- Lifestyle & Sports
- 23 Feb 23
As the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland kicks off again, our man in the sheepskin jacket Tadhg Williams offers a team-by-team guide to the next ten months of homegrown footballing action...
The Greatest League In The World® returned on February 17 with last season’s winners, Shamrock Rovers, the bookies’ 5/6 favourites to make it two titles in a row.
You can bet your hard-earned shekels that Bohemians won’t want to settle for mid-table respectability again while Damien Duff has done an absolutely brilliant job of revitalising Shelbourne – who are being tipped as the likely surprise package in terms of challenging at the top end of the table in 2023.
While it was sad to see the pride of Donegal, Finn Harps, being relegated, the fact that Cork City are back in the top flight can only be good for the league in terms of attendances, which were up last campaign by 29% – and tantalisingly close to breaking through the half-a-million barrier.
With Shamrock Rovers averaging 5,570 fans a game and St. Pat’s, Shels, Bohs and Derry all attracting 3,000-plus, while three grounds totally sold out ahead of the first weekend of fixtures, there’s a real sense of momentum in the air.
The same applies to the First Division, which registered an average 1,193 supporters a game in 2022. The arrival of Kerry FC – who are being managed by former Rovers, Derry, Cork City, St. Pat’s and Limerick player Billy Kelleher – will add further to the intrigue. Their first game of the season was a sell out at Mounthawk Park.
While nothing beats being in the stands, you can also bag yourself a loitv.ie pass which allows you to watch a whopping 400+ games on demand for just €120.
So, here’s the Hot Press verdict on the titanic SSE Airtricity League battles to come…
Manager: Declan Devine
Ground: Dalymount Park, Phibsborough, Dublin 7
Nicknames: Bohs, The Gypsies
Last season: 6th
Prediction for 2023: 5th
Key Player: Keith Buckley
One to Watch: Jonathan Afolabi
Bohs have built a worldwide, dare one say, ‘hipster’ profile over the past few seasons similar to that of St. Pauli in Hamburg. Having newly revealed their 2023 away kit supporting Palestinian children, and with their Bob Marley, Fontaines D.C. and ‘Refugees Welcome’ jerseys in the past, campaigning on such issues as Direct Provision and climate action, and craft beer in the bar, they’ve brought the club into the modern age whilst continuing to celebrate a footballing heritage that dates all the way back to 1890. That dynamism hasn’t always been matched on the pitch. “We’re trying to put a fresh spin on things,” new manager Declan Devine says of their plans for 2023. “We’ve moved from a part-time model to a full-time one, and brought a lot of quality into the group, We just want to try to re-establish the club and get it back to where it belongs.”
Taking care of the pre-match tunes, Devine reveals, is Paddy Kirk who “plays everything from Daniel O’Donnell to the latest hip hop.” Kirk’s arrival from Sligo will certainly strengthen Bohs’ defence along with the loan signing of Grant Horton from Cheltenham Town, who scored in Bohs' opening weekend fixture against Cork City. Arriving from Derry, James Akintunde will put extra zip into a Bohs strike-force that also includes hot Ireland under-17s prospect Nickson Okosun. Also keep an eye on Jonathan Afolabi, another former Irish underage international who signed from Celtic last season. He’s impressed in pre-season with his pace getting fans out of their seats.
On a visit to Dalymount Park, be sure to snaffle yourself a pie. They’re the best in the country!
Manager: Colin Healy
Ground: Turners Cross, Cork
Nicknames: Rebel Army
Last season: 1st in First Division
Prediction for 2023: 8th
Key Player: Cian Coleman
One to Watch: Tunde Owolabi
2023 marks the eagerly awaited return to the top flight of Cork City. Under the stewardship of Leeside legend Colin Healy, they won promotion with a squad full of academy graduates and other exciting young prospects. Now, with a wealthy new owner, Dermot Usher – who made a fortune from his imvolvement in Sonas Bathrooms – backing them, hopes are high. There’s justifiable excitement too about some of their off-season signings – pacey striker Tunde Owolabi from St. Pat’s will stretch defences, while there’s also a lot of talk about Celtic loanee Tobi Oluwayemi who will battle with Meath’s Jimmy Corcoran for the goalkeeping jersey.
City – who know how to mix pragmatism with playing good attractive football – attracted an average attendance of 3,517 last season, a figure which will doubtless grow as they welcome old rivals like Shamrock Rovers. Their opening fixture against Bohs sold out last weekend. Turner’s Cross is a proper football ground with a great atmosphere: the noise created from the Shed end is sure to rattle any away team as they sit in the dressing-room below.
Manager: Ruaidhrí Higgins
Grounds: The Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium, Derry
Nicknames: The Candystripes, RAWA (Red and White Army)
Last season: 2nd
Prediction for 2023: 2nd
Key Player: Mark Connolly
One to Watch: Colm Whelan
Last years’s FAI Cup-winners and league runners-up enter the new season in great shape. They have money behind them and added a bunch of talented players during the close season. Newly arrived from Preston North End, midfielder Adam O’Reilly is a busy player with an eye for a defence-splitting pass, who previously impressed during loan spells at Waterford and St. Pat’s. Derry also won the race to sign the young Kilkenny striker Colm Whelan – a statement of intent given the widespread assumption that Whelan would end up at Shamrock Rovers. The former Ireland under-21 international scored 44 times in 66 games for UCD. While he is not yet fully fit after injury, that firepower might just enable Ruaidhrí Higgins’ men to go one better than last season. Meanwhile, big things are expected again of midfield duo Patrick McEleney and Michael Duffy; and of Mark Connolly whose defensive displays earned him a PFAI Player of the Year nomination.
The excitement surrounding Derry is a boon to the league. The Candystripes have an incredibly dedicated and loud support, outnumbering Shelbourne at the FAI Cup Final in the Aviva Stadium. The atmosphere at home games is always electric. Well worth an away trip!
Manager: Kevin Doherty
Ground: Weavers Park, Drogheda, Co. Louth
Last season: 8th
Prediction for 2023: 9th
Key Player: Gary Deegan
One to Watch: Seán Brennan
Drogheda could have a tough campaign ahead of them. By no means the richest club in the division, they’ve changed the name of their ground three times in as many years in order to bring in sponsorship. However, they always seem capable of punching above their weight. There’s a fantastic community around the club and their link with Turkish giants Trabzonspor is one of the more curious in the Greatest League In The World!
Against that background, Drogs have already defeated their county rivals Dundalk this year in the Malone Cup, an annual pre-season joust between the two Louth clubs, so they won’t go down without a fight. The arrival of Ben Curtis from St. Pat’s adds quality to the Drogs defence, while the midfield will benefit from the addition of Southampton academy graduate Seán Brennan, who impressed as part of the resilient UCD squad that defeated Waterford in last year’s promotion/relegation playoff. The experience of captain Gary Deegan will be crucial in keeping Kevin Doherty’s side afloat.
Manager: Stephen O’Donnell
Ground: Oriel Park, Dundalk, Co. Louth
Nicknames: The Town, the Lilywhites
Last season: 3rd
Prediction for 2023: 3rd
Key Player: Robbie Benson
One to Watch: John Martin
Emerging from a controversial few years under the ownership of American investment firm Peak6, Dundalk overcame 2021’s sixth position slump to finish a well-deserved third in 2022. While the newly retired Brian Gartland will be missed on the pitch, he’ll continue to have a significant influence in his new role as Director of Football Operations. There was considerable strengthening during the summer with Gibraltar international Louie Annesley, who’s joined from Blackburn Rovers – one of five new additions from the UK. Closer to home, John Martin joined at the beginning of last season from Waterford, having proven himself a remarkably versatile player. One of the joys of watching somebody of Martin’s quality is his ability to slot into any position, something that Dundalk may need to rely on this season. He bagged the goal in their 1-1 draw with UCD at the weekend.
Top tip for any travelling fan heading to Oriel Park - bring an umbrella and a pair binoculars. Dundalk’s away section is the worst in the league by far – having been caught there myself on a couple of cold, wet nights, my advice is: make sure you wrap up.
Manager: Stephen Bradley
Ground: Tallaght Stadium, Tallaght, Dublin 24
Nicknames: Rovers, The Hoops
Last season: 1st
Prediction for 2023: 1st
Key Player: Roberto Lopes
One to Watch: Justin Ferizaj
Despite Derry’s fresh financial backing and quality summer signings, Shamrock Rovers still look the most likely winners of the league in 2023. The Champions have strengthened an already impressive squad – think Alan Mannus, Roberto Lopes, Jack Byrne, Richie Towell and Rory Gaffney for starters – with Trevor Clarke returning to Tallaght on loan from Bristol Rovers; Liam Burt joining from arch-rivals Bohemians; and Estonian international Markus Poom also signing on loan from Flora Tallinn. Their biggest coup, however, may well be the loan acquisition of Johnny Kenny from Celtic. Kenny’s debut season in the League of Ireland with Sligo Rovers, when he was just 17, saw him bang in twelve goals: we’re expecting him to be a Golden Boot contender this time round. Looking to make it two big seasons in a row is Justin Ferizaj, the Irish underage international, who’s already turned down the opportunity to join Sampdoria in Italy. Rumours continue to circulate that several Premier League clubs are interested, but Rovers will surely hold on to him for as long as possible.
Tallaght Stadium is also home to the Irish international women’s team and, with the nearly completed North Stand upping capacity to 10,000, will soon be the biggest League of Ireland ground in the country. No visit is complete without sampling one of the chip van’s battered sausages.
Manager: Damien Duff
Ground: Tolka Park, Drumcondra, Dublin 3
Nicknames: Shels, The Reds
Last season: 7th
Prediction for 2023: 7th
Key Player: Luke Byrne
One to Watch: Jack Moylan
The recruitment of Ireland legend Damien Duff as manager at the beginning of last season, and the campaign to save Tolka Park, have given Shels fans a new sense of mission, after six years in the First Division. There’s still work to be done however, with Duff admitting recently that the club needs significant investment if they’re to compete with the likes of Rovers and Derry. Duffer will be relying on captain Luke Byrne to organise the defence; Matty Smith for that bit of flair and creativity; and Jack Moylan to add goals. Signed last season from Bohs after scoring seven goals in 14 appearances on loan at Wexford, the 20-year-old has already become a fan favourite at Tolka. Expect him to hit double figures this season and Shels to avoid being dragged into the relegation mire.
Manager: John Russell
Ground: The Showgrounds, Magheraboy, Co. Sligo
Nicknames: The Bit O’Red
Last season: 5th
Prediction for 2023: 6th
Key Player: Niall Morahan
One to Watch: Max Mata
It was inevitable that Aidan Keena would depart Sligo Rovers – to Cheltenham Town – after last season’s goalscoring heroics. The Westmeath man netted twenty-one times in all competitions, including the goal that secured a famous away win against Motherwell in July’s Conference League qualifiers. It’s a big blow. Sligo have significantly strengthened their defensive options, with the re-signing of John Mahon from St. Johnstone, the loan signing of Reece Hutchinson from Cheltenham, and the acquisition of Danny Lafferty and James Finnerty from Derry and Bohs, respectively. However, the question for most Sligo fans remains: where will the goals come from?
The debut of RB Leipzig loanee Fabrice Hartmann will be eagerly anticipated. The German forward actually signed last August, but due to an administrative error couldn’t be registered to play until this season. The hope too is that Kiwi Max Mata will step up to the mark. Mata became a terrace favourite last season and with the departure of Keena, Bit O’Red fans will be hoping that the New Zealand international can improve on his nine goals in all competitions in 2022 and help mount another challenge for European football.
St. Patrick’s Athletic
Manager: Tim Clancy
Ground: Richmond Park, Inchicore, Dublin 8
Last season: 4th
Prediction for 2023: 4th
Key Player: Chris Forrester
One to Watch: Sam Curtis
St. Pat’s have had one of the division’s best transfer windows. The acquisition of Jake Mulraney from Orlando City is a significant coup, as are both the loan signing of Conor Carty from Bolton and the addition of Dutch 6’4” centre-half Noah Lewis who came up through the ranks at Feyenoord. Another player to keep tabs on is Tommy Lonergan, a 19-year-old striker who returns to Pat’s following a successful year at UCD for whom he scored the decisive goal against Waterford in the promotion/relegation playoff.
Then there’s 17-year-old Sam Curtis, one of the league’s most promising players, who made eighteen appearances as a full-back last season, providing three assists. Previously, he became the youngest player in League of Ireland history when – aged just fourteen – he made his First Division debut for Shamrock Rovers II in October 2020. Now a key part of manager Tim Clancy’s plans, this is a player you have to see in the flesh. Despite these exciting additions, my gut tells me that Pat’s are likely to be in a scrap again for the fourth and final European spot.
Manager: Andrew Myler
Ground: Belfield Bowl, UCD, Dublin 4
Nicknames: The Students
Last season: 9th (Maintained Premier Division status with 1-0 win vs Waterford in playoff)
Prediction for 2023: 10th
Key Player: Dara Keane
One to Watch: Sam Todd
UCD are always a difficult team to make predictions about. They’ve lost a number of key players – Colm Whelan to Derry and Tommy Lonergan to St. Pat’s – but given the structure of the club, quality replacements are not wholly unlikely. The attraction of UCD for a young player is the promise of full-time football and an education. They consistently have the youngest squad in the league as scholarship students learn the tricks of the trade from gaffer Andy Meyler, and while some of the brightest talents move on to other clubs, many stay until their studies are completed. In fact, they are Europe's only student team competing in a national domestic league.
Box-to-box midfielder Dara Keane was UCD’s player of the year last season, providing eight assists. An excellent passer, he has the ability to open up the play and cause any team in the Premier Division trouble. At the back, Sam Todd is a human wall. His performance against Waterford in that promotion/relegation playoff was Herculean. If UCD are to survive relegation this season, players like Keane and Todd will need to step up and perform those same heroics week in week out. A tough ask but proven possible with their 1-1 draw at the weekend against Dundalk.
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