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Grading the Premier Division performances as the League of Ireland season draws to a close

We reflect on each club’s highs and lows as another season ends.

Dundalk are crowned champions again.
Dundalk are crowned champions again.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dundalk

In April, back-to-back defeats away to Pat’s and Sligo allowed Shamrock Rovers open a 13-point gap at the top and the media reach for easy obituaries of Dundalk in the wake of Stephen Kenny’s departure. 

And then Dundalk won 21 games in a 23-match unbeaten run and sealed the title with a win over Rovers in September. 

They also won the EA Sports Cup and will face Rovers at the Aviva in the FAI Cup final next weekend to complete a treble. With the Unite the Union Champions Cup clash with Linfield to come, it might yet be a quadruple.

Although there was change on the sideline, Dundalk’s success was built on continuity among the squad, and this was the year they vaulted themselves into a thousand pub conversations as to who are the greatest side in Irish history. 

Highlight: It has to be winning the league beneath September’s rain. 

Lowlight: Perhaps harsh to describe it in such terms, but Dundalk will be disappointed by their Europa League exit, losing 3-1 at Tallaght to an admittedly impressive Slovan Bratislava. This squad will be judged by the 2016 run to the group stages, however fair or unfair that may be. 

Player of the Season: Michael Duffy. 

Grade: A

Shamrock Rovers 

Rovers may yet turn a good season into a great one by finally ending their FAI Cup hoodoo, but this was a season of undoubted progress as they emerged from Cork’s frighteningly shrunken shadow to become Dundalk’s main challengers. 

They were generally consistent across the season, even in their failings: they took just four points from a possible 18 against Dundalk and Bohs, the sides that finished either side of them in the table. 

It’s impossible to talk of Rovers’ year without mentioning Jack Byrne, but there were several consistent performers around him, including Aaron McEneff, Greg Bolger, Lee Grace, Ronan Finn, Sean Kavanagh and Alan Mannus.

The nucleus of a very, very good team is in place for next year, and if Neil Farrugia can shake off his injury troubles he will add much-needed pace and width to the team in 2020.

Add the windfall from Dermot Desmond’s arrival, and there is a lot this season for Rovers to build on as they try to topple Dundalk next year. That said, they will seek to leave the champions with something sharp to consider over the winter in next weekend’s cup final. 

Highlight: Jack Byrne’s performance in the comeback win at home to Apollon Limassol was memorable, but the cup semi-final win at Dalymount might just shade it. 

Lowlight: The record against their rivals let them down this year, but the 1-0 defeat to Bohs at Tallaght in April saw Trevor Clarke and Lee Grace sent off and a greatly-depleted defence lose away to Dundalk three days later. A pretty costly night. 

Player of the Season: Jack Byrne. 

Grade: B-plus. 

Bohemians 

What a year for Bohs – a part-time squad that was largely ravaged by injury throughout the year still managed to reach both cup semi-finals and qualify for Europe. 

Bohemians’ season is a remarkable testament to the work of Keith Long and Trevor Croly, and the opportunities they give to young players. 

They wobbled slightly as the season drew to a close, having briefly looked in a three-way title race with April’s win away to Shamrock Rovers, but they recovered to seal Europa League football with a game to spare.

Daniel Mandroiu was occasionally inconsistent but frequently spectacular, while Darragh Leahy, James Talbot, and Conor Levingstone were superb throughout the year.

Highlight: Reaching Europe is the big achievement of the season, but for sheer one-off ecstasy – Mandroiu’s stonking long-range winner against Rovers in July might just top the lot.

Lowlight: Very difficult to pick one after a season of over-achievement, but they didn’t really perform in the FAI Cup semi-final against Rovers. 

Player of the Season: James Talbot.

Grade: A.

mandroiu-of-bohemians-scores-their-second-goal-past-alan-mannus Daniel Mandroiu scores a screamer against Shamrock Rovers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Derry City 

There was enormous upheaval at Derry ahead of the season, but that wasn’t really evident once the season got going under Declan Devine.

They were unfortunate not to win the EA Sports Cup against Dundalk, and were the only side not to lose a league game to Dundalk during the Champions’ muscle-flexing 23-match unbeaten run.

They qualified for Europe despite that wobble against Pat’s in the final week, and given theirs is a city and community where the unity bred by football is keenly felt, this was a season to be quite proud of. 

Highlight: Qualifying for Europe. 

Lowlight: Losing the EA Sports Cup final on penalties to Dundalk. 

Player of the Season: David Parkhouse. 

Grade: B-plus

St Pat’s

The season began with hope for Pat’s, as a packed stadium roared them to an opening-day win against Cork. In hindsight – that game said more about Cork than Pat’s.

A deeply frustrating season followed, in which scoring goals became a massive issue. Crowds winnowed and Harry Kenny resigned after a 3-1 FAI Cup loss to a UCD side that had conceded 10 goals to Bohemians a week earlier. 

They qualified for Europe on somewhat of a technicality at Waterford’s expense, but were generally outclassed by Swedish side Norrkoping. 

Stephen O’Donnell is an intriguing appointment ahead of next season, and the 3-1 win away to Derry on the penultimate day augurs well for next year, as does the performance of Chris Forrester. 

Highlight: Surprisingly finding themselves in Europe. 

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Lowlight: Scoring just 12 times in 18 home league games undermines just about everything else the club is trying to do. 

Player of the Season: Kevin Toner. 

Grade: C-minus. 

Sligo Rovers

The video doing the rounds online of Liam Buckley strutting down a catwalk in a fundraiser for Rovers and the Sligo Cancer Centre last week probably sums up the season Sligo ultimately had – results flowing from a huge amount of buy-in to Buckley and his players.

That Sligo made it to the last four in the FAI Cup and finished comfortably in mid-table are considerable achievements, certainly relative to their pre-season expectations.

There were impressive performances this year from Romeo Parkes, Lewis Banks, Dante Leverock, Ronan Coughlan, David Cawley and Kyle Callan-McFadden but this was about the collective for Sligo Rovers, as the club restored pride and affirmed its place in the town.

Highlight: Making the FAI Cup semi-finals. 

Lowlight: Perhaps trailing away after the summer when there looked to be an outside chance of a top-four finish, but it’s harsh to tar any element of a positive season with the title of ‘lowlight.’

Player of the Season: Romeo Parkes. 

Grade:

romeo-parkes Romeo Parkes. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Waterford 

A somewhat dispiriting season for Waterford, as they began the descent from the heights of last season’s fourth-placed finish. This disappointment tasted most bitter when they were denied entry to Europe, on the technicality of not fulfilling a rule which stipulates that clubs must be in existence for three years to be eligible to play in Uefa competitions. 

There were rumours that Lee Power may pull the plug at the time, but that hasn’t happened and the Blues slowly pulled themselves from relegation bother, taking a couple of notable scalps along the way. 

A disappointing season by the standards of last year, albeit not as bad as it might have looked midway through 2019. 

Highlight: Hewn in their manager’s best qualities, Waterford became a pain for some of the league’s highest-achievers this year. They helped to keep the race for European places alive with wins over Pat’s and Bohs in the season’s closing weeks. 

Lowlight: Losing the Europa League place they thought was theirs. 

Player of the Season: Zach Elbouzedi 

Grade: C-minus

Cork City

Good grief. This year was a vertiginous fall for Cork, an alarming slide from prominence that cost Johns Caulfield and Cotter their roles with the club. They spent the latter half of the season in genuine relegation danger, after a miserable season that has featured just 9 wins and 29 goals in 36 games.

Neale Fenn has been brought in with a view to putting his stamp on the squad in time to hit the ground running next year, and there may be crumbs of optimism to take from the win against Dundalk last week. That game carries the heavy caveat of Dundalk’s focus on the Cup final, but Fenn will cling to whatever he can ahead of 2020. 

A wretched year. 

Highlight: The win over Dundalk in their final home game of the year. Okay, we’re typing that out through fists stuffed with straws. 

Lowlight: A rich pool to draw from, but missing out on a money-spinning Europea tie with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers by losing 2-0 at home to Progres of Luxembourg particularly stung.

Player of the Season: Conor McCarthy. 

neale-fenn-ahead-of-the-game Neale Fenn. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Grade: E

Finn Harps 

The league season was pretty much on-par for Harps, as they pulled away from UCD to avoid automatic relegation but couldn’t catch Cork’s meandering coat-tails. 

Much rests on the promotion/relegation play-off with Drogheda though, so the jury remains out on their season.

Highlight: There were a few notable results this season for Harps – and they tormented Waterford – but let’s go with the 1-0 derby win over Derry City in July. 

Lowlight: Beating UCD just once – and losing twice – caused unease, but it will all be moot if they stave off relegation in the play-off. 

Player of the Season: Nathan Boyle. 

Grade: Let’s withhold judgement until their season is fully over. 

UCD

Gravity ultimately told for UCD, relegated as they were after an initially encouraging start to the season. Losing Gary O’Neill and Neil Farrugia to Shamrock Rovers during the season was a huge blow, and although they did manage to hold on to Liam Scales, they couldn’t avoid falling directly back to the First Division. 

There were some brutal hammerings – summed up by the fact that the 7-0 loss to Rovers wasn’t even the worst of the year. Nope, that was 10-1 against Bohemians, after which Collie O’Neill left the club. 

Highlight: Bouncing back to knock Pat’s out of the FAI Cup six days after losing 10-1 to Bohemians. 

Lowlight: …having to bounce back from losing 10-1 to Bohemians. 

Player of the Season: Liam Scales. 

Grade: D-minus

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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