Monday 15 October 2018

Greatest League in the World - The 17 stars of 2017

Sean Maguire, Trevor Clarke and Barry McNamee
Sean Maguire, Trevor Clarke and Barry McNamee
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Despite move to Preston, Sean Maguire remains top of League of Ireland charts this season after stunning campaign on Leeside.

1  Sean Maguire (Cork City)

The fact that Maguire stayed on top of the scoring charts despite leaving in July says it all about the impact that he made on the pitch in 2017.

He had reached a level which allowed him to make a smooth transition to the Championship and a competitive international debut was the cherry on top. Maguire was the main factor in Cork's title win and should qualify for all of the major end-of-season awards even though he is no longer employed on these shores.

It became obvious in the early stage of this campaign that the opportunity to see him live on Irish soil had to be taken before it was too late.

2 Conor McCormack (Cork)

The former Manchester United youth has been a solid League of Ireland player since coming home but he was never really viewed as a blue-chip performer. He had always been around good squads without necessarily being a centrepiece. But after starring with Derry last season, John Caulfield identified the Carlingford man as a player that could strengthen a squad that was becoming conditioned to near misses.

The diminutive 27-year-old has a football intelligence that allowed him to play centre-half in little-and-large pairings and he can do a job at right-back too but he's at his best in front of the back four and he produced in the big games - the Dundalk matches spring to mind - to be a vital cog in Cork's success

3 Dave McMillan (Dundalk)

The hallmark of Stephen Kenny's tenure in Dundalk has been the ability to take players who arrived with question marks over them and turn them into top players. McMillan had experienced ups and downs before relocating to Louth and was initially viewed as a supersub.

He is now indispensable with an enviable scoring record in Europe and an improved awareness around the area which backs up the manager's view that he is still getting better. St Johnstone want to sign the 28-year-old who was eyed up by Rosenborg 12 months ago. He could become Dundalk's all-time top scorer if he stays but that's a big if.

4 Patrick McEleney (Dundalk)

McEleney would be top of the charts in terms of entertainment value. His big-game record this year has been mixed; he was good against Rosenborg in the Champions League and missed when he went off injured in the second leg yet Cork had the measure of him in their three meetings. Still, he has the ability to produce the unexpected and could run his own personal goal of the season competition.

When players in the league are asked about the next talent to make the jump, McEleney invariably comes up. However, he's struggled to shrug off niggling injuries and there's no guarantee he will get the type of offer that he craves. Sunday's FAI Cup final will be huge for him.

5 Trevor Clarke (Shamrock Rovers)

It would be a shame for Rovers fans if Clarke's final act for Hoops was his sending-off in Bray in the penultimate round of fixtures. He is a fiery character that plays on the edge and taking that out of this game might blunt his effectiveness.

But it's clear that Clarke has a bright future in his profession and Rovers have tied him down to a contract which means suitors will have to pay up for the 19-year-old. He's naturally left-sided although Stephen Bradley has utilised him cutting in from the right too. There is a feeling that left-back could be his best position long term.

6 Niclas Vemmelund (Dundalk)

Dundalk's mid-season revival coincided with Vemmelund getting a prolonged run in the side in the centre of defence and his performance in the Champions League tie with Rosenborg was exceptional. The Dane is good on the ball and a calming presence on those around him and Kenny is desperate to keep him but his mind appears to be set on moving home. Dundalk are actively trying to change it.

7 Graham Burke (Shamrock Rovers)

The classic case of a player that's been galvanised by moving home from England where the rough and tumble of the lower leagues really didn't suit the ex-Aston Villa player. Burke had some disciplinary problems at first, yet he's clever when he's on the ball and finds good positions between defence and attack. He was excellent for Rovers in Europe and, at 24, he's still got time on his side. Injury ended his campaign early and Rovers really missed his quality.

8 Alan Bennett (Cork)

The 36-year-old is ready to play on for another year and he showed that he still had miles on the clock by playing the role of wise old head in the final weeks of the campaign where clean sheets helped Cork across the line. Injury affected him midway through the year and Caulfield had to mind him around Europe and he may not play every game if he signs on again. But the former Irish international has more than earned another shot at winning more silverware with the club he loves.

9 Gearóid Morrissey (Cork)

Morrissey needed to add goals to his game and he did just that at important stages of Cork's season with vital strikes at home to Shamrock Rovers and away to Derry City springing to mind. With McCormack and Greg Bolger primarily sharing defensive duties, Morrissey and Garry Buckley were tasked with getting forward from midfield and both played their part. John Caulfield has tied him down on a two-year contract. His combative style suits the personality of the title-winning side.

10 Dinny Corcoran (Bohemians)

Cork were the team of the league season, but Bohemians deserve best supporting honours for their charge to a top-half finish despite working off a tight budget. Fuad Sule was a find and Izzy Akinade made a difference when he came back from injury mid-season but his strike partner Dinny Corcoran popped up at vital moments across the campaign.

He's not especially quick and has spent seasons at other clubs warming benches but he's the right fit for Bohs. A 15-goal campaign is a serious achievement.

11 Aaron McEneff (Derry)

On pure ability McEneff would be higher up the list and he was excellent in the early part of the campaign but he endured a sticky patch in the closing months. He's a technically assured midfielder with a big future and could do with following the example of Maguire by working hard over the winter to hit the ground running next season because he is capable of joining the list of Derry City exports.

12 Lee Grace (Shamrock Rovers)

Shane Keegan brought the ex-army man to Galway from Wexford Youths and his first crack at full-time football really put this late-developing centre-half in the spotlight. Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley had identified his potential last year and asked his club to go and get him in the summer window.

After a protracted negotiations, they got their man for €25,000 and Galway missed him on the run-in. Grace (24) will be central to Rovers' plans to challenge next term.

13 Karl Sheppard (Cork)

He didn't set the world alight when given central responsibility after Maguire packed his bags but there can be a recency bias when it comes to judging a year and it shouldn't be forgotten that Sheppard was exceptional in Cork's winning run that gave them control of the title. He was best suited to a wide role linking with Maguire and Stephen Dooley in an effective front three. Likely bound for Dundalk next term.

14 Barry McNamee (Derry)

Kenny Shiels has described the creative McNamee as his poet laureate although he may be using different language about the curly-haired playmaker if he decides to leave Derry for pastures new in the coming weeks. McNamee is a tidy player with an eye for goal and would be an asset to any Premier Division squad.

15 Ryan Delaney (Cork)

The Wexford man has played his part in Cork's title glory after joining on loan from Burton Albion although he very much remains a work in progress and he has suffered in games without the experience of Bennett or Johnny Dunleavy next to him. He's attracted interest from other clubs in the UK and is likely to continue his career there next term. Delaney is also part of the Ireland U-21 squad.

16 Ronan Murray (Galway)

In a season of hardship for Galway, Murray was a find after settling into League of Ireland life following his move back from England. He did miss some important penalties but his all-round play attracted plenty of admirers and Cork are keen to bring him on board to help fill the void left by the departure of Maguire.

17 Chiedozie Ogbene (Limerick)

Ogbene is definitely still learning the game and he shouldn't be in a rush to follow through on interest from over the water as the likes of Maguire, Daryl Horgan and others have shown the benefit of staying an extra year. He's only 20 and it's no surprise that Cork want him back as they really erred by letting him out of their grasp in the first place.

The speedy attacker will do well in the game. His Brazilian counterpart Rodrigo Tosi also deserves a mention for adapting well to Ireland in the twilight of his career.

The young stars

Stephen Kenny last week warned of a talent drain but the league is still producing good players or functioning as a cushion for those who have encountered setbacks elsewhere.

Rory Hale did well for Galway after coming back to these shores from Aston Villa and is sure to be wanted by the bigger guns.

Derry's Conor McDermott and Ronan Curtis are U-21 internationals for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively and the latter turned down a move to Swedish Europa League group stage contestants Ostersunds in August. Derry will do well to hold on to them.

Shamrock Rovers' Aaron Bolger is a talent and Warren O'Hora shone at Bohemians along with the UK-bound Fuad Sule. Winger Steven Kinsella will excel for Dundalk if he can avoid injury problems.

Irish Independent

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