Daniel McDonnell: 'Confusion for League at a crossroads'
Dundalk the team to beat on the pitch but questions surround long-term governance as FAI plan handover
As an experienced former Labour Party TD, President Higgins knows a thing or two about the business of coalition.
He will be at Turner's Cross this evening for the President's Cup, the official curtain-raiser for the new League of Ireland season, yet it now seems certain that this campaign will run in tandem with behind-the-scenes political machinations.
League chief Fran Gavin confirmed yesterday that the FAI are still planning to hand control over to a new hybrid company run by the clubs with the association holding a stake - with this arrangement due to be signed and sealed this year.
There are strong suggestions, however, that a firm agreement is some way off. "We've made it clear that decisions need to be made," said Gavin, without confirming a deadline. "If this is to come in from 2020, plans need to be in place and that's going to take a lot of planning."
While talks between a steering group have continued, a new player has entered the equation in the form of Niall Quinn and his vision for an independent league with state support. Gavin has confirmed that he is the FAI official who met with Quinn after hearing him on radio.
"I don't think he was fully informed and I wanted to inform him on what we do," he said. "He said he would get more meat on the bone (of his plan) and we'll meet again. We're always open to meet anyone who wants to improve Irish football."
The prospect of an alternative solution presents a dilemma. Gavin did not exactly deny that this could drag on - with the FAI staying in charge in the event of a 'no deal' - while stressing that a handover ahead of 2020 remains the ambition. It would seem unwise to sign into any plan before Quinn's team present their white paper. Watch this space. The danger is that it becomes a vacuum.
On the pitch, it might be more straightforward although the FAI's recruitment of Stephen Kenny from Dundalk added an unexpected twist. New head coach Vinny Perth has landed the best gig in the country, but it will carry serious pressure.
Dundalk kept hold of their big guns on the pitch, which gave them an edge in a typically busy transfer market notable for the shortage of top-end Premier players available. Old title rivals Cork have been weakened by departures.
It means the theory that clubs need to go abroad if they are to lift standards will be properly tested. Players from Argentina, Austria, Australia, Bermuda, Jamaica and Nigeria are amongst the recruits, in addition to a variety of British arrivals.
As it happens, though, the three most intriguing arrivals are talented Irish midfielders seeking to rebuild their careers.
Jack Byrne was tipped for greatness as a kid at Manchester City, but he desperately needs to make his stay at Shamrock Rovers a successful one after a series of short-lived moves that set alarm bells ringing. At 22, he does have time to live up to his billing.
Personal circumstances accelerated Chris Forrester's desire to come back to Ireland and rejoin St Patrick's Athletic from Aberdeen. Dundalk can afford to gamble in an attempt to upgrade and brought in ex-Watford and Irish U-21 international Sean Murray following a stay in Denmark.
The sheer volume of playmakers ties in with the argument made by retired pros that the league was more intense in the mid to late 2000s with players given less time on the ball by well-drilled sides.
It is a more technical league now, and that allowed the likes of Patrick McEleney and ex-Shamrock Rovers playmaker Graham Burke to shine in recent seasons. Forrester, Byrne and Murray should do so too - if they are healthy and happy.
Sligo Rovers boss Liam Buckley and returning Derry supremo Declan Devine have both rolled the dice by shopping abroad for flair. UCD and Bohemians like to pass the ball too, which lends itself to entertainment. Critics would argue that some players have it too easy.
Finn Harps are a throwback team in a sense, a part-time outfit in an increasingly full-time world. They will find it tough, but will make their opponents work hard for every point. An uneven fixture list with almost two thirds of the league played before the mid-season break emphasises the inequality.
Dundalk were able to do overnight stays for away midweek games last year, a detail that makes a difference in a logjam. They were able to go to Spain during pre-season while others battled the cold.
Still, the Lilywhites have to prove that the appetite to set their own standards remains. They now have a proven core of league winners, and a more balanced squad than their likely pursuers. Chris Shields was a revelation in 2018, with his graft and work-rate allowing the likes of Robbie Benson, Jamie McGrath and mid-season returnee McEleney to roam.
In Michael Duffy, they also had the league's most effective attacking winger, and in Patrick Hoban they have the outstanding striker with Georgie Kelly an able deputy. Cork and Shamrock Rovers managed to compete very well with Dundalk in one-off games when they matched the Louthmen physically. But they struggled to match their consistent quality and lacked a sure bet for goals like Hoban. They still do.
If Kenny was still around, there would be no question marks hanging over the title race. The change in the dugout leaves them with a point to prove, and they should succeed in doing so in a domestic context. It may have to be accompanied by European progress for their US owners to really consider it a step forward. Rovers and Cork should both make Europe for a sixth consecutive year, which delivers a stability of sorts although it's the minimum expectation for both Stephen Bradley and John Caulfield. St Pat's have spent heavily - Mikey Drennan's arrival from Sligo was a coup - with a view to breaking back into the Eurozone with Waterford catchable.
There's a consistency about the podium places that contrasts with the instability of the noughties, when the boom and bust cycle spread both wealth and misery.
Turbulence is less frequent now, but this remains a league that is trying to figure out where it's going.
Team by team guide
Last season: 6th
Manager: Keith Long (since October 2014)
Winter business: Another tough winter for Bohs with Shane Supple’s retirement piling on the pain from the departures of first-team regulars Dan Casey, Dan Kelly, JJ Lunney and Ian Morris. Long also lost some peripheral squad members and has primarily recruited players coming back from England.
One to watch: Conor Levingston (Wolves), Danny Mandroiu (Brighton), Luke Wade-Slater (Stevenage) and goalkeeper James Talbot (Sunderland) will have to hit the ground running. However, rising star Andy Lyons could move across the water in the summer. He’s a promising full-back who trained with Wolves over the break.
Last season: 2nd
Manager: John Caulfield (since November 2013)
Winter business: Uninspiring with Kieran Sadlier, Steven Beattie, Jimmy Keohane, Barry McNamee and Damien Delaney are amongst a sizeable contingent who departed for new challenges. Caulfield has recruited young players with Casey’s capture from Bohemians and Garry Comerford’s arrival from Waterford two notable arrivals. A lot will be expected of Brighton loanee James Tilley as they lack fire-power.
One to watch: There’s a buzz around left-full Ronan Hurley although his path to regular football could be blocked with Shane Griffin sticking around and Kevin O’Connor set to return from Preston. A formation tweak is possible to accommodate their personnel.
Last season: 8th
Manager: Declan Devine (since November 2018)
Winter business: Only a handful of players have been retained as Devine returns for a second stint. Bringing Barry McNamee back from Cork was a priority, but the loss of the Hale brothers (Rory and Ronan) to Crusaders and Aaron McEneff to Shamrock Rovers leaves them relying on some unknown quantities. David Parkhouse (Sheffield United) and Josh Kerr (Brighton) are on loan until July. Argentina midfielder Gerardo Bruna has an interesting CV.
One to watch: Jamie McDonagh is one of the few survivors from the 2018 squad and the versatile right-sided player had attracted interest from both sides of the border. The 22-year-old featured with the impressive Northern Irish U-21 side.
Last season: 1st
Manager: Vinny Perth (Head coach since December 2018)
Winter business: For the first time in recent years, Dundalk kept their star players but then lost Stephen Kenny. Ronan Murray and Dylan Connolly departed while Stephen O’Donnell retired to join the backroom staff but Perth has brought in Daniel Kelly from Bohs and looked outside the league to bring in the talented Sean Murray and Jordan Flores. Aaron McCarey will provide competition for Gary Rogers.
One to watch: Murray is fascinating and a fully-fit Patrick McEleney will thrill – the prolific Pat Hoban will relish the service – but Michael Duffy was close to an Ireland squad under Martin O’Neill. It’s a massive year for the winger.
Last season: 2nd (First Division)
Manager: Ollie Horgan (since November 2013)
Winter business: It’s tough for a part-time side such as Harps to compete – especially given their location – and Horgan has looked outside the locality to bring in Raff Cretaro (Sligo) and Longford duo Sam Verdon and Daniel O’Reilly. Aussie Harry Ascroft comes in from Malta while Sam Todd has signed on a permanent basis from Derry – but the Candystripes did snap up the long-serving Ciaran Coll.
One to Watch: Caolan McAleer was part of the Harps side that was relegated in 2017 and chose to move on to Sligo Rovers. However, Harps’ return to the top flight has tempted him back to Finn Park and his proven top-flight quality will be an asset. Mark Timlin will also relish a Premier Division return.
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Stephen Bradley (since November 2016)
Winter Business: Midfielders were the talk of Tallaght with Jack Byrne’s shock return to Ireland following on from Aaron McEneff’s capture from Derry. That allowed Aaron Bolger to join Cardiff. Gavin Bazunu has also left for his new life at Manchester City. Bradley’s main challenge has been to find a striker and Austrian Orhan Vojic is on trial.
One to Watch: All eyes will be on Byrne, and McEneff could ignite too, but the forgotten man is Trevor Clarke. A knee injury wrote off 2018, a year that the left-footer started as arguably the most exciting talent in the league. The 20-year-old must kick on now.
Last season: 7th
Manager: Liam Buckley (since October 2018)
Winter business: Mikey Drennan and Rhys McCabe were captured by St Patrick’s Athletic but the arrivals of Ronan Murray and John Dunleavy from Dundalk and Cork respectively bring experience to Buckley’s dressing-room. His other main recruits have come from outside the country with Bermudan captain Dante Leverock and Jamaican attacker Romeo Parkes relocating.
One to Watch: Local man John Mahon made a big impression under Gerard Lyttle last term and he’s expected to take another step forward this campaign. The strapping centre-half has the profile to attract cross-channel interest.
St Patrick’s Athletic
Last season: 5th
Manager: Harry Kenny (since October 2018)
Winter business: The return of prodigal son Chris Forrester from Aberdeen sent the excitement levels around Inchicore soaring. New boss Kenny had already been given the support to recruit Mikey Drennan and Rhys McCabe, Shamrock Rovers duo Gary Shaw and Brandon Miele, Waterford centre-half Dave Webster and promising Limerick midfielder Cian Coleman. Conan Byrne has dropped down a division to Shels.
One to Watch: Forrester is worth the admission fee. The Saints made efforts last term to re-engage with their community and the return of the skilful crowd favourite should help their cause locally. They need to get back into Europe.
Last season: 1st (First Division)
Manager: Collie O’Neill (since December 2014)
Winter business: Less was more for the students as the priority was holding on to as many players as possible. Daire O’Connor and Greg Sloggett were tempted by full-time offers at Cork and Derry respectively but O’Neill has kept the rest of his group together and added Irish underage international Richie O’Farrell from St Pat’s.
One to Watch: There’s a host of promising young talents to choose from with Gary O’Neill a classy captain, Liam Scales a highly-rated defender and Conor Davis a tricky attacker but Stephen Kenny really rates powerful left-sided attacker Neil Farrugia who should do well in the top flight.
Last season: 4th
Manager: Alan Reynolds (since January 2017)
Winter Business: The Blues didn’t have players on long contracts and lost out to rivals as they hesitated, with Bastian Hery and Izzy Akinade the only established players that were tied down. Damien Delaney brings experience while Shane Duggan (Limerick), JJ Lunney (Bohs) and Karolis Chvedukas (Dundalk) strengthen midfield but the departed Dave Webster (Pat’s) and Paul Keegan (Bray) were vocal in the dressing-room.
One to Watch: Hery is a terrific player, while Reynolds is still working to finalise his group but another interesting capture is ex-West Brom and Inverness youth Zack Elbouzedi. The wide man was involved with the home-based U-21 squad and looks capable of making an impact.