Anticipation mounts in League's changing landscape
New faces abound for start of domestic campaign with big two still most likely winners
There are straws in the wind already that the 2018 League of Ireland season is being keenly anticipated by the fans. Season ticket sales up 65 per cent at League and Cup winners Cork City is one thing, but the 'sold out' notices going up for Bohemians' Jodi Stand two weeks in advance of Friday's televised clash with arch rivals Shamrock Rovers is another, while best of all is the 600-plus season tickets sold by newly-promoted Waterford United.
Putting these facts into perspective is important, because it shows how vibrant the League has become in recent years. For instance, Cork's double comes only seven years after they emerged from administration, and last year saw them record a healthy €2.7m turnover. Meanwhile, two years ago, Waterford were singing the Blues big time, as they were lucky to top crowds of 150 in the First Division.
No doubt, the Premier Division is where it is at, and nothing illustrates that better than the player-drain from the three clubs relegated at the end of last season. Galway United lost seven of their finest - all to Premier clubs; Finn Harps lost four to Premier clubs, two to the Irish League and one to Doncaster Rovers, while Drogheda lost two to Premier clubs, and five to First Division rivals.
Perhaps the standard of the Premier is best illustrated by the busy export market, with 12 players moving to English or Scottish clubs, and another two departing for clubs on the continent and the USA. All of these players will be a big loss to their clubs, and how well they are replaced will determine the clubs' prospects for 2018.
Top of that list is Seáni Maguire, who moved from Cork to Preston, after one of the most magical seasons - or should that be half-seasons - any player ever enjoyed. His 20 goals in 21 games up to his departure in mid-July wasn't surpassed, and his absence was keenly felt on the run-in to the title as Cork were a depleted team without him.
Manager John Caulfield wasted no time in bulking up his squad, and the addition of Barry McNamee and Aaron Barry from Derry City, Tobi Adebayo-Rowling (Sligo), Colm Horgan (Galway), and the return of Graham Cummins from St Johnstone leaves him with a strong hand. None of them, however, are replacements for Maguire. For that, he will be dependent on a front line of Karl Sheppard, Cummins and Kieran Sadlier clicking and causing havoc.
Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny also had to replace key attackers Dave McMillan and Pat McEleney, and his acquisition of former Lilywhite top-scorer Pat Hoban, Ronan Murray (Galway) and Krisztian Adorjan (Novara, Italy) has the potential to be a really potent strike force, with Dylan Connolly, Jamie McGrath and Michael Duffy providing the service from the wings.
Transfer activity has been most notable among the mid-table clubs who, in a 10-team League, now find themselves closer to the relegation zone while also within touching distance of the four honey-spots that send clubs into European combat, where the rewards are greater than anything the League offers in prize money. For instance, Champions League football - even without winning a game in Europe - will be worth €500,000 to Cork City, whereas the winner's prize in the League is €110,000. Europa League rewards are roughly half of those in the Champions League.
Derry City's return to the Brandywell has been delayed, with their proposed homecoming on February 23 now switched to an away fixture in Sligo. If their ground is not ready by March 2 for the visit of Dundalk, they could find themselves with the unusual situation of playing their first five League games away.
While this would give them a good run of home fixtures later in the season, the old saying "a good start is half the battle" springs to mind, and five away games would not be a good start.
Derry are one of the teams who have been busy in the transfer market. Having lost key players McNamee, Barry and Dean Jarvis to Cork and Dundalk, manager Kenny Shiels has added nine players to his roster, two of them on loan. Bohemians and Bray, the teams who finished just below Derry, each added seven potential first-teamers, while Limerick have gone for a radical overhaul under new manager Tommy Barrett, with 10 newcomers.
Just how well - and how quickly - all these new signings gel, is the key to their fortunes. Liam Buckley is another manager in that situation at St Pat's, where he has eight newcomers to accommodate. Waterford also have eight new signings, having lost six of their promoted squad to clubs as diverse as Ipswich and Larne.
The two Rovers - Shamrock and Sligo - have been reserved in their transfer dealings, with five and six respectively. The Hoops just need to improve their disciplinary record if they are to challenge at the top, while Sligo need a good start, and have every chance of that this time, with their first three games at home. Not that Limerick, Derry and Cork represent easy pickings. But then that's the beauty of this League - there are no longer any easy games.
Picking a winner looks like a toss of the coin between champions Cork and Dundalk, simply because they both know what it takes to win this League - and they each look as strong as ever. Apart from the Maguire Factor, that is, and that might just swing the advantage back to Dundalk.
Friday February 16 (7.45 unless stated): Bohemians v Shamrock Rovers, Dalymount Park, 7.30 (live, RTé2); Dundalk v Bray Wanderers, Oriel Park; St Patrick's Athletic v Cork City, Richmond Park; Waterford United v Derry City, RSC.
Saturday (7.45): Sligo Rovers v Limerick, The Showgrounds
Sunday Indo Sport