With just under six weeks until the League of Ireland launches back into action, fans of the domestic game here in Ireland certainly have a lot to look forward too throughout the course of the 2014 Airtricity League season with big names and big games to be seen up and down the country.
With pre-season training now well under way for most sides, BackPageFootball has decided to take an in depth look at some of the upcoming highlights followers of the league can expect this year.
The marquee signing
It’s not every day in this league of ours that we can throw around the headline of a ‘marque signing’ however, that is exactly what league Champions St.Patrick’s Athletic have brought to us in the past few weeks with the acquisition of Ireland international, Keith Fahey.
Tallaght native Fahey last graced these shores back in 2008 with the “Saints” but returns almost six years later as a man with not only sixteen international caps to his credit but also with an English League Cup title and Championship runners-up medal in his trophy cabinet. However, perhaps the most important aspect of all regarding the midfielders return to the league is the fact Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has stated that more international call ups are a possibility for Fahey while plying his trade in Ireland and should that happen it would certainly add more credibility and media coverage to the League of Ireland.
A wide open title race
Last season saw St.Patrick’s Athletic wrap up the Airtricity League Premier Division in style as Liam Buckley’s men took their free flowing and passing football to a whole new level to beat off the advances of a resurgent Dundalk under the stewardship of Stephen Kenny as well as Ian Baraclough’s cup kings, Sligo Rovers while Derry City also flirted with the idea of being champions for long periods of the season.
It has almost been the norm of years gone by in Irish football to see league winning sides dismantled almost instantly and for the standard of the league to consistently stall year after year as a result but during this off-season the top sides have acted swiftly to not only add firepower to their ranks but to keep their key assets.
Mark Quigley (St.Pat’s), Daryl Horgan (Dundalk), Paul O’Conor (Sligo Rovers) and Enda Curran (Derry City) were all top performers for their respective clubs last season and are just a few examples of the quality that has been added to the top sides from last season meaning we should see an even tighter race throughout this campaign while the likes of Shamrock Rovers can never be ruled out from the potential honours list making the silverware battle of 2014 an intriguing one across all platforms.
Roddy’s big return
Roddy Collins announced to the the world this time last year that he would awake the provincial giant of Athlone Town Football Club and have them in the top flight for the first time in seventeen years by 2014 and true to his word that’s exactly what the “Rodmister” did. However, it is the “Candystripes” of Derry City Football Club that Collins will don in 2014 and wherever Roddy goes fireworks are never too fire away.
The First Division is a league badly lacking in coverage and exposure and while the former double winner with Bohemians brought great excitement and colour to the Midlands area for the first time in many many years, it is the national stage that Collins thrives on and he is sure to make the very most of this huge opportunity he has been handed at the Brandywell.
A new feel to the First Division
Now before anyone says it, yes the Airtricity League First Division has been labelled the “Graveyard of Irish Football” for quite a while now and with good reason many would argue but 2014 will see three new faces thrust into the deep end as relegated Shelbourne, newly formed Galway FC and the controversial Shamrock Rovers ‘B’ all begin life in the second tier.
Last year was perhaps the most pulsating First Division campaign we have seen since Cork City snatched the title away from Shels with the last kick (or header in this case) of the season as the likes of Longford Town and Cobh Ramblers played out two 4-3 thrillers in St.Colman’s Park while the play-off series was simply out of this world in terms of passion, drama, excitement and atmosphere as Tony Cousins Longford side first overcame a wonderful Mervue United team on penalties at The City Calling Stadium before eventually letting promotion slip away with virtually the last kick of the season to a never say die Bray Wanderers.
This all came after Athlone Town had overhauled a nine point gap at the top to claim the title ahead of their bitterest rivals, this season was a rollercoaster ride for everyone involved and next season promises to be even better with Longford huge favourites for the title ahead of the super club Galway FC and the likes of Waterford United and Shels.
Young talents continue to shine
If any positives have come from the leagues crazy overspending on players wages during the “Celtic Tiger” it has to be the amount of young talent that has been given its chance to shine week in week out on a national stage. We all know the names of James McClean, Kevin Doyle and David Forde who are just a tiny percentage of some of the star names that have gone on to bigger and better things having taken their chance at a career in the League of Ireland but who can we expect to grab the spotlight in 2014 and perhaps go onto emulate the likes of Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan?
- Luke Byrne (Shamrock Rovers) – Having made the bitter cross City move from Bohemians to Shamrock Rovers this close season, huge things are expected of full-back Byrne at the Tallaght Stadium as he looks to build on his experience in competitions such as the Setanta Cup and in Europe with a Rovers side who will expect nothing less than silverware this season under Trevor Croly’s command.
- Enda Curran (Derry City) – A First Division winner with Athlone Town last season it’s now time for former Salthill Devon striker Curran to grow up and battle it out with the big boys at the top table of Irish football. Curran had long been earmarked as yet another promising talent to come out of Galway football and he is said to have a great relationship with manager Roddy Collins who brought him to both Athlone and Derry so watch out for this crafty little striker in pre-season because he could just surprise you this season.
- Craig Walsh (Bohemians) – Best known for his appearances on Sky’s ‘Footballs next star’ Walsh took the chance of regular first team football by the scruff of the neck last season at UCD and earned himself a move to Bohemians this season as a result. Following a nightmare spell under manager Tony Cousins at Longford, Walsh flourished under the guidance of Martin Russell at the UCD Bowl and many Shamrock Rovers fans will remember his two man of the match performances against them last term. The former Rovers man is a central midfielder who likes to pass the ball and can also deliver a deadly cross and/or set pieces from wide positions and with this Bohemians team looking competitive for 2014, don’t be surprised if Walsh turns more heads in the coming months.
Europe…..The acid test
Let’s be honest……last season was a bit of a wipe out in Europe for Irish sides, albeit the opposition we faced was incredibly difficult and the likes of Derry and Sligo did perform well in those big name games despite the results. However, I’m sure we all remember the rare wall to wall media coverage the league received when Shamrock Rovers finally made the great group stage breakthrough and if we want the league to progress we need to see our sides constantly threatening to break into Europe’s elite.
The good news is we have three sides in St.Patrick’s Athletic, Sligo Rovers and Dundalk who all believe in immaculate passing football and a style of play that is without a doubt suited to European competition. The Northern Irish league has often been criticised for its lack of ambition in European competition with sides at the top often deciding to prioritise domestic domination over a good European run and some would argue that last season St.Patrick’s Athletic did indeed take their eye off the ball when it came to Europe and slipped up in a tie they were expected to progress in. With up to five teams seriously expected to challenge for the title again this season you would have to worry as a LOI neutral that the likes of St.Pat’s may think about the opportunity to put their stamp on the league down instead of going all out in Europe but with the likes of Keith Fahey and Mark Quigley now at their disposal you really would hope that will not be the case in 2014.
Ever expanding online coverage
We could go on all day about the disgraceful lack of national media coverage our domestic league receives in this country but it has been extremely refreshing in recent years to see websites such as ourselves,The LOI Blog, thebitoredblog and goal.com join the already top notch online coverage the LOI receives from sites such as extratime.ie, while social media platforms such as Twitter have really come to life with the LOI community interacting on a 24/7 basis 365 days a year.