McDonnell counts down the top 50 players in the League of Ireland between 2000 and 2020 based on their contributions  during their time here. It's not just about ability; longevity, consistency, and domestic and European achievements were key criteria factored into finalising the list . . .


21 February 2020; Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Cork City at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

21 February 2020; Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Cork City at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

21 February 2020; Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Shamrock Rovers and Cork City at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

20. Séamus Coleman

Years Active: 2006-2008

Clubs: Sligo Rovers

Honours: None

No medals but the exception is justified, especially as he is the ultimate advertisement for the league, a future star and captain of a Premier League club and his country. He didn’t have a massive profile with Sligo Rovers but the ability was plain for all to see (bar ex-boss Rob McDonald who nearly released him). Coleman took flight under Paul Cook and exceptional showings led to the Everton move.



Years Active: 2019-present

Club: Shamrock Rovers

Honours: 1 FAI Cup

The only player listed on the strength of one season. Those who feel he’s the best they have seen here might wonder if he should be higher; others will protest there’s much more to do, given the CVs of those below. But Byrne deserves a high billing for doing enough while in the LOI to get into an Ireland squad and truly hold his own. He was top drawer in the Europa League and FAI Cup and it felt like 2020 was shaping up to cement his LOI legacy. Let’s see where he is when football resumes.



Years Active: 2000-2011

Clubs: Cork City, Shelbourne, Drogheda, Shamrock Rovers, Sporting Fingal, Bohemians

Honours: 5 Leagues (3 Shels, 1 Drogheda, 1 Shamrock Rovers); 1 Setanta Cup (Drogheda)

The Tipperary left winger was another habitual winner and his tally of 41 European appearances highlights the fact that he was always around the top table. Hit the ground running at Shels following his switch from Cork, a relentless attacking threat with the game intelligence to slot into a more defensive roles in his latter years, including a central role in continental outings for Drogheda.



Years Active: 2011-present

Clubs: Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic, Dundalk

Honours: 6 Leagues (5 Dundalk, 1 St Pat’s); 2 FAI Cups (Dundalk); 3 League Cups (Dundalk)

The 28-year-old right-back has a fair chance of becoming the most decorated LOI player of all time (he doesn’t count Rovers’ 2011 title win where he made one appearance). He’s also been a major influence in Dundalk’s rise with his ability to get forward from his position giving them an extra outlet. Gannon could have gone abroad if he’d really forced it but the right offer never materialised. History will be kind to him.



Years Active: 2000-2006/2010-2012

Clubs: St Patrick’s Athletic, Bohemians, Shelbourne, Sporting Fingal, Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers

Honours: 2 Leagues (1 Bohemians, 1 Shelbourne)

The players of the early 2000s speak in reverential terms about Hawkins, believing he was the pick of the central defenders in that generation because of the all-round package he offered. After a bizarre stint at Doncaster, the one-time St Pat’s favourite lined out with Bohemians and Shelbourne before getting another chance in England. Hawkins was decent in possession, quick, strong and scored goals too.



Years Active: 2001-2005

Clubs: St Patrick’s Athletic, Cork City

Honours: 1 League (Cork)

When St Pat’s players first encountered the youngster from Wexford, they wouldn’t have predicted his career graph but he really soared under Pat Dolan at Cork and demonstrated his progress with big contributions in a memorable Intertoto Cup run in 2004. Dolan was gone when Doyle went up another gear in 2005, becoming the most sought after player in the country and doing enough before a summer switch to Reading to qualify for a league medal when Damien Richardson’s side got the job done.



Years Active: 2008-present

Clubs: Bray Wanderers, Dundalk

Honours: 5 Leagues, 2 FAI Cups, 3 League Cups (all Dundalk)

No player has undergone a bigger transformation. Retained by Stephen Kenny as a back-up centre half after a torrid first year at Dundalk where he was a target for boo-boys, Shields responded to the culture change by doing more than merely surviving; he became a midfield leader of the dominant side of the 2010s and never stopped improving.



Years Active: 2005-present

Clubs: UCD, Sporting Fingal, Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk

Honours: 3 Leagues (2 Dundalk, 1 Rovers); 2 FAI Cups (1 Dundalk, 1 Rovers); 2 Setanta Cups (Rovers); 1 First Division (UCD)

Similar to his close pal Gannon, Finn has always been a blue-chip LOI player, and it must be remembered he was a valued member of the two teams (Rovers 2011, Dundalk 2016) that went on Europa League group stage runs. His energy levels during Dundalk’s crowded 2016 was remarkable. Finn then made a contentious Rovers return and is converting to wing back – he’s been a top performer across the space of a decade and a half.



Years Active: 2011-2012/2014-2017

Clubs: Waterford, Sligo Rovers, Dundalk, Cork City

Honours: 2 Leagues (1 Cork, 1 Dundalk); 2 FAI Cups (1 Cork, 1 Dundalk); 1 Setanta Cup (Sligo)

The one-time Waterford starlet felt uncomfortable about picking up medals as a fringe player in an unfulfilling stay at Dundalk after a return from England, but his relocation to Cork City was life-changing. In 2016, he was superb, with European goals and a cup final winner. In 2017, he was unstoppable, equalling the club’s record for goals in a season (20). He would have smashed it were it not for his move to Preston with a dozen games left.



Years Active: 2013-2015

Club: Dundalk

Honours: 2 Leagues, 1 FAI Cup, 1 League Cup

Towell takes a prominent standing because of the extent to which he completely dominated a season, scoring 29 from midfield in the double-winning 2015 season, including an Aviva Stadium winner. It’s believed he won the PFAI-player-of-the-year gong by a record margin, having lost out narrowly a year previously – he wasn’t just a one-season wonder. The fitness fanatic was perfectly suited to that Dundalk side, but has found it hard to stand out in the English game.