The League of Ireland Premier Division gets underway tonight with the reigning champions once again expected to lead the charge for silverware.
The logical consensus is that the race for the 2020 Premier Division title will be between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers. I’m not going to disagree with that consensus.
However, I feel that Shamrock Rovers are in prime position to win a first League of Ireland title since 2011, ahead of the current kingpins of Irish domestic football, who have won five of the last six top five titles.
Dundalk aren’t at the level they were back in the heady days of 2016. Shamrock Rovers also have some top pros from back to front. If The Hoops can hold onto Jack Byrne for the duration of 2020, I fancy them to learn from last season when they let a 10 point lead slip to win a first league title in nine years.
For me, there are four teams fighting for the other two European places. Derry City have more money this season and have made two of the most astute signings of the off season in Conor McCormack and Conor Clifford.
I expect Bohemians will be there or thereabouts in the battle for the European places also. Keith Long’s charges are by far the youngest team in the league, but they’re strong all over the pitch. In Dinny Corcoran they have a League of Ireland veteran well versed in scoring goals and Danny Mandroiu is capable of producing a moment of magic while the returning Dan Casey is a rock at the back.
As is typical of most League of Ireland clubs, Saint Patrick’s Athletic have had a big turnover of players during the off season. Scoring goals was a big issue for them last term. However, if Chris Forrester can rediscover something near the form he showed before he moved across channel then Pat’s have a real chance of pushing for European football in 2020.
Lee Desmond at the back is another big player from them. The club have also made some astute signings in the off season, Rory Feely (right-back/centre-half from Waterford), Conor Kearns (goalkeeper from UCD), Shane Griffin (Cork City). Their key signing is likely to be Robbie Benson who has signed for his former Dundalk team-mate Stephen O’Donnell’s charges and could make it a very interesting season for the Inchicore outfit.
Waterford let go of a lot of players during the off season. Lee Power is still investing in the club though and manager Alan Reynolds has stayed on. They have done some good business recently signing the likes of Graham Cummins (from Cork City), Sam Bone (Shamrock Rovers), Michael O’Connor (Linfield), Kevin O’Connor (Cork City) and Ali Coote (Brentford) which means The Blues look like being very competitive this season.
I expect them to complete the four way group (alongside Pat’s, Bohs and Derry) in the chase for European football and “the best of the rest” following Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk.
Sligo Rovers have a top manager in Liam Buckley. Romeo Parkes’ goals and overall quality being removed is a big loss to the club though. Canadian international Kris Twardek (to Bohemians) is another big loss. They’ll be relying on Ronan Coughlan for goals and to finish approaching mid-table would be a good season for them. I see the only Connacht outfit in the top flight finishing seventh.
One of Irish football’s sleeping giants, Shelbourne return to the League of Ireland Premier Division for the first since 2013. At 32 years-old, Ian Morris is the youngest manager in the top flight but he has some grizzled veterans among his charges.
Ciaran Kilduff, Gary Deegan and Karl Shepard have vast experience in the League of Ireland, England and further afield. In Alex O’Hanlon they have a midfielder of great potential.
For me, it’ll be between Shelbourne and Cork City to avoid ninth place and the relegation/promotion play-off spot. Cork City’s fall from grace has been dramatic. Having won the league and cup double in 2017, the Rebel Army were just one place above the relegation play-off spot last term. The club also had four managers throughout the course of last year.
Neale Fenn’s charges need some stability but have lost key men over the winter such as Kevin O’Connor (to Waterford), Karl Sheppard (to Shelbourne – albeit the Dubliner didn’t have a stellar 2019), Conor McCarthy (to Saint Mirren), Shane Griffin (Saint Pat’s) and tireless workhorse Conor McCormack (to return to his former club Derry City).
Fenn has made some decent signings in Joseph Olowu (on loan from Arsenal), Liam Bossin (goalkeeper from Nottingham Forest), Cian Coleman (from St. Pat’s), Rob Slevin (Waterford) and Charlie Flemming (Cobh Ramblers).
The Leesiders have also been linked with a takeover by Championship outfit Preston North End as the club from the second city struggle to balance the books. All-in-all, expecting to finish much better than an eighth placed finish looks unrealistic at this moment in time.
Finn Harps have performed a number of great escapes over the last few seasons but 2020 looks like being the season they slip through the Premier Division relegation trap door.
Barry McNamee was an interesting signing by Ollie Horgan during the off season but McNamee isn’t the same player he was during his Derry City pomp. Harps have also lost their top scorer from last season Nathan Boyle and they therefore look doomed to the drop.
Premier Division prediction
1st. Shamrock Rovers
3rd. Derry City
5th. Saint Patrick’s Athletic
6th. Waterford FC
7th. Sligo Rovers
8th. Cork City FC
10th. Finn Harps