Cork's Sean Maguire finished as the League of Ireland's top scorer in 2016. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

23 of the best League of Ireland players aged 23 or under

Cork’s Sean Maguire and other promising youngsters likely to make an impact in the upcoming campaign.

Updated at 20.24

N.B. FOR THE purposes of concision, we’ve limited this list to Premier Division players only.

1. Seán Hoare – Dundalk (Age: 22)

Has been linked with a move to England in the past, the centre-back is one of the league’s most promising defenders and is likely to only get better under the tutelage of Stephen Kenny, after joining Dundalk from St Pat’s in the off-season.

2. Sean Maguire – Cork (Age: 22)

The Young Player of the Year and top scorer in the league last season, Cork received a considerable boost when Maguire chose to stay loyal to the club despite offers from abroad after a stellar 2016.

3. Dylan Connolly – Bray (Age: 21)

Sometimes compared to ex-Dundalk star Daryl Horgan, Connolly was widely considered to be Bray’s best player last season, and the Seagulls have done well to hold onto the former Ipswich youngster for this year.

4. Jamie McGrath – Dundalk (Age: 20)

Already an established League of Ireland player with almost 50 appearances under his belt for Pat’s, the Ireland U21 international is expected to thrive at Dundalk this season.

5. Michael Duffy - Dundalk (Age: 22)

The Dundalk winger impressed during the President’s Cup game on Friday night and the Northern Ireland U21 international — recently signed from Celtic — looks capable of filling the void left by Daryl Horgan’s absence.

6. Garry Buckley - Cork (Age: 23)

A product of the Cork youth system who can play defence or midfield, he made his senior debut as far back as the 2012 season and was an important squad member as Cork finished second and won the FAI Cup last year.

7. Ger Pender – Bray (Age: 22)

Among Bray’s best performers last season, Pender had one particularly good spell when he managed five goals in as many games. Expect him to be even better with greater experience this year.

8. Aaron McEneff – Derry (Age: 21)

Aaron McEneff Aaron McEneff was a key player in Derry's fanastic season last year. Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

A standout for a Derry side that punched above their weight to finish third last season, the former Tottenham youngster was rumoured to be considering switching his allegiance from the North to the Republic of Ireland on the back of this fine form.

9. Jesse Devers – Galway (Age: 20)

The Mayo native is a former Wolves youngster and made seven appearances for Galway last year. “Everybody is absolutely raving about Jesse, saying what he was doing on the training ground and the potential he has,” said manager Shane Keegan after he signed a new contract recently.

10. John Kavanagh  - Cork (Age: 22)

Has had a horrible time with injuries of late, but Kavanagh remains one of Irish football’s most promising defenders and will be aiming to prove the setbacks of recent months haven’t unduly affected him. Cork’s decision to hand him a new contract certainly suggests the club have plenty of faith in him.

11. Patrick Barrett – Dundalk (Age: 23)

Expected to battle it out with Sean Hoare for a centre-back spot alongside Brian Gartland, the Waterford native will be hoping to compensate for Andy Boyle’s departure from the Lilywhites at the end of last season.

12. Kevin O’Connor – Cork (Age: 21)

Nominated for Young Player of the Year last season, the full-back from Wexford made 28 appearances in 2016 for a Cork side that gave Dundalk a decent run for their money in the title race.

13. Ismahil Akinade – Bohemians (Age: 23)

Such has been Ismahil Akinade’s prowess that his native Nigeria are rumoured to be keeping tabs on his progress with a view to an international call-up. The youngster registered 12 goals in the 2015 campaign, and while he only managed five the following season, injury problems limited his appearance tally significantly.

14. Kieran Sadlier  – Sligo (Age: 22)

Once on the books at West Ham, Sadlier — who has represented Ireland at underage level — impressed with nine goals for Sligo in his debut season there last year.

15. Joshua Daniels – Derry (Age: 20)

The Northern Ireland underage international broke into the Derry senior side as early as 2014 and has steadily progressed since then, appearing 20 times amid a fantastic season for Derry last year in which they qualified for the Europa League.

16: Ciaran O’Connor – Finn Harps (Age: 20)

One of a number of talented youngsters on the books at Oriel Park, the young forward joined Finn Harps on loan back in January. He faces tough competition in the striking department from fellow gifted youngsters BJ Banda and Danny Morrissey, but O’Connor will regardless be aiming to compensate for the absence of club legend Kevin McHugh, who retired at the end of last season.

17. Lloyd Buckley – Drogheda (Age: 20)

The Dublin-born right-back appears to have plenty of potential. For the past two seasons, he has been a regular part of their first-team squad, featuring 16 times last season as the Drogs gained promotion back to the Premier Division at the first time of asking.

18. Brandon Miele – Shamrock Rovers (Age: 22)

Brandon Miele Brandon Miele was the 2015 PFAI Young Player of the Year. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The ex-Newcastle starlet from Tallaght scored an impressive 11 goals in 28 apperances during the 2015 campaign, earning the PFAI Young Player of the Year in the process. He followed that up with nine goals in 30 appearances last year.

19. Alex O’Hanlon – St Pat’s (Age: 20)

Brought in from Liverpool during pre-season, the Saints managed to secure the versatile Dubliner’s services despite reported interest from English clubs Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town.

20. Lee Desmond - St Pat’s (Age: 22)

Spent two years at Newcastle as a youngster between 2011 and 2013, Desmond — who can play in defence or midfield — has racked up nearly 50 appearances for St Pat’s since joining from Shelbourne and was named their Young Player of the Year in 2015.

21. Chiedozie Ogbene – Limerick (Age: 19)

A highly-rated youngster, Limerick’s acquisition of Ogbene constituted a considerable coup, with many Cork fans disappointed to see the teenager leave.

22. Sean Boyd – Shamrock Rovers (Age: 18)

One of a quartet of impressive youngsters at Rovers that signed pro contracts last season — the other three, Shane Hanney, James Doona and Aaron Dobbs, have made similarly impressive strides. “I just want to play as much football as I can… Nothing else — just do the best I can for the team,” he told The42 recently.

23. Michael O’Connor – Shamrock Rovers (Age: 18)

Originally part of Dundalk’s impressive crop of youngsters, O’Connor joined Shamrock Rovers last month. He faces stiff competition for a spot up front with Gary Shaw, Sean Boyd, Aaron Dobbs and fellow new signing Graham Burke all more than decent options. Yet O’Connor undoubtedly has the potential to thrive amid exciting times for Stephen Bradley’s side.

What young players are you most looking forward to watching in the League of Ireland this season? Let us know in the comments section below.

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