Having stuttered somewhat through the 2013 season, Shamrock Rovers will have found themselves feeling understandably unfulfilled when reflecting back on their achievements.
An inability to put games away combined with a consistent mediocrity meant that the Hoops had to content themselves with a disappointing fifth place finish. All in all, Trevor Croly will no doubt have felt a strong pang of regret and frustration at how the season panned out for him and his team.
However, as is always the case, a new season brings a fresh batch of aspirations and dreams for the title hopefuls, and if Rovers can find a way to transform their below-par displays into something with added oomph and bite, we might well have a more congested battle in the top half of the table.
After all, the Premier Division is notoriously difficult to dominate over the course of the season, with quite a number of evenly-matched sides more than capable of pushing for the top spot in any given calendar year. Undoubtedly, there are five teams who all have a real chance of finishing on the top of the pile come November, and Shamrock Rovers are certainly one of them.
A stop-start performance last season which saw Croly’s charges garner more draws than any other side that finished in the top half of the table – 13 in total – was the real killer weak point that made it difficult for the Dublin club to really get going, and when they did it was too late, finishing 19 points adrift of the eventual champions St. Patrick’s Athletic.
A quick look at their pre-season form tells us that they may well have already buried their demons from the last campaign with three big wins already being chalked up against Shelbourne, Glentoran and Waterford United. This was also added to with a massive 5-1 win over Drogheda in the Leinster Senior Cup.
No doubt, the Tallaght Stadium faithful will feel confident and upbeat about the new season with their players in such a rich vein of form, and rightly so, but bigger tests await and it will be intriguing to see how well they react when the challenges arise.
Last season: 5th
2014 odds: 4/1
In: Stephen McPhail (Sheffield Wednesday), Luke Byrne (Bohemians), Simon Madden (Derry City), Conor Kenna (St. Pats), Ryan Brennan (Drogheda United), David O’ Connor (UCD), (Derry City), Rob Cornwall (Shelbourne), Connor Kenna (St Pats) and Luke Byrne (Bohemians)
Out: James Chambers (St. Patrick’s Athletic), David Elebert (Derry City), Danny Ledwith (Sligo Rovers), Conor McCormack (St Pats), Ken Oman (St Pats), Conor Powell (SK Vard Haugesund), Tommy Stewart (Released), Billy Dennehy (Cork City) and Stephen Rice (Longford Town).
A raft of changes have been rung by Shamrock Rovers boss Trevor Croly since the transfer window opened with a lot of familiar faces departing the club. Of course, the 40-year-old gaffer has been quick to replace the departees with a host of new signings designed to inject his side with a new sense of purpose.
With a clean slate for the season ahead, it’s clear that Croly intends to revamp his side by striking a positive balance between youth, experience and skill. And while the introduction of so many new faces is a gamble in one sense, it’s a necessary one.
With the Hoops effectively out of the title race for the majority of last season, it was vital that the current EA Sports Cup winners made the requisite changes. However, the rearrangements and alterations haven’t been done in haste, nor have they been carried out in a panic. In fact, many of their dealings on the transfer market have been quite astute and well thought-out, with particular emphasis on the acquisition of Championship veteran Stephen McPhail.
So, while new can often mean difficult to adjust to, it would appear that all at Tallaght are keen to make their new set-up work. And on their recent form, it seems to be all going according to plan.
One thing that has often plagued Shamrock Rovers in seasons gone by has been their inability to find a tactical consistency. With Croly a year into his role as first-team coach, the groundwork has now been put in place for his side to really become his own this year.
Of course, in 2013 Rovers were a cup side and they perfected that role tremendously by adding the Setanta Cup to the EA Sports Cup, but now they must make the step up – they must shift their efforts towards becoming a key player in the league.
Having inherited his previous squad, it could be said that the former St Pats assistant coach did brilliantly to steer them to fifth in the league whilst also picking up two pieces of silverware along the way. And that would certainly be a fair statement to make.
Now, with the clearout well and truly completed, the time has come for the entire squad to focus their sights firmly on vastly improving their league displays. And the best way to ensure they give themselves a real shot of getting it right from day one is to nail down their strongest starting XI.
Once they do that, they can continue to focus on sorting out any niggling issues they might be having across each department. In truth, it’s easy to see when scanning through their squad that they have an excellent group of players at their disposal and there’s no reason to believe they won’t push hard to repeat the title-winning season of 2011.
Strongest XI: Barry Murphy, Rob Cornwall, Connor Kenna, David O’ Connor, Luke Byrne, Ryan Brennan, Stephen McPhail, Marty Waters, Gary McCabe, Eamon Zayed, Ciaran Kilduff.
Although the squad is brimming with a number of influential figures, Eamon Zayed is certainly the pick of the bunch. A striker who could make all the difference to his side’s season, and he’s making a welcome return to wow Irish crowds once again.
Possessing a wondrous goal-scoring ability, Irish-born Libyan Zayed has all the elements to once again make some lasting memories with a League of Ireland club.
Casting an eye back to 2011, Zayed became the season’s top scorer, notching up a stirring 22 league goals for Derry City.
So, he knows where the net is.
Importantly, though, his habit of rattling the net is something he’s proven he can reproduce in all sorts of conditions and against a variety of opposition. A few wondrous moments while plying his trade for Persepolis FC in Iran underlines exactly this – on his debut, after being introduced as a late substitute, he fired his team to a dramatic win by netting an unexpected and dream-like hat-trick.
Clearly then, Zayed has the skill to bamboozle any defence and Croly would be foolish not to talk his striker up ahead of schedule, because when push comes to shove, Shamrock Rovers will need a player of his quality to drag them up the table.
A perusal of some key stats shows us that the Tallaght-based side scored less than anyone else ahead of them in the final standings – the correlation not needing any more fleshing out than that. All that said, a proven goalscorer could well be the missing piece the cup-winners need if they are to get back into the big time.
Keep an eye on
If ever there was a player who best embodied the spirit of not giving up, it’s Stephen McPhail. Having only recently swapped the blue and white stripes of Sheffield Wednesday for the green and white of the Hoops, the 34-year-old veteran has proven once again that he still possesses plenty of life and love for the game.
His buckets of experience and tactical nouse for the game means that the former FA Cup finalist is a massive signing for the squad. Throughout the years, McPhail has seen more than his fair share of success and has seen his name mentioned in the same breath as a whole host of football’s legends for all the right reasons.
A veritable powerhouse in the middle of the field, the capped Republic of Ireland player already has the right set of skills to add some much-needed steel and expertise to the team.
Calling to mind his distressing 2009-10 season which saw the creative midfielder diagnosed with cancer of the lymphoma, McPhail showed a tremendous resilience to fight back through treatment and a lack of training to once again play football at a very high level.
So, if Shamrock Rovers are in need of a talisman to show them that it’s possible to turn things around, they need look no further than the upbeat, courageous McPhail.
Where will they finish?
With the revamp close to completion, all that’s left to see now is how well it’s implemented when the season kicks off. A tough opening day fixture against Derry City should provide us all with a great insight into how prepared Rovers are for the new fixtures onslaught.
If they can settle into an early rhythm and utilise all of the tremendous new assets that they now have, this season’s dark horses will show a marked improvement on their fifth placed finish of 2013.
With Zayed, McPhail, Kilduff, McCabe and a host of others chomping at the bit, it’s hard to see another flop in the top-tier. The goal-getting side to their game has been altered and upgraded, they’ve drafted in some past masters and a clear plan looks to have been set in place.
It all bodes well for the future.