With almost one third of the League of Ireland Premier Division season having been played (and each team having played each other at least once), the table has really taken proper shape now.
Now is a good time to highlight, five big talking points from the season so far.
5. Ollie Horgan working his magic again for Finn Harps
In recent weeks, Harps have recorded historic results, beating Derry City for the first time ever at the Brandywell (1-2) and also beating Dundalk (0-2) for the first time in 14 years.
The Donegal outfit have comfortably the smallest budget in the League of Ireland Premier Division and their players are mainly part-time and training in the evenings.
Horgan’s charges usually do just about enough to avoid relegation – that in itself is a significant achievement. This season however, they sit in fifth place in the league table on 15 points after 11 games played, just one point outside a potential European place.
Were Harps to maintain their current form and sneak into a European place for 2022, it would be a truly great League of Ireland story, albeit what ground they’d use as their home ground for European matches would be an interesting question.
4. Chris Forrester’s return to top form with what had been a resurgent Saint Pat’s
The Airtricity League Player of the Month for March and April has in 2021 returned to some of the previous stunning form he has shown, particularly during his first spell with the club before he moved cross channel.
It’s hard to believe the Dubliner is still only 28-years-old, considering that he broke onto the League of Ireland scene more than ten years ago now. Following a difficult period personally the midfielder is really enjoying his football and being back home again.
Throughout his career he has produced spectacular goals, his brace in last month’s win over Longford Town included a goal of the season contender.
Pat’s were unbeaten for their first nine games of this season, accumulating an impressive 21 points from those nine games.
Stephen O’Donnell’s charges have hit their first hiccup of the season, losing their last two games, including an insipid display in a 3-1 defeat last time out against newly promoted Drogheda United. How they react to the hiccup over the coming few games will go a long way towards dictating the remainder of their season.
3. Shamrock Rovers churning out the results
While Rovers haven’t necessarily played better than ever, what’s been a real key to their season so far (and their six point lead atop the Premier Division table with 11 games played) has been eking out narrow wins with late goals.
The Hoops are unbeaten so far this season, winning all bar three of their fixtures to date.
Danny Mandroiu’s excellent injury time winner against in-form Saint Pat’s recently, when Stephen Bradley’s charges had to come from behind to earn the three points, has really summed up their season in a nutshell.
The signing of Richie Towell, who will arrive in the summer, will only improve things further for them.
The Tallaght outfit have now extended their record to 33 domestic games unbeaten. Backboned with Mannus in goal, Grace and Lopes at the heart of the defence, Finn, Scales and Watts in midfield with Mandroiu and Burke attacking, The Hoops have grizzled veterans and exciting attacking talent from back to front.
While there are those that argue that winning the title at the end of an abridged 18 game season (last season) isn’t a “proper” title win, it’s going to take a very good team playing at their best to beat The Hoops domestically this season.
2. The messy situation at Waterford
Former Republic of Ireland playing legend Kevin Sheedy took over as manager of The Blues with some fanfare back in December. Mike Newell came in as his assistant.
Considering Sheedy’s vast contacts books at all levels of the game in England, there was much hope for 2021 at the RSC. Those hopes were to be misguided however with the 61 year-old’s brief tenure mired in drama and controversy.
Himself and his assistant Mike Newell spent early January quarantining in Waterford upon their arrival and struggled to build a new squad amid a reduced budget.
The pair’s tempestuous relationship with goalkeeper and local legend Brian Murphy would ultimately contribute to their demise. Tensions were high with the management once they decided to strip the 37-year-old of the captaincy. A litany of rows led to Murphy being culled from the squad just hours before the home game against Bohemians on April 16th and the veteran custodian would not feature again under Sheedy.
Newell would incur two touchline bans totalling seven matches during his nine match period at the club.
Sheedy meanwhile was highly critical of Irish referees, claiming the safety of his academy graduates was in jeopardy.
As a protest he infamously and controversially named just two of eight allowable outfield subs on the bench for the 3-0 defeats to Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, two defeats over a long weekend which concluded his short stint in charge.
He was sacked from the post on May 5th with the club firmly rooted to the bottom of the Premier Division table with just six points from nine games played.
Sheedy’s former Ireland teammate John Sheridan also endured a short-lived and often bizarre tenure in the south-east – departing after eight matches last September – but, in contrast, his exit was voluntary to take up the Wigan Athletic vacancy.
Fortunes have not improved under new manager March Bircham as The Blues lost 0-7 to Drogheda United last time out in his first game in charge.
1. What’s going on at Dundalk?
Dundalk have struggled this season. With 11 points from 11 games and sitting in seventh place in the Premier Division table, a betting man wouldn’t gamble on The Lilywhites qualifying for Europe this season.
For the club not to qualify for Europe at the end of this season would be a massive fall from grace for a side who won five league titles since 2013 and a club that has reached the group stages of the Europa League twice.
Since Vinny Perth was relieved of his duties as head coach last August, there has been one controversy after another. Unheralded Italian Filippo Giovagnoli took the reins as interim head coach and guided the club to the Europa League group stages, though they certainly had a favourable draw.
A couple of days after winning the FAI Cup back in December, Giovagnoli was appointed head coach on a permanent basis.
In March, Giovagnoli’s role was changed from head coach to coach with Shane Keegan taking over as manager, having been part of the backroom staff. Both Giovagnoli and Keegan departed from the Louth club in April following a poor run of form and the permanent head coach’s role is now vacant.
It says much for where Dundalk’s season that the biggest win they have enjoyed to date was a negative set of Covid-19 tests off the back of an ill-judged team bonding exercise in Belfast over the last few weeks.
Some Dundalk fans are planning a protest before next Friday night’s game against Shamrock Rovers. While not everyone agrees with that protest, all fans seem to be united in concern at the financial status of the club under owners Peak6 and the many strange decisions taken/suggested by the chairman’s father Bill Hullsizer.
With the club offering largely only one-year contracts, several key players have left for the security of longer term contracts elsewhere. There were also the departures of important back room staffers such as long-serving general manager Martin Connolly and the chief business officer David Minto as well as club doctor David Connolly and physio David Murphy.
With the football club some €1.7million in debt, these are worrying times indeed for Dundalk, particularly should they fail to qualify for Europe this season.