It has been a long, cold, dreary and wet winter in Ireland and the dark evenings have been very boring without any SSE Airtricity League games to go and watch. That feeling you get when you wake up of a morning and you know there is a game you can go and see, is second to none. It is all about to change and on February the 24th the league is back, something I for one am looking forward to. It will give me the perfect platform once again to air my views on what the fans over here believe to the best league in the world. The die hard fans at the moment will be trawling through the fixtures so as to plan trips to follow their beloved clubs. There is no doubt that the fans will suffer ups and downs, but believe me they would not have it any other way. So where will the trophies go and who will be victorious in October when the season ends. Clubs have been buying and selling players in the break so as to get their house in order for the challenge ahead. Let me over the next few paragraphs give you a small insight of what some clubs have been up to and where I see the trophies possibly going.
It will be a very interesting season ahead in the Premier League as the teams try and topple champions Dundalk. The Lillywhites will be there to be shot at and will have to plan for the season without two of their stars from last season. During the SSE Airtricity League close season, winger Darryl Horgan and centre half Andy Boyle have left and joined English side Preston North End. These two players were at the forefront of Stephen Kenny’s championship winning side last year and will with a shadow of a doubt be a big loss. Manager Kenny waisted no time in getting involved in the transfer market and has brought in Michael Duffy from Glasgow Celtic. Duffy is a superb winger and his role will be to fill the void left by Horgan. Over their previous three title winning campaigns Dundalk have built their success on a fabulous back four and that is the way I expect them to go about their business this season. Last season Cork City were the challenger for Dundalk’s title and I expect them to kick on and maybe go one better than last season’s second spot under the brilliant management of John Caulfield. Their win in last season’s Cup Final against the Lillywhites will surely give them the confidence that they can go on and win this season’s title. I expect the team who will try and challenge from Dublin to be Shamrock Rovers this season. Former Leeds United and Republic of Ireland international Stephen McPhail has been appointed director of football at the club and has installed Stephen Bradley as manager. One other piece of news to come out of the Rovers camp is the signing of Ronan Finn from Dundalk. Finn has been installed as club captain and I believe this is a shrewd move from the management team. Ronan comes with bags of experience and has that winning mentality, having been part of a successful Dundalk side over the past couple of seasons. But with that Cup Final win under their belt I fancy this season could be Cork’s year if they push on and believe.
In Division One it is a whole new ball game for the coming season if you excuse the pun. Due to a restructuring of the Premier League and Division One for the 2018 season there will only be one team promoted and no play off place will be available. The winners of the league will be promoted and the bottom three in the Premier League will be relegated. This structure was drawn up by the Premier Club Alliance and I know for a fact that a lot of clubs are not very happy with it. If you look at Division One it is quite possible that due to the fact only one team is promoted a lot of the clubs could have a difficult time if they get off to a bad start. The financial pressures on these clubs this season will be intense and we can only hope that the loyal fans will still turn out to see their clubs in action. On the field my overwhelming favourites are Longford Town to go straight back up to the top league, having been relegated last season. Cobh Ramblers under the leadership of Stephen Henderson could be a big threat after they missed out in the play offs last season. The romantic in me would love to see Shelbourne do it as there is no way a club with such a fine history should be languishing in Division One. No matter what, there is the prospect of a great season ahead and the long winter without live football to go and watch is over. Best of luck to all involved and let the games begin.