The Saints and sinners of 2013 season take their final bow
With the final whistle blown on the campaign, Daniel McDonnell picks his League of Ireland highs and lows
THE final whistle at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday signified the end of another League of Ireland season. The long winter has officially begun, with clubs seeking managers, managers seeking players and players seeking contracts.
With the future of the Setanta Cup floating in the air amid the familiar confusion, the condensed nature of the season means that the next guaranteed competitive football for clubs won't come until March.
The reason for the lengthy off-season is the desire of clubs to cut costs, with fixtures crammed into the shortest possible window. It leaves plenty of time for reflection on the campaign just gone and, as award season gathers pace, it's important to recognise those who contributed to the year.
St Patrick's Athletic, of course. The league table remains a truthful friend. Did the Saints have the deepest squad, the most talented group, the greatest reserve of options? Probably not.
They certainly didn't kick off the campaign with it anyway. But they had round pegs for round holes, the strongest back four and a hard-working and technically capable range of performers from the midfield department upwards.
At the league launch, Owen Heary tipped Pat's for the title because of the acquisition of Killian Brennan and his presence was significant. Overall, though, it was a proper team effort and a testament to the measured management of Liam Buckley.
Richie Towell arrived back from Scotland with a point to prove after falling short at Celtic and failing to convince in a loan spell at Hibernian.
After lining out with Bluebell United to keep himself fit, he sized up the available League of Ireland options. Stephen Kenny, the new Dundalk manager, had a plan and promised Towell the central midfield position he craved.
When Shamrock Rovers came to Oriel Park on the opening day, the locals panicked when the new boy started picking the ball up on the edge of his own area and passing it around.
They soon realised he had the ability to know what he was doing and, as the year progressed, he became an attacking force too. A proper player, albeit with a dodgy haircut.
Fans of charades would have enjoyed the second half of the campaign with licensing shenanigans meaning that interim bosses who made an impression – such as Heary and Stuart Ashton – were officially told to step back for the final weeks.
There was little attempt to disguise the fact that Heary remained the power in the Bohs dugout even though Bobby Browne was ushered in to comply with front-of-house requirements.
It was all a bit of nonsense but Heary, ultimately, inherited a dire situation and turned it around to keep the Gypsies afloat.
Danny North is too good a player to be tagged with a supersub label, but it might follow him around for a while after his Cup-winning exploits on Sunday, springing from the bench to score twice and make another in a thrilling 28-minute cameo that ended in more cup joy for Sligo.
BEST SUMMER SIGNING
Eyebrows were raised – these eyebrows anyway – when Buckley turned to Daryl Kavanagh after the attacker's short-lived stint at Cork City came to an end. His career appeared to be veering off the rails on Leeside, but Kavanagh proved an inspired addition to the Saints ranks and grabbed the decisive goal in the key victory over Dundalk at Inchicore.
RODDY COLLINS AWARD FOR RODDY COLLINS BEHAVIOUR
Roddy Collins scoops this gong. He worked wonders to lift Athlone from the doldrums to promotion, building positive momentum around a town that had fallen out of love with its team.
But Collins is always looking for the next opportunity, particularly when his stock is high, and the Dubliner is now humming and hawing about staying on for 2014.
He is conscious that jobs are up for grabs elsewhere, while at the same time he is sending a message to the Athlone hierarchy about the support he needs in order to stay.
Joseph Ndo last week described Mark Quigley as a genius who needs understanding to bring the best out of him. "You have to know how to treat them," he said.
Shamrock Rovers boss Trevor Croly has made some mistakes this term, but it's hard to blame him for Quigley's struggles in Tallaght following his big switch from Sligo. The front man is ridiculously talented, arguably the most capable player in the league, and it's a dreadful shame that a disciplinary fallout could again leave him in limbo.
On the same theme, St Patrick's Athletic skipper Conor Kenna was celebrating with his team-mates when he posted a cheeky tweet to O'Connor. He is pictured in the pub with another Saints man, Aidan Price.
Funnily enough, Kenna has now been linked with a winter switch to the Hoops.
Buckley doesn't get angry often but we are told that when he does, it is a sight to behold. We got a glimpse at the start of the season after he was stung by criticism from 'MNS' pundit Stuart Byrne and Shamrock Rovers winger Sean O'Connor, who had joined the Croly-led exodus from Dublin 8 at the end of 2012 campaign.
"We are all bursting our balls here," said Buckley, in response to questions about the club's ambition. "Last season we finished third in the league, bearing in mind we had a load of other s***e to deal with, and we had a chance of doing the double. If that's not ambitious, I'm in the wrong game."
In many ways, it set the tone for a year of Saints' joy.
Gary O'Neill's cancer battle has brought out the good in people and the outpouring of support towards him has illustrated the tightness of the League of Ireland community.
In the aftermath of Sunday's epic day out at the Aviva, it emerged that Joseph Ndo had donated three medals to an auction to help the Drogheda striker – his winner's medal from the 3-2 Cup final win, a medal to recognise his participation in the 2002 World Cup and his African Nations Cup medal – an incredible gesture from a man who has enriched the league with his presence.
The 2013 season will be remembered for the smashing Cup final meeting of Drogheda United and 'Silgo' Rovers. Well, according to the medals anyway. Staggering – that the mistake was made and wasn't noticed.
REFEREE OF THE YEAR
Anthony Buttimer might have come out on top if no other referees were considered but, instead, Alan Kelly is the choice.
The Corkman is the best in the business and, while the league is used to seeing its best players leave, the departure (to America) of the best official is as welcome as a kick in the wrong area of the body.
We wish Alan and his family well as they set out on a great new adventure.
The 'Dundalk Democrat' produced the story of the year in September when they detailed how the visit of new local hero Kenny to a cafe left the Dubliner searching for his jumper, a la Sultans of Ping.
They reported that, after settling his bill and leaving Panama Cafe, Kenny made the terrifying discovery that he'd left one of his favourite jumpers behind.
The 'Democrat' reported that owner Stephen Egan suspected foul play led by fans of St Patrick's Athletic or Drogheda United. But the mystery was quickly solved.
"Stephen came back and we presented him with the jersey," revealed Egan. "In fact, he had just left it behind on the seat. No Drogheda or Pat's fans were involved in its abduction."
It really is a funny little league sometimes.