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A tense title race, battling for Europe and avoiding the drop - League of Ireland mid-term report cards

Here’s how each of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division’s 10 clubs got on in the first half of 2018.

Cork City v Waterford - SSE Airtricity League Premier Division Graham Cummins has been instrumental in leading Cork City to the top of the table. Source: Eóin Noonan

1. Cork City

UNLIKE LAST SEASON when Cork City all but wrapped up the title in the first half of the season, 2018 has witnessed a tense and highly competitive race to be crowned Premier Division champions — one which sees just a single point separating first and second.

John Caulfield’s side prevented Dundalk from completing a historic four-in-a-row last year and have shown they are not prepared to give up their crown easily, as they aim to secure back-to-back titles for the first time in the Rebel Army’s history.

They have all but led the Premier Division in first place since the beginning of March and with 11 home wins to their name at Turner’s Cross and just three defeats in 23 league games, they rightly take command of top spot at the halfway stage of the season.

The champions have been impressive all the while, with the returning Graham Cummins lighting up the Premier Division with 12 goals to his name.

The resilient and youthful back four of Aaron Barry, Conor McCarthy, Sean McLoughlin and Shane Griffin have offered a consistent backbone for the side’s attacking trident of Karl Sheppard, Barry McNamee and Cummins to tear opposition defences asunder at the other end of the pitch.

The only setback for Caulfield’s side will have been an early exit from the EA Sports Cup at the hands of Waterford. But sitting atop the table ahead of Dundalk with FAI Cup and European campaigns to come, the champions can be extremely satisfied with their performance so far in 2018 — the acquisition of both the President’s Cup and Munster Senior Cup added bonuses.

Dundalk v St Patrick's Athletic - SSE Airtricity League Premier Division Pat Hoban has been a revelation at Oriel Park this season. Source: Harry Murphy

2. Dundalk

The other star in this year’s relentless, tit-for-tat title race has been the Lilywhites, who sit just a point astray of top spot at the halfway stage of the season with an impressive 17 wins from 23 games.

It is clear for all to see Dundalk want the title back immediately having left last season without either the league title or FAI Cup for the first time since 2013.

Stephen Kenny’s side added a host of new recruits to their ranks at the beginning of this season, the most of impressive of whom has been a familiar face returned in Pat Hoban.

The striker has taken the Premier Division by storm following his return to Oriel Park, scoring an incredible 19 goals in 23 games so far this season, leading both Graham Cummins and Preston-bound Graham Burke in the scoring charts.

Following a frustrating opening three games where Dundalk failed to record a single win, Kenny’s side have gone from strength to strength ever since, ending the first half of the season with an unbeaten streak which currently stands at eight consecutive wins.

There are shades of the 2014 title race about this season between the Lilywhites and Cork, with each passing matchday as important as the one that preceded it.

A momentary slip-up from either could be critical and, like 2014, this season’s title could go right down to the wire and to the very last match-day at the end of October.

Dundalk welcome City to Oriel Park on Friday in the first match-day after the break knowing a victory will see them go top of the table, as a result extending their winning streak to nine games uninterrupted.

Like their title rivals, Dundalk will also be preparing for what they hope to be long campaigns in both the FAI Cup and the Europa League, on top of the chance to win the EA Sports Cup for a second year running.

Maintaining those battles for success across multiple fronts in up to four different competitions simultaneously will be the biggest test of all for Kenny’s men.

Courtney Duffus celebrates scoring a goal with Bastien Hery and Sander Puri Courtney Duffus celebrates scoring a goal with Bastien Hery and Sander Puri. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

3. Waterford FC

Just about everyone knew Waterford were going to be a force to be reckoned with this year, despite the fact they had only just been promoted from the First Division.

The nature of their title win under Alan Reynolds last season demonstrated the force of their ambition. Unlike nearly all sides who gain promotion the Blues looked immediately likely to compete for European football, rather than simply trying to avoid relegation and consolidate their position in the top-tier in 2018.

While Waterford were already impressive in the First Division last year, they quickly added quality to quality, bringing in players like Ismahil Akinade, Rory Feely, Gavan Holohan, Bastien Hery, Stanley Aborah and Courtney Duffus, all of whom have elevated the side into third spot.

Reynold’s men began the season with an impressive seven wins from their opening nine games, therefore establishing their grip on a European place which they have shown no signs of letting go of since.

Waterford have attracted big crowds to the RSC in 2018, boast a squad with quality at every turn and have a management setup with experienced League of Ireland pros like Reynolds and Pat Fenlon at the helm, showing the Munster side to be an impressive and professionally run outfit both on and off the field of play.

The potential loss of players like Faysel Kasmi, who will return to Belgium, goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux and on-loan Oldham striker Duffus will have a massive impact on the side. How Waterford go about replacing these players will be critical in their goal of holding onto a European spot.

With teams like Derry City, Shamrock Rovers and St Pat’s all seeking that automatic European place, Waterford need to reproduce the consistent form they showed in the first half of the season after the break too, despite the loss of key players.

Following a 2-1 victory over Dundalk at the start of May, some even touted Reynold’s side as outsiders for the title. Defeats to Sligo, Limerick, Dundalk and Cork since then have pegged them back, but they continue to comfortably hold third place — leading Shamrock Rovers by seven points.

The side exited the EA Sports Cup at the hands of Sligo Rovers and don’t have any European fixtures to contend with over the coming weeks. With both Rovers and Derry hoping to go far in their Europa League qualification campaigns, Waterford will be looking to take advantage of more rest days to make third spot their own.

Graham Burke applauds the fans after the game Graham Burke scored on his final appearance for Shamrock Rovers against Limerick. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

4. Shamrock Rovers

It has been a difficult opening half to the season for Shamrock Rovers. Speaking at the beginning of the year, manager Stephen Bradley said the aim of the club was to close the gap on the top two of Cork City and Dundalk, however his side currently sit 23 points adrift of top spot at the halfway stage of the campaign.

The club and their supporters know that European football is a minimum requirement for each season. Securing a Europa League spot again this year will be the ultimate goal for the Hoops, following a disappointing start to 2018 which has seen them secure just nine wins from 23 games.

Graham Burke has been the star of the side and undoubtedly one of the biggest talking points in League of Ireland football this year. The former Aston Villa player has lit up the Premier Division with goals that have come in high quality and high quantity.

Burke scored 13 goals in the first half of a stunning campaign for the 24-year-old, countless of which were goal of the season contenders. The player made his Ireland debut against France last month, while also becoming the first home-based Irish player to score for his country in 40 years when he netted against the USA.

His departure to Preston will be a major blow to Bradley’s side, and how they go about using his transfer fee to obtain new recruits will be crucial to securing European football again for next season.

Even though it was a difficult first half of the season for the Hoops, there are a number of positives to look ahead to after the break. The side are in the Europa League qualifiers, are now only seven points adrift of Waterford and once again have the chance to try and become the first Rovers side to win the FAI Cup since 1984.

The club have a squad with numerous quality players like Dan Carr, Sean Kavanagh and Lee Grace, while also having an abundance of young prospects including Aaron Bolger and 16-year-old goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.

The loss of Trevor Clarke, who was ruled out for the season back in March, has been a major setback, but with new players likely to arrive in the coming weeks to inject new life into the side, it should be a better second half of the season for Rovers.

Kenny Shiels Derry City boss Kenny Shiels. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

5. Derry City

After a difficult start to the year which saw Derry lose three of their opening four Premier Division games, the side suddenly burst into life following their long-awaited return to the newly-renovated Brandywell.

The difference in form was immense upon their return home on 12 March when they obliterated Limerick 5-0. Kenny Shiels’ men won eight games in nine across all competitions (scoring 20 goals and conceding just four), meaning they elevated themselves back towards competing for a European place.

The Candystripes lost Ronan Curtis to Portsmouth and there are continued rumours surrounding potential departures of more key players like Ronan and Rory Hale, Aaron  McEneff and Conor McDermott.

Shiels’ side have played some exemplary football this year, but a combination of injury woes and a lack of consistent form has seen them drop into fifth place. Derry’s form since the middle of May has been less than flattering, securing just two league wins in 11 Premier Division games.

With all of their best players fit and on the pitch, including the brilliant Darren Cole at the back, there is no doubting the side’s ability to cut teams apart in a direct, attacking style which Shiels has stuck to through good and bad form.

However that combination of injury setbacks and the distraction of potentially losing key players abroad has seen them fall seven points adrift of third spot. They, alongside Shamrock Rovers and St Pat’s, will compete furiously with Waterford to secure the European places.

Massive wins like their 5-0 dismantling of Limerick and 5-1 victory over Bray, on top of victories like their 1-0 defeat of high-flying Waterford and back-to-back wins over Bohemians show what Derry can do when at their best.

But defeats like their 5-2 loss against St Pat’s after taking a two goal lead offer an insight into the team’s frailties and setbacks. They will look forward to more European football over the coming weeks, and securing that right again for next year will once again be the objective between now and the end of the season.

Simon Madden at the end of the game Simon Madden has been impressive for the Saints this season. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

6. St Patrick’s Athletic

The mid-season break could not come quick enough for St Pat’s this season, with the club currently on a losing streak which stands at five defeats on the bounce.

It’s been a season of ups and downs for Liam Buckley’s side. The club appear to have a significant amount more stability and confidence throughout the team compared to last season, when the Saints avoided a first relegation in its history on the final day.

Buckley brought in quality players such as Simon Madden, Kevin Toner and Dean Clarke and players of their ilk have made St Pat’s a much more impressive side than 12 months ago. Buckley has a consistent back four at his disposal, with Ian Bermingham, Toner, Madden and Lee Desmond working as a steady unit throughout the season.

It’s further up the pitch and more specifically in the goals department where the side have come up short. Christy Fagan has struggled through injury again this season and in the last number of weeks the club have confirmed that their star striker will be out for the rest of the year.

Without a proven 15-20 goal striker this year, St Pat’s have managed just 27 goals in 23 games — the fifth lowest in the league (by comparison, Dundalk have scored 58 goals in as many games). With Jake Keegan the only recognised striker left in his squad, Buckley will be forced to bring in new recruits to get the side scoring again.

Overall, however, it has been a stop-start season so far for St Pat’s. The team went on an impressive four game winning streak, beating Shamrock Rovers, Limerick, Sligo and Derry City, but have not won a game since then.

Owen Garvan’s departure added to Fagan’s injury means the side will likely need to bring in one or two experienced new recruits if they are to get back to winning ways and try and contest for a European spot.

At their best and with all fit players available, St Pat’s are one of the most attractive, dynamic sides in the Premier Division. With their consistent backline, a midfield packed with quality players like Killian and Ryan Brennan, as well as youngsters like Darragh Markey and Jamie Lennon, they have a lot going for them.

But if they are to compete for Europe they will need to find goals and bring in a proven striker who can provide them fast.

Gerard Lyttle celebrates after the game Ger Lyttle following his side's 3-0 victory at Richmond Park last week. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

7. Sligo Rovers

After successfully avoiding relegation last season, Sligo have endured an up-and-down campaign this year.

The side have never looked like competing for European honours but have also maintained a reasonably comfortable distance away from the relegation zone.

Ger Lyttle’s side have struggled for goals this year, scoring just 19 in 22 games, but at the same time have held their own in a reduced 10-team Premier Division.

The Bit O’Red currently sit five points away from the relegation play-off spot and, coming towards the mid-season break, have improved week on week.

A tremendous 3-0 victory over St Pat’s at Richmond Park courtesy of goals from Patrick McClean, Alistair Roy and Jack Keaney showed what the side can do when at their very best.

Marshalled by Rhys McCabe in midfield, the side dominated proceedings against a side who were 10 points ahead of them before kick-off.

A lack of consistency has plagued Sligo, however. The side have just six wins from 22 games so far in 2018 and have never managed to secure back-to-back wins in the Premier Division this season.

What will frustrate supporters the most, however, will be their home form. Sligo have lost seven of their 11 league fixtures at the Showgrounds this year, earning just three wins on their own patch.

Two wins in three before the break, away against Derry at the Brandywell and against St Pat’s in Inchicore, points towards a team making progress and finding their feet.

Lyttle will want to avoid his side becoming dragged into another potential relegation battle this season, and Sligo should be good enough to do so for the remainder of the year with an exciting EA Sports Cup semi-final to come against Derry at the beginning of August.

Bohs' fans Bohemians supporters at Dalymount Park. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

8. Bohemians

Bohemians’ season has been marked by a number of highs, most notably their opening night Dublin derby victory over Shamrock Rovers combined with their dramatic, late draw with the Hoops at Tallaght Stadium, on top of yet another 2-1 win in Tallaght.

Overall, however, Gypsies supporters will be left frustrated with their lot so far this campaign. Bohs have just five wins from 22 games, sitting on 21 points and currently sit only one place above the relegation zone.

Keith Long’s side have a number of highly talented players at their disposal, including Dylan Watts, Shane Supple and the up-and-coming prospect Daniel Grant. However a lack of goals and consistency has plagued the team all this year.

The departure of striker Ismahil Akinade to Waterford has hit hard, with Eoghan Stokes scoring just three goals so far this season up front.

For years Long has excelled on a small budget at Dalymount Park, as the side punched well above their weight in terms of resources by being a hard-to-beat, tough, resilient outfit that ground teams down both at home and on the road.

That effective edge has been lacking this season and despite impressive results against rivals Rovers (taking seven points from nine against Stephen Bradley’s men), the side are still struggling to get wins under their belt — currently without a league victory since 11 May.

Bohemians won’t have the budget of other clubs in the Premier Division to bring in a wealth of new recruits during the break that will haul them up the table and instead will have to knuckle down and make do with the young, capable squad at their disposal.

Long, alongside Trevor Croly, have proven themselves to be an impressive management duo by getting the most out of limited resources. That attribute will be tested in the second half of this season if Bohs are to avoid being dragged into a potential relegation battle with Limerick and Sligo at the wrong end of the table.

Tommy Barrett before the game Limerick manager Tommy Barrett. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

9. Limerick

It’s been a disappointing and deflating season for Limerick so far. Reports of players not being paid at the beginning of June shed a light into some of the issues currently facing the club, with suggestions now being that a number of players could depart in order to cut costs.

On the field, Tommy Barrett has had a difficult task trying to steer the club away from the relegation zone. With just four wins from 23 games at the halfway stage of the season, the prospect of going down is a real one.

Limerick are only six points ahead of bottom-placed Bray and with just one league win since the beginning of May, the side don’t currently look like extending the difference any time soon.

The mid-season break will come as a welcome relief for Barrett’s side to reflect on where to improve and how they plan to not only avoid Bray catching up with them, but also trying to navigate their way out of the relegation play-off spot, which they currently occupy.

There is so much uncertainty at the Market’s Field at the moment in terms of future ownership and over which players will stay and go that fans will rightly worry about the second half of the campaign.

Their shock 6-3 defeat of Waterford at the RSC seems like a distant memory now and the only other sides Limerick have beaten this season are Bray and Sligo.

With just 15 goals in 23 games so far this year (six of which came during that victory over Waterford), overcoming bigger opposition and scoring much, much more consistently will be a big task, but one which the club must achieve to avoid the drop.

Gary McCabe celebrates after his side's second goal Gary McCabe celebrates during Bray's victory over St Pat's. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

10. Bray Wanderers

It’s been a whirlwind four months for Bray Wanderers. The club’s troubles in 2017 are well-known and it was clear that Seagulls supporters badly wanted to have a clean slate this season and put those setbacks behind them.

Dave Mackey was the man charged with overseeing that task and, on the basis of an impressive opening night 0-0 away to Dundalk, it looked like a promising start to beginning afresh.

From there, however, things only got worse. Bray suffered nine consecutive Premier Division defeats stretching from the end of February until the middle of April, and also exited the EA Sports Cup at home to First Division Shelbourne.

It took 10 match-days for the side to get their first win of the season, and it came with a shock 1-0 defeat of Shamrock Rovers at the Carlisle Grounds.

From that win the side have appeared more stable. Where once relegation looked like a foregone conclusion for Bray, now they have an outside chance at possibly scraping into the play-off position.

Under the management of Graham Kelly, who took charge temporarily until the recent appointment of Martin Russell, Bray have found a renewed sense of confidence.
Since mid-April the side have secured big wins against Rovers, Derry City and St Pat’s, on top of draws with Waterford both at the Carlisle Grounds and at the RSC.

Securing points against opposition of that calibre who are competing at the top end of the table for European places shows there is more to Bray than is reflected in the current Premier Division standings.

They sit bottom of the table with just three wins in 23 games but, remarkably, are not dead and buried just yet.

The Seagulls are now six points adrift of Limerick and, should they continue the form they have showed since Graham Kelly took charge, they very well could stand a chance at maintaining their top-flight status and narrowly scraping into that relegation play-off spot.

What will be a bone of contention for the side however, will be those nine losses in a row at the start of the season. That run of form could mean they have too much ground to make up between now and the end of October.

They still have a chance and that fact alone did not seem remotely possible on 13 April when they had just one point from a possible 30.

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Aaron Gallagher

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