The 2020 League of Ireland Premier Division ended on Monday night (aside from the relegation/promotion play-off, the FAI Cup quarter-finals onwards and of course Dundalk still have three games remaining in the Europa League group stages).
Here is my verdict on each LoI Premier Division club’s performance this strange season.
Shamrock Rovers became just the third League of Ireland club to go an entire domestic season unbeaten (the other two occasions were also Shamrock Rovers’ teams back in the 1920s – also in 18 game seasons.) Their record of 15 wins and three draws from 18 league games is no doubt impressive and Stephen Bradley’s charges of course still have the possibility of a league and Cup double to play for this season.
The Hoops got through one round in Europe (beating Finnish side Ilves in a dramatic penalty shoot-out) and were by no means disgraced in a 0-2 defeat to AC Milan in Tallaght in the second round qualifiers of the Europa League.
Rovers’ performances have predictably started a debate as to where Rovers’ stand in the pantheon of all-time great LoI teams. For me, Dundalk 2016, Cork City 2005 and Shelbourne 2004 would beat this Rovers team. However, if The Hoops can hold onto star performers such as Jack Byrne for another year or two then their argument for being one of the great LoI teams will likely become stronger.
Keith Long and Trevor Croly deserve huge credit for what they have achieved with Bohemians. For a club that are effectively part-time and with much more limited resources than the likes of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk to finish second is a testament to the work put in by the management team and of course the club’s young players. Bohs took 10 points from their last five league games to remove any doubt as to who would finish second in the league.
Long made six changes to the side that lost two weeks ago to Finn Harps for the final match of the season against St. Pat’s, including handing a first league start to 16-year-old Evan Ferguson, the Brighton-bound teenager putting in a performance beyond his years up top for the Dalymount based outfit as they came from behind to beat St. Pat’s 1-2. Bohs now face Dundalk in the quarter-final of the FAI Cup.
Bohs also of course had a Europa League expedition in 2020 and would count themselves very unlucky not to progress through the first round of Europa League qualification, losing in a penalty shoot-out to crack Hungarian outfit Fehérvár in Székesfehérvár.
Judging by Dundalk’s very lofty recent standards (five league titles in six years from 2014-2019) and of course the considerable budget they have at their disposal, the 2020 domestic season was disappointing for the Lilywhites, finishing a lowly (for them) third place in the table. This year was in fact the first time the club finished outside the top two in the league since 2012, though they still have the FAI Cup to play for.
It’s for their European exploits that this season will be remembered for Dundalk and a crowded schedule can be pointed at as part of the reason that Filippo Giovagnoli’s side were not as competitive in the league this year as they might have been.
Dundalk of course qualified for the group stages of the Europa League for the second time since 2016 and based on that fact the season for them will be viewed as being very successful.
In the Europa League group stages they dominated Norwegian giants Molde for the first 45 minutes, leading 1-0 at the break in Tallaght before being outplayed in the second-half and eventually losing 1-2. In their second group game they were beaten 3-0 by English giants Arsenal, though two of the goals were very avoidable. In the third group stage game they gave Rapid Vienna a real scare, taking a 0-1 lead and being level at 2-2 with eight minutes to play before eventually succumbing 4-3 in the Austrian capital. Realistic chances of progression to the knockout stages now appear to be over but The Town will be hoping to accrue some points in their remaining three games.
Sligo Rovers won their last two league games of the season to pip Waterford by a point to fourth place and the potential European place that comes with it. Rovers will play in Europe in 2021 if one of Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, Dundalk (or of course themselves) wins the FAI Cup.
The Bit O’Red’s penultimate game of the season was an expected 2-1 home win over a struggling Cork City on October 24th (the leesiders ultimately being officially relegated that night) while the crucial final win of the season on the final night of the season came some 16 days later against Dundalk.
The fixture list for the Lilywhites has been hectic, four games in 16 days including trips to Vienna and London, and Sligo were good value for their win on the last night of the 2020 regular domestic season.
It’s the first time since 2014 that Sligo have qualified for Europe and the Connacht outfit improved on their seventh-placed finish in 2019, so manager Liam Buckley and his charges will no doubt be pleased with how the 2020 season has gone for them.
Having occupied a potential European spot for two-thirds of the season, Waterford will be very disappointed to miss out on a European place by just one point, suffering a 1-0 defeat at a relegation battling Finn Harps on the final night.
Having taken 17 points from their first 11 games, Fran Rocket’s charges went on to take just four points from their last five games, late season form which ultimately cost them a potential European place for next season.
Having finished in fourth place in 2018 and thinking they’d qualified for the 2019 Europa League qualifiers, Waterford were however denied a place by UEFA back in May 2019 when they thought they were about to start their European adventure.
Waterford rebranded in 2016 when chairman and owner Lee Power took over, and the club set up a new company as a result.
UEFA’s licensing rules, however, state that a club must be in existence for at least three years before they can compete in European competition and Waterford were thus denied a place in Europe in 2019, so it’s a second European disappointment in 18 months for the Munster outfit.
Saint Patrick’s Athletic took the lead against Bohs on the last night of the season but ultimately lost 1-2 to the Gypsies at Richmond Park. Results elsewhere meant that, even with a win Pat’s would have come short of qualifying for Europe next season.
It says a lot about Pats’ last match of the season that opposition goalkeeper James Talbot was man-of-the-match, pulling off a string of fine saves. Ultimately, a run of just two points from their last four games is what did for Stephen O’Donnell’s chances of qualifying for Europe next season.
Derry City finished the season in seventh place in the Premier Division table. Going into the last game of the season against long since relegated Cork City at Turner’s Cross, Declan Devine’s charges could have finished as low as ninth, which would necessitate a relegation/promotion play-off against Longford Town this coming Saturday.
As it was, results elsewhere went the Candystripes’ way and their 1-1 draw in Cork meant that they finished a point clear of Shelbourne (with Derry also having a much better goal difference) and the relegation scrap.
Finn Harps produced stunning late season form to dramatically finish a point clear of the relegation/promotion play-off spot thanks to an exciting 1-0 over Waterford at Ballybofey, a result which also ultimately condemned the Blues to missing out on a European place next season.
Ollie Horgan’s charges took 10 points from their last five matches of the season, but it was the final night of the season that the real drama was saved for.
Going into that final match of the season, Harps were ninth in the table, two points behind Shelbourne. That meant that to avoid a relegation/promotion play-off for the third season in a row that the Donegal outfit would need to beat Waterford and hope that at least one of Shelbourne and Derry City lost.
Harps kept up their side of the bargain. They took the lead on 27 minutes when Adam Foley tapped home from six yards out following a centre by Barry McNamee, who was set free by Austrian striker Alexander Kogler.
The fact that Shamrock Rovers were beating Shelbourne 2-0 meant that if Harps could hold on they would be playing Premier Division football next season. Waterford were still chasing a European place though. Harps had goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley to thank for keeping their sheet clean on a dirty night. The goalkeeper stayed big to stop from Matty Smith, who broke through unattended shortly before half-time.
Then in the 95th minute, McGinley fumbled the ball and Kurtis Byrne, the Waterford substitute somehow saw Dave Webster block his effort on the line with the goal gaping in front of him. The final whistle was to blow moments later as Harps held on to their Premier Division status for another year while Waterford just missed out on a European place.
Shelbourne have had a disappointing end to the season and it is the two defeats in their last two matches (including a loss to a title celebrating Shamrock Rovers on the final night of the season) which ultimately sees Shels in a relegation/promotion play-off place against Longford Town.
Needing a win on the final night of the season to guarantee safety from relegation (though ultimately a draw would have been enough), Shelbourne thought they had taken the lead on eight minutes when Karl Sheppard rose highest to head the ball to the back of the net but the linesman’s flag was raised for offside.
Rovers took the lead through a moment of brilliance from Jack Byrne. Picking the ball up in midfield midway through the first-half, the playmaker nutmegged Gary Deegan with his first touch, then drove on unchallenged to the edge of the penalty-area before smashing the ball low into the back of the net off the post.
Aaron Greene would add a second just before the hour mark and with results elsewhere going against them, Shels’ heads dropped and inspirational midfielder Gary Deegan was shown a second yellow card for a late challenge on Graham Burke after 85 minutes.
The Tolka Park outfit now face into the relegation/promotion play-off game against Longford Town on Sunday and will do so without their influential suspended skipper.
2020 is a year that Cork City will be glad to see the back of. The second game of the season saw the Leesiders battered 6-0 by Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium. While Rovers were undoubtedly the star turn this season, City’s abject performance that night was to be a portent of things to come.
Of course there are more important things than football and the sudden death of Cork City superfan John Kennedy (a man steeped in the club and hugely involved in the local community) really put Cork City’s struggles on the pitch into perspective.
With the club rooted to the bottom of the Premier Division table on nine points from 13 matches and with talk of considerable dressing room unrest, Neale Fenn was relieved of his job as first-team head coach of Cork City in the first week of October.
Performances improved somewhat from there under interim head coach Colin Healy, but the club only accrued two more points from the remaining five league matches of the season, and in truth looked like a beaten docket before relegation was confirmed on the night of October 24th.
The following Wednesday night, October 28th, FORAS (the fans’ group who have owned Cork City FC since 2010) voted to allow Grovemoor Limited (headed by billionaire Preston North End owner Trevor Hemmings) to be given the option of taking over full ownership of the club. At this stage, there just remains a few i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed for ownership of the club to be officially passed over to Hemmings which would lead to considerable changes in how the club is run as well as the possibility of large sums of money being invested in the club.