Tragedy mixed with triumph - The League of Ireland 2017 season
After three years spent hunting down the kingpins of the Premier Division, Cork City finally succeeded in toppling Dundalk. They did so in style, too, completing the league and cup double. However, their problems may only be starting, for now the hunters become the hunted, and how they deal with this new scenario will determine success or failure in 2018.
Manager John Caulfield is not one to let the grass grow under his feet, and he has been active in the transfer market already with three excellent signings in the bag - full-backs Colm Horgan (Galway) and Tobi Adebayo-Rowling (Sligo), and midfield ace Barry McNamee (Derry) - and one surprise addition in striker Josh O'Hanlon (St Patrick's Athletic), who has yet to nail down a place after spells with Longford and St Pat's. No doubt he is hoping to turn O'Hanlon into the next Seanie Maguire.
Notably, Caulfield has persuaded striker Karl Sheppard to re-sign, thus landing a blow to his main rivals Dundalk, who had included Sheppard in their plans and had agreed a pre-contract deal with him. Sheppard's change of heart is likely to add fuel to the fire that is burning between the league's principal rivals.
That rivalry is likely to retain its intensity next year, but expect Shamrock Rovers and Derry City to be added to the mix at the top, provided the Hoops can improve a disciplinary record which yielded nine red cards, and Derry can hold on to the best players in their young and talented squad.
Six of those red cards for Hoops players were in league games, and those six games yielded a total of one point. While the sendings-off weren't responsible for the loss of the other 17 points in those games, they didn't help the Hoops' cause.
In this regard, manager Stephen Bradley would be wise to take a leaf from the book of rivals Cork City (two reds), Dundalk (none) and Derry City (two).
Two players dominated the 2017 season - one happy, the other sad: Seanie Maguire and the late Ryan McBride. The death of McBride on March 19, the night of the FAI Awards, burst like a bombshell throughout the football community. He was such a highly respected player and person, in the prime of his career, leading a young Derry team by example to four wins from four games, as they were second to Cork City on goal difference.
Among Derry's victims in those four games were Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk, and McBride scored crucial goals in each of those games. No wonder his sudden death led to a sense of disbelief not only in Derry but throughout the domestic game.
The trauma for his teammates was reflected in the team's results - three defeats followed those four wins, then came three draws, before a first win post-McBride on May 5. It is to the eternal credit of manager Kenny Shiels that he held the team together through this traumatic period, and that they emerged as strong contenders for a Europa League place.
The Maguire story is a true League of Ireland success. A talented youth fails to make the cut in England, returns home, fails to make the Dundalk team, is signed by Cork and within 18 months is the hottest property in the league and signed by Preston.
Maguire followed in the footsteps of previous League of Ireland strikers Paul McGee and Kevin Doyle, but his ascent to competitive football with Ireland was faster. It took Doyle over a year to make his competitive debut after his transfer to Reading in June 2005. Maguire, who left Cork at the end of July, made his competitive debut at the beginning of October. We are unlikely to see such a swift ascension again any time soon.
While Caulfield hands all the credit for Maguire's success to the player, the striker is under no illusions that the Cork boss is the reason he has made this quantum leap in his career. Replacing the 20-goal-a-season player is the big item on Caulfield's agenda. O'Hanlon, who has only scored four goals in two seasons of limited appearances, is an unlikely candidate, but the Caulfield seal of approval suggests we should rein in our scepticism.
Meanwhile, Dundalk's improved form in the second half of the season can't be overlooked. The Lilywhites served notice of their ambition in July when they paid a hefty fee to secure the league's other most wanted player, Dylan Connolly, from Bray. Manager Stephen Kenny admitted Connolly would have to adapt to a new style of play at Oriel Park and the youngster is still a work in progress, especially after a disappointing performance in last Sunday's cup final when his only real contribution was to win the free from which Niclas Vemmelund headed Dundalk's goal.
The domino effect of mid-season transfers was the other main feature of the season. Bray were in prime position to capture a Europa League spot ahead of Shamrock Rovers until they sold Connolly. This move, allied to the Hoops' signing of centre-back Lee Grace to bolster their leaky defence, was central to the shift in the balance of power between the clubs.
Similarly, Galway's decision to release veteran striker Vinny Faherty upon signing Sligo's Jonah Ayunga backfired when Ayunga broke his leg on his third outing, and Faherty contributed three vital goals in seven starts that saved Sligo from relegation at Galway's expense.
Finally, Bohemians' achievement in finishing fifth after wandering in the desert of ninth and 10th place earlier in the season is a credit to manager Keith Long, who had to do without striker Ismahil Akinade for most of the season and midfield ace Eoin Wearen all season. Now that they are back to full fitness, Bohs will join the pack chasing Europa League status.
Sunday Indo Sport