“More and more people are tuning into the joy a Friday night has brought thousands of supporters across the country for years.” Gavin White previews the 2018 League of Ireland season ahead of the big kick-off.
Amid an ever more monetised and technologically aided English Premier League, the League of Ireland is becoming more of an attractive prospect for Irish football fans. While media headlines are dominated with a VAR farce and near £90 million centre-halves, the league’s return brings a fresh air of genuinity and excitement that can remind us of the reason why we love the game. A tantalising title race, an opening weekend Dublin derby and a rejuvenated First Division are just some of the reasons why terraces will be buzzing again.
With the opening weekend given an early start this year, the fixture generator has propped up the big one already. Shamrock Rovers will connect up the Luas lines for the first time to travel cross-city to Dalymount Park where an exciting Bohemians team will be waiting.
While club officials will be disappointed that the usually well attended fixture was designated for the opening day, which attracts a sizeable crowd anyways, the pre-game hype has this derby sold out weeks in advance.
In pure footballing terms, both sides have reason to be hopeful due to new signings. Having been head and shoulders above the rest of the First Division for the past two seasons, forward Ryan Swan is ready to make the step up with his excellent ball retention and vision. The legacy of his father and Bohs club legend Derek Swan also adds an extra dimension to his potential story in Phibsborough. The return of prodigal captain Keith Buckley also has the Gypsies gleaming after his time in seaside wilderness.
Rovers for their part always seem to arrive with lofty ambitions into a new season and the signing of ex-West Ham defender Joey O’Brien is certainly a nod to those targets. After a successful trial, Daniel Carr brings the unknown and supreme potential having played previously with Huddersfield and Cambridge amongst others. More importantly, perhaps, the title winning experience of Greg Bolger from Cork City could prove a coup. Either way, whoever takes the derby spoils will be driving into the start of the season with supreme confidence.
It remains to be seen whether those pre-season murmurings can lead to a substantial push for the Premier Division title. Recent seasons have been dominated by Cork City and Dundalk with Cork finally wrestling the title from the Louth club last term. The season curtain raiser offered a glimpse once more of how the Rebels will not be giving the title up easy as both hope to make long forays into Europe during the summer.
Cork’s signings of Graham Cummins from St. Johnstone shows their intent with his guaranteed goals and the addition of Derry City’s Barry McNamee brings brilliant play-making and someone who is reaching the peak of his career.
Dundalk’s off-field matters have stolen the headlines in the run up to the new season. The 100 per cent takeover by a US-based consortium backed by Peak6, who have stakes in Bournemouth and AS Roma, has raised eyebrows, if not further hopes subconsciously. Manager Stephen Kenny has welcomed the change above him, while hoping for gradual consistent improvement. He maintains the short-term will not be affected but a new direction could bring long term success.
New signings of Karolis Chvedukas and Krisztian Adorjan from abroad will bolster a midfield who will have to deal with the absence of Patrick McEleney. However, Kenny will be looking to Dylan Connolly and Jamie McGrath to provide the new creative spark.
The change to a ten team league this year will likely make it more competitive. Teams playing each other four times throughout the season in the Premier Division will bring heightened competition that will benefit mid-table teams. Newly promoted Waterford FC will be hoping to build on the success of last year with shrewd signings of Izzy Akinade and Dean O’Halloran from Bohemians and Rory Feely from St. Patrick’s Athletic.
Indeed, St. Pats will be hoping they can forget an absolute dismal run last year which nearly saw them lose their Premier Division status. Signing Kevin Toner from Aston Villa is slightly remarkable considering the stage of the defender’s career and proximity to the English Premier League. Simon Madden’s addition from Shamrock Rovers may also see them make a much needed push up the table.
There has most definitely been a theme of eyebrow-raising cross-channel switches from England and former Liverpool striker Adam Morgan’s move to Sligo Rovers may have the showgrounds fans remembering the good times.
One thing that was noticeable from last year was the weakness of the First Division with only one promotion place up for grabs. With Galway United, Drogheda United and Finn Harps all coming down, the race for the one automatic promotion place and three play-off spots will be tightly contested. Galway will be buoyed with Ryan Connolly coming back from Shamrock Rovers while the link up of Danny Furlong and manager Shane Keegan is a timely late addition to their squad.
Despite this, Galway’s pre-season preparations have been an “absolute disaster” according to Keegan due to the lack of a training ground. This may give impetus to Finn Harps who have held onto Paddy McCourt or even a strengthened Shelbourne who have signed striker David O’Sullivan from Longford Town and Lorcan Fitzgerald from neighbours Bohemians.
Cobh Ramblers and Cabinteely both enjoyed good seasons last year and will be hoping to build upon that success. Cabinteely have retained the services of arguably the league’s best player in Kieran Marty Waters, showing their ambitions have remained on track.
Attendances gradually rose again last year and gradual is the name of the game here. More and more people are tuning into the joy a Friday night has brought thousands of supporters across the country for years. The League and the clubs need to seize the opportunity to grow and tap into the huge potential this season has.
Although sometimes known for being one half of electronic music group White Collar Boy, Gavin White is a journalist for the Irish Independent and writes on football too for extratime.ie