The League of Ireland returns this coming Friday following its three month winter hibernation. The prize money for winning the 2021 Premier Division title has increased by €20,000 to €130,000.
The WatchLOI streaming service will once again be run by RTÉ to broadcast Premier Division games, at least up until the mid-season break. RTÉ will also broadcast some Friday night games on television, starting with the season opener, Shamrock Rovers v St. Patrick’s Athletic.
Off the pitch, Airtricity have been confirmed as title sponsor for both the men’s Premier Division, First Division and the Women’s National League. Bank of Ireland has also come on board as an associate sponsor for three years covering the men’s Premier and First Divisions, the Women’s National League, the FAI Cups and the “More Than A Club” initiative. The latter for me is the most exciting off-pitch news of the off-season as clubs across the country will engage with the initiative to devise and deliver important social programmes, especially in disadvantaged communities.
I will focus now on on-field matters though and preview the 2021 League of Ireland Premier Division.
As is typical of League of Ireland clubs, there were a lot of comings and going to/from Shamrock Rovers during the off season. The biggest loss to the club was that of 2020 star man Jack Byrne who departed to Cyprus to join APOEL Nicosia back in January. More surprisingly, but also an important departure was that of Aaron McEniff who left Tallaght to join Scottish Championship side Hearts last month.
The main signing by The Hoops was that of Danny Mandroiu from hated Dublin rivals, Bohemians. The attacking midfielder has an impressive YouTube highlights reel and is capable of lighting up a game with a moment of magic.
The 2019 PFAI Young Player of the Year winner only started five league games for Bohs last season though. If the 22-year-old can make a similar impact this year to what he did two years ago though then he’ll be a very important acquisition for Stephen Bradley’s charges.
The Hoops conceded just seven goals in 18 league games last season as they won the Covid-19 shortened season by 11 points. They’ve maintained their defensive unit and if they continue last season’s stinginess in defence, it’ll be difficult for anybody to take the league title from Tallaght.
One issue that might adversely affect Rovers’ league title defence would be if the club progress far in Europe. Most of the squad and management are settled at the club and I believe they can give reaching the Europa League group stages a real good go if they get a favourable draw.
Final league position: Champions
It’s been a tumultuous off-season for the 2019 champions. No fewer than 15 players have left the club (only Gary Rogers to retirement while four players have gone out on loan.) Only been nine players have been brought in. The club have lost some highly experienced and star players from the hugely successful period over the last seven years.
Most notable among the departures for this observer are full-backs Seán Gannon and midfielder John Mountney. Have these players been adequately replaced? Only time will time.
One thing that looks for sure is that whatever success The Town might have in 2021 is likely to go through Michael Duffy. With the departure of Jack Byrne, the Derry native is now for me up there as the best player in the League of Ireland.
While there was much discourse and controversy surrounding player contract negotiations during the off-season, what is probably even more worrying for Dundalk fans is the uncertainty in the dugout. Having taken over as first team head coach from Vinny Perth back in August, Fillipo Giovagnolli has now been moved from first team manager to coach with Shane Keegan taking over the reins as first team manager.
There has also been much dysfunction behind the scenes with key members of the backroom staff such as chief operating officer Martin Connolly departing.
While Dundalk have lost several important players in the off-season, they have retained several vital and legendary players at the club such as Andy Boyle, Brian Gartland, David McMillan, Patrick Hoban and Patrick McEleney. There have also been a few exciting acquisitions, most notably perhaps being Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe from Sligo Rovers.
Dundalk finished last 22 points adrift of Shamrock Rovers last season. I’ll be surprised if they bridge that gap, but if their key men can ignore the off-field issues then it could be an exciting season for The Town.
Final league position: 2nd
Bohs have committed to an amazing eighteen year lease with Dublin City University (DCU) to use the university’s training facilities in Glasnevin on the northside of Dublin.
The Gypsies inserted a sell-on clause in the €80,000 sale of Matt Doherty to Wolves in 2010, allowing the Dalymount outfit to cash in to the sum of €1.5million when the Ireland full-back was bought by Jose Mourinho’s Spurs last summer. It is that windfall which has financed the recent agreement with DCU.
There’s been lots of comings and goings of playing personnel at Bohs during the off season. This is particularly the case in the attacking third of the pitch with Danny Grant departing (to Huddersfield), Danny Mandroiu (to Shamrock Rovers), Dinny Corcoran (to Drogheda United) and Andre Wright (to Ayr United) being the most notable of those attacking departures.
Keith Long though is a canny manager and he has made some good acquisitions during the winter. Liam Burt, Ali Coote and the exciting Bastian Héry are three of the signings most likely to grab headlines this year. Full-backs Tyreke Wilson and Andy Lyons will be important at both ends of the pitch.
Final league position: 3rd
Saint Patrick’s Athletic
No club has had more incomings and outgoings than Pat’s during the off-season. No fewer than ten players have left the club (one on loan) with ten players also coming into the club (three on loan.)
One of the shock departures over the winter was John Mountney leaving Dundalk to join the Inchicore outfit. The midfielder has been one of the key players in Dundalk’s incredible recent history including the run to the group stages of the Europa League in 2016 and last year.
Mountney is very experienced having made 220 League of Ireland appearances. This experience will be important as Pat’s have a mainly very young squad this term.
I expect Pat’s to be competitive and certainly in contention for a European place in 2021 having made some good loan signings including midfielder Alfie Lewis from West Ham and goalkeeper Vítězslav Jaroš who is on the books at Liverpool.
Final league position: 4th
I expect the battle for fourth place and the (likely) last European place to be hotly contested between Derry and St. Pat’s.
Local lad David Parkhouse is probably Derry’s most important player. He signed a (very rare for a League of Ireland player) three-year contract with Derry back in January.
The purchase of experienced former Northern Ireland senior international full-back/centre-back Daniel Lafferty from Shamrock Rovers is another good signing by Declan Devine.
Young defender Joe Hodge signing on loan from Manchester City has also created headlines.
Midfielder Will Patching, on loan from Dundalk, is also likely to be an important player for the Candystripes in 2021.
Overall, having lost several important players in the off season I expect fourth place and the (likely) final European place to be out of reach for Derry.
Final league position: 5th
The loss of Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (to Dundalk) is a big blow to Sligo’s hopes. Romeo Parkes, Walter Figuera and Junior would have been an exciting front three.
There has however been great experience added to the Sligo squad during the off season. Greg Bolger is a high quality player on the ball in midfield and also does his share of defensive work. For the 32-year-old to leave Shamrock Rovers was a surprise, particularly considering the high profile departures of Byrne and McEniff from Tallaght.
Sligo don’t particularly have a prolific goalscorer (Parkes to an extent being something of an exception.) Goals are spread throughout the team though. They’re a good team to watch and if Parkes and Figuera click then The Bit O’Red could certainly challenge for fourth place.
Final league position: 6th
The Donegal outfit are perennial strugglers towards/near/at the bottom of the league table but have narrowly avoided relegation each of the last two seasons.
Ollie Horgan’s charges plundered an amazing ten points from their last five matches last season to not only avoid the automatic relegation play-off place but avoided the promotion/relegation play-off also and pulled themselves completely safe from relegation thanks to a final night 1-0 win over Waterford.
In Horgan they have a canny operator and a good manager who is in many ways a cult figure famed for his interviews where he downplays his team’s chances.
Harps scored just 15 goals in 18 league games last season and have made a few good signings in the off season. Most notable among the signings has been striker Tunde Owolabi. The Belgian scored 35 goals in 41 games for FC United of Manchester in the 2019-’20 season. He joined Hamilton Academical last July but things didn’t click for him there and he left the Scottish Premiership outfit by mutual consent last month.
I expect Harps to have enough about them to finish clear of the relegation placings this year.
Final league position: 7th
Drogheda are a real community club. The club have had its stadium renamed Head In The Game Park ahead of the new season as a mental health initiative.
Tim Clancy has done a great job in his three years in charge at the club. They earned promotion to the Premier Division as First Division champions by beating Cabinteely on the final night of last season’s regular season.
Clancy has made nine signings in the off season. A mainly young squad has been augmented with more experienced players. Goalkeeper Colin McCabe was with Celtic for five years. Arguably the most important signing for the Drogs is likely to be Dane Massey. The versatile (almost) 33-year-old brings a wealth of experience at the highest level of Irish football including five league titles and Europa League group stage participation in 2016. Darragh Markey from Saint Pat’s is another great signing for the club.
Last season Drogs played a counter-attacking style, a style of play which will be suited to most Premier Division opposition. However, I feel the club has enough about them and with their shrewd management will finish above the relegation places this year.
Final league position: 8th
There are issues off the pitch at the RSC and on the pitch the club isn’t faring a whole lot better. Versatile defender/midfielder Sam Bone left Waterford in the off season and will be a big loss to the Blues. Meanwhile, Kevin Sheedy has signed Oscar Brennan. Brennan has had a good career and will be a likely starter for the Blues, but he wasn’t a regular start for a Shelbourne outfit that got relegated last term.
There are also several signings at the club who very little is known about. Adam O’Reilly (on loan from Preston) and Jamie Mascoll (on loan from Bolton Wanderers) are two players with lots of potential though. Daryl Murphy of course is a vastly experienced striker, but whether he still has it in his legs is another question.
All-in-all it’s likely to be a difficult season for Sheedy’s charges.
Final league position: 9th
Another club with lots of departures during the off-season is Longford Town. The club have signed three players while eight players have left (albeit two of those have gone on loan.)
Rob Manley, goalscoring hero from last season, will need to be on form this season if De Town are to have a realistic chance of avoiding the drop back to the First Division. The signings of the likes of Paddy Kirk and Michael Kelly coming into Daire Doyle’s squad will also likely be important in 2021. In pre-season, Conor Davis and the returning Aaron Dobbs have both been impressive. Aodh Dervin in midfield will be important in pulling the strings.
Having finished fourth in last season’s First Division, Longford are certainly one of the weaker teams in this year’s Premier Division. There is also uncertainty regarding the goalkeeping situation and what shape/formation the club will play is not, as yet clear. All the portents are for a very challenging 2021 for the Red and Black.
Final league position: 10th (relegated)
2021 League of Ireland Premier Division final standings
1st Shamrock Rovers
4th Saint Patrick’s Athletic
5th Derry City
6th Sligo Rovers
7th Finn Harps
8th Drogheda United
10th Longford Town