Players pictured at the 2018 SSE Airtricity League Season Launch earlier this week. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
looking ahead

Best player? Relegation candidates? Our writers' predictions for the 2018 League of Ireland season

Will Cork, Dundalk or someone else claim the title? The42′s journalists have their say.

Aaron Gallagher

1. Who will win the league?

For the fifth year in succession, it seems all but likely that Cork City and Dundalk will once again dominate the charge for the Premier Division.

Having won the title every year since 2014, Stephen Kenny’s charges were denied the chance to match Shamrock Rovers’ infamous four-in-a-row when a Sean Maguire-inspired City ran away with the title in the first half of last season — before going on to secure a historic double.

A ferocious winner, Kenny will be determined to wrestle back the title this year. However, having lost so many key players over the last number of seasons, it will be easier said than done against a City side which has addressed the losses of Maguire and Kevin O’Connor.

John Caulfield’s side have strengthened with the additions of Graham Cummins, Barry McNamee, Aaron Barry, Colm Horgan and Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, with the Lilywhites too bringing in Ronan Murray and Pat Hoban alongside internationals like Krisztián Adorján and Karolis Chvedukas.

Derry City and Shamrock Rovers will be hoping to make up the ground that separates the top two from the rest of the division, but for 2018, it seems that it will be another fraught battle between Cork and Dundalk at the top of the table.

With a squad brimming with quality at every turn and the psychological confidence of having pipped Dundalk to both the league and cup last season, City could become the first Cork side to win back-to-back league titles in 67 years.

2. Who will be relegated?

With three teams handed automatic relegation last season, the fight against the drop was more competitive than the title race in 2017.

This year will see one side go down automatically and another fight through a play-off. The restructuring of the division into a 10-team league means every single Premier Division side has something to offer, as a result making the league as a whole much stronger.

That said, two sides could find themselves going down. Despite being caught in the battle against the drop last season, Limerick finished a comfortable five points clear. With manager Neil McDonald gone, the club up for sale and a depleted squad they will face a stiff test to maintain their spot in the Premier Division.

Bray Wanderers were marred by off-field controversies last season, going from a potential European finish dropping all the way to 6th in the second half of the season. They have lost so much of the quality that made up their squad last season, but manager Harry Kenny will undoubtedly be their biggest loss.

Bray, alongside Limerick, will do well to avoid the drop in 2018.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

It is nothing less than a shame that there will be little to no TV coverage of the First Division in 2018.

For the first time in a number of years, the so-called ‘graveyard’ will be extremely competitive from start to finish, for two key reasons — the re-introduction of the play-offs and the number of sides in a new 10-team division that can credibly fancy themselves as title contenders.

Any of Finn Harps, Galway United, Drogheda United, Longford Town or Cobh Ramblers could see themselves crowned champions in 2018.

Led by Alan Reynolds and Pat Fenlon, Waterford simply ran away with the First Division in 2017, with no play-off of any capacity meaning seven other teams had little or nothing to play for as soon as March.

That mistake has been rectified by the FAI, meaning sides like UCD, Shelbourne and Cabinteely, who have each failed to come close to promotion in a couple of seasons, could now manage the feat — even by finishing as low as fourth and subsequently battling through six intense play-off fixtures.

For top spot, it could very well be a battle of attrition between Galway and Harps. With players of quality like Mark Timlin, Paddy McCourt and Michael O’Connor, while led by the managerial brilliance of Ollie Horgan, the Ballybofey side could go one better than their 2015 First Division runners-up spot and claim the title.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2018.

Compared to this time 12 months ago, the League of Ireland has lost a huge array of its most talented players abroad, including Sean Maguire, Kevin O’Connor, Ryan Delaney, Niclas Vemmelund, Patrick McEleney, Conor O’Malley and David McMillan.

Even so, the SSE Airtricity League has always produced at least one star over the last number of seasons each and every year without failure — Pat Hoban in 2014, Richie Towell in 2015, Daryl Horgan in 2016 and then Maguire in 2017.

Had he remained at Oriel Park for another season, McEleney would likely have grabbed the PFAI Player of the Year for himself, however in his absence could come talents such as Adam Morgan, Ronan Murray, Conor McCormack and Barry McNamee.

Trevor Clarke claimed the PFAI Young Player of the Year award in 2017. If the Ireland U21 international continues to improve at the rate he showed last season — his performances saw him linked with a move to Southampton — he could very well bag the senior prize this season.

As for Young Player of the Year, it could finally be the season that St Patrick’s Athletic’s dynamic playmaker Darragh Markey comes into his own and showcases on a consistent basis the talent that saw him earn a trial at Celtic a little over a year ago. He will face stiff competition from team-mate James Doona, Aaron McEneff, Shamrock Rovers’ Aaron Bolger, JJ Lunney at Bohemians, as well as Dundalk forward Jamie McGrath.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

Despite a dramatic late push from Stephen Henderson’s Cobh Ramblers towards the end of the campaign, Waterford United largely cruised to the First Division title in 2017.

Buoyed by the investment of former Ireland U21 international and current Swindon Town owner Lee Power, the side have spent heavily — their pull being witnessed this time last year by persuading Waterford local Kenny Browne to leave Cork City and drop down a division.

This season, they have added quality to quality, bringing in players such as Ismahil Akinade, Bastien Hery, Dave Webster, highly-rated UCD goalkeeper Niall Corbet, John Kavanagh from Cork City, Gavan Holohan, St Pat’s defender Rory Feely and former Ajax starlet Stanley Aborah, to name just a few.

They have the squad, the financial backing and the ambition to upset sides expected to make the top four and aim for a European finish in 2018.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Hilarious, inevitable floodlight failures, two brilliant FAI Cup finals at Lansdowne Road in November, Soccer Republic, a hotly contested title race, away days, seeing Irish clubs play in the Champions League and Europa League, witnessing local stars emerge and move on to greener pastures, Dublin derbies, a desperate battle against relegation, listening to the growing number of excellent League of Ireland podcasts every week, summer football and Brian Kerr.

Paul Fennessy

Stephen O'Donnell Dundalk's Stephen O'Donnell pictured at the league launch. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

1. Who will win the league?

It’s not the most original of opinions, but I believe it will be a two-horse race between Dundalk and Cork.

Last season, John Caulfield’s men were clearly affected by the departure of Sean Maguire and even though they won the league ultimately, their form tailed off in the second half of the campaign.

With no Maguire to rely upon this year, the performances of new or relatively recently signed players such as Barry McNamee, Graham Cummins and Kieran Sadlier will be key in determining the league’s outcome.

Dundalk, by contrast, appeared to improve as the season wore on. Inexperienced players such as Sean Hoare, Dylan Connolly and Jamie McGrath have now had some time to bed in to the set-up at Oriel Park, while the signing of Ronan Murray from Galway could prove a smart acquisition.

And unlike last year when their Europa League exploits extended their season considerably, Dundalk this year have had a full off-season to recover.

So for these reasons, I fancy the Lilywhites to pip Cork to the title, though filling the void left by the departures of key players such as Niclas Vemmelund, David McMillan and Patrick McEleney won’t be easy.

2. Who will be relegated?

With the league now down to 10 teams, simply surviving is no mean feat.

Despite finishing sixth last year, I expect Bray to find life difficult, given their off-field problems and the sizeable contingent of key players that have left the club in recent times.

Limerick, St Pat’s and Sligo all struggled last year and I’m not convinced their pre-season signings are good enough to significantly change things for the better as far as their form is concerned.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Galway United have signed some decent players and have a manager in Shane Keegan with previous experience of promotion from the First Division.

They only went down on the final day of last season and have managed to retain a decent portion of the squad from last year.

UCD and Cobh Ramblers both had solid seasons last year in the First Division and have managed to keep hold of most of their players from 2017, so I expect them to be there or thereabouts again this campaign.

Finn Harps also have some good players and should expect to be in contention.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2018.

Dundalk’s Ronan Murray is good enough to bang in the goals and win the main award, while I’m tipping Shamrock Rovers’ Trevor Clarke to repeat his feat of 2017 and scoop the young player accolade for the second year running.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

I think Waterford could surprise a few people. Despite only just having been promoted, they have good people behind the scenes and have recruited well over the summer. A top-half finish is not beyond them.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Seeing Irish sides pit their wits against teams in Europe is always very intriguing.

The draw wasn’t kind to Dundalk in particular last year – Rosenborg were among the toughest sides they could have been paired with in the second qualifying round last year in the Champions League, and they still were only narrowly beaten after extra time.

Given the domestic progress they have made in recent times, and with a little bit of luck and self-belief, there is no reason why both Cork and the Lilywhites at least cannot aim to emulate the latter’s feat of 2016 and get as far as the group stages of a major competition in Europe.

Paul Dollery

Conor McCormack Cork's Conor McCormack. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

1. Who will win the league?

After winning the double in 2017 and picking up where they left off with an impressive comeback against Dundalk in the President’s Cup, Cork City have earned the right to be regarded as the team to beat. Scoring four times in the second half at Oriel Park last Sunday suggests that John Caulfield’s side may not encounter the same difficulties in front of goal that hampered them last season in the aftermath of Sean Maguire’s departure. Having said that, I do believe that there’s little, if anything, between City and Dundalk in terms of quality. I expect another captivating duel between the two rivals, although Shamrock Rovers might fancy their chances of breaking up that duopoly if they can address the disciplinary issues that detrimentally impacted their prospects last season.

2. Who will be relegated?

A disruptive off-season during which they lost their manager and several key players means that Limerick are likely to be up against it in the battle to beat the drop. With the team who finishes second from bottom condemned to a play-off, Bray Wanderers could also get sucked in.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

While they’ve been weakened by the departures of players such as Caolan McAleer and Ethan Boyle, Finn Harps are still well placed to do well back in the First Division after retaining the likes of Ciaran Gallagher, Mark Timlin and Paddy McCourt, as well as bringing in players of the calibre of Michael O’Connor and John O’Flynn. An astute manager in Ollie Horgan should ensure that his side are likely to be in contention. Speaking of the importance of good management, I fancy Stephen Henderson to keep Cobh Ramblers at the right end of the table on the back of consecutive top-three finishes.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2018.

As a holding midfielder, he’ll seldom make headlines, but if Conor McCormack — Cork City’s newly-appointed captain — can replicate the form he showed last year during his first season on Leeside, he could be the outstanding player in the league, even if his role is so often under-valued. Derry City’s supremely talented midfielder Aaron McEneff is my tip to be the leading youngster.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

Having brought in the likes of Bastien Hery, Izzy Akinade and Gavan Holohan, Waterford might fancy their chances of challenging for a European place in their first season back in the top flight.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Meeting the omnipresent Tom, seemingly at every game, and being told by the great man that whichever team is at the top of the league won’t actually go on to win it.

Ben Blake

Waterford celebrate winning The SSE Airtricity League First Division Waterford are back in the big time. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

1. Who will win the league?

As my colleagues have mentioned above, Cork City and Dundalk have spawned one of great League of Ireland rivalries in their battles for domestic dominance over recent years.

When you consider the war-of-words between John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny, Mark McNulty’s expletive-filled chanting and the Karl Sheppard transfer saga that never materialised, 2017 produced plenty of needle and there’s no reason to suggest it will be any different this time around.

Sure, both clubs have had to deal with significant losses in personnel since this time 12 months ago, but they appear to have done some good business in terms of recruitment. It’s hardly earth-shattering news, but I fully expect the title to return to either Turner’s Cross or Oriel Park.

2. Who will be relegated?

With the restructuring of the league, it felt like two-thirds of the Premier Division were involved in a relegation dog fight for much of last season. Sligo Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic finished directly above the drop zone, but while the Saints look to have signed well, Gerard Lyttle will need to continue to improve the team in his first full season in charge.

It will be interesting to see how Bray Wanderers bounce back from what turned out to be a turbulent year. The Seagulls have managed to obtain a licence and hold onto some key players, but the vastly-experienced Harry Kenny could be a huge loss. His replacement, Dave Mackey, has worked as U19s manager and assistant first-team coach at the Wicklow club in the past, but taking the hot seat is big step up to make.

Bohs manager Keith Long worked wonders with a limited squad of players last year, but young talents Fuad Sule (Barnet) and Warren O’Hora (Brighton) have been snapped up by English clubs, while Ismahil Akinade has joined Waterford. Long will need to unearth a couple more gems again this time around.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Many of Galway United’s big names have understandably left, but manager Shane Keegan has been able entice Ryan Connolly back to the club from Shamrock Rovers, while Robbie Williams will add experience at the back and they have also brought in young goalkeeper Tadhg Ryan from Huddersfield Town.

The Tribesmen are favourites to make an immediate return to the top flight, but Finn Harp are likely to have something to say about that. The unmistakable Ollie Horgan has been around the block and knows exactly what it takes to get a club promoted.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2018.

Cork City’s Kieran Sadlier possesses all the attributes to follow in the footsteps of his former West Ham team-mate and close friend Sean Maguire by scooping the award as the League of Ireland’s top player. However, as manager John Caulfield has alluded to, the attacker needs to add more consistency to his game.

In terms of Young Player of the Year, Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny expects to see more out of 21-year-old Jamie McGrath in his second season, and the Meath man is at the right club to develop into a top player.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

Hardly a surprise given the investment made by owner Lee Power, but Waterford look in good shape to hold their own after making the long-awaited return to the Premier Division.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Having live football back on your doorstep every Friday night, running the rule over the latest imports to arrive in the league, seeing if Irish clubs can make headway in European competitions this year and Soccer Republic’s new regular slot of 7pm.

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