A long winter is clearing as two clubs look to knock Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk off their perch in the shadow of a historic year for Dalymount Park. Gavin White previews the 2017 League of Ireland season ahead of the big kick-off.
The 2017 season contains much to be excited for including a tantalising title race to the Premier Division, the heralding of new eras or the end of others.
The closed season has seen many movers and shakers looking to disturb record-breaking Dundalk.
Cork City are fully determined to go one step further and finally overtake Dundalk at the top, after 3 seasons in a row of finishing 2nd to the Lilywhites.
They have bought in several options to strengthen, with Conor McCormack showing promise in pre -season games so far.
But what is better than any signing is keeping hold of two of the most promising young players in the League, in full back Kevin O’Connor and of course, the 29-goal man and FAI Cup winning scorer, Sean Maguire are huge.
Both will play a key role one expects if Cork are to go on and finally win the league.
Other signings include Shane Griffin, who makes a return to Leeside after a spell with English Championship side Reading.
Ryan Delaney comes in on loan from Burton Albion, hoping to replicate Celtic’s Eoghan O’Connell who joined City on loan for a period last year.
Shamrock Rovers also have big intentions this year of shaking the status quo of the previous three seasons with a host of signings.
Signatures from Dundalk trio Ronan Finn, Michael O’Connor and Darren Meenan are a massive statement of intent along with Galway United’s Ryan Connolly which indicates bright season for Stephen Bradley’s men.
Dundalk for their part may have lost several key players from their incredible season with Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle making waves at Preston North End.
Sean Hoare and Jamie McGrath come in from St. Patrick’s Athletic while former Chelsea and Leicester City man Conor Clifford joins the Lillywhites.
Steven Kinsella will be on loan from Everton for the season having showed huge potential in Inchicore last season.
After the first game in Dalymount Park between Shelbourne and Bohemians in 1901, the stadium will be demolished after the season with a redevelopment to begin construction soon after.
The year will be a memorable season regardless for Keith Long’s team but the Gypsies will be hoping to have a better time out this year after a disappointing 2016, especially considering the additional two guaranteed relegation places meaning three teams are sure to face the drop this season to the First Division.
Bohemians have added Shelbourne’s Jamie Doyle and Shamrock Rovers’ Rob Cornwall to their roster but losing Roberto Lopes to their Tallaght rivals along with Keith Buckley to Bray Wanderers may see them struggle in a historic year.
Other clubs looking to build momentum from last year are Bray Wanderers and newly promoted Limerick FC.
Bray have retained the majority of their squad who had a stellar second half of the season last year while gaining the services of Bohemians’ Keith Buckley, Shamrock Rovers’ Gary McCabe and Limerick’s Aaron Greene.
Following last year’s stroll to the First Division title, Limerick have signed St. Pat’s Brendan Clarke, Shamrock Rovers’ Dean Clarke and Ian Turner from Cork City as they look to build on an impressive 2016.
The increased prospects of relegation will have a number of teams looking over their shoulder and will make for an entertaining battle to avoid the drop.
Drogheda United joined Limerick in promotion last season and bringing Killian Brennan back to Louth will be with a view to staying up in the Premier Division.
Finn Harps struggled last year but Danny Morrisey is a fantastic signing and his goals will be needed to help them avoid the drop.
With three teams facing the drop from the Premier Division to cater for the new ten team league in 2018, only one First Division team will be promoted.
This leaves huge competition for the one spot with many fearing another runaway winner akin to that of Limerick’s dominance last season.
With Pat Fenlon joining the club as Director of Football and Alan Reynolds taking over managerial duties, new owner Lee Power will be hoping to see his club’s “new beginning” leads to going up on the first attempt.
The Swindon Town owner has brought the aforementioned coaches in as well as players like James McClean’s brother Patrick from Derry City, Dave Mulcahy from Cork City and Bohemians Dean O’Halloran in which makes Waterford favourites to win the league.
Shelbourne and Longford Town will be hoping to keep Waterford honest throughout the season with both clubs having strong pre-seasons.
Owen Heary’s Shelbourne have beaten Bohemians, St. Pat’s and Derry City in friendlies while signing Derek Prendergast and Dean Delaney from Bohemians while Aaron Ashe has signed from Drogheda United.
The Reds will be delighted to have held onto James English and Adam O’Connor despite strong interest from other clubs which makes them look like contenders to Waterford.
Alan Matthews will be hoping to bring his experience of previous promotion seasons to Longford Town with strong signings like that of St. Pat’s Dylan McGlade, Galway United’s Enda Curran and Jake Kelly from Bohemians.
The heavy strengthening from the three sides might lead to a competitive and entertaining First Division but may also lead to a strong showing for the First Division in the FAI Cup this season.
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