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Title winners? Relegation candidates? Our 2021 League of Ireland predictions

The42′s writers preview the new season.

The Premier Division trophy (file pic).
The Premier Division trophy (file pic).
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Gavin Cooney

1. Who will win the league?

It should be a tighter title race than last season, but I think Shamrock Rovers will defend their title. They have lost two key players in Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff, but they are very comfortable and effective in their system and the mid-season arrival of Richie Towell might just inject an added bit of creativity that can thrust them to the title. If Dundalk start well and build some momentum, they may push them close and while I’m expecting Bohs to make Europe again, I can’t see them contending for the title.

2. Who will get relegated?

It’s very difficult to assess Waterford given their now-traditional late pre-season churn, so they may or may not struggle. I think the season definitely will be a struggle for Drogheda and Longford, and I think both may go straight back down to the First Division.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

It’s going to be a fascinating division, but I’m taking Galway United to win the league and Shelbourne to join them in the top flight via the play-offs.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2021.

Roberto Lopes of Shamrock Rovers to be Player of the Year, and Bohs’ Dawson Devoy to win the Young Player of the Year gong.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

It might well be Waterford again, but Dundalk, as they proved last year, have an almost limitless capacity for unforeseen drama, so I think there might be a few surprises out of Oriel Park this year.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Supporters coming back to stadia. We have been lucky to get to games with work, and the players, clubs and FAI deserve a lot of credit for keeping the show on the road, but football with fans is a terribly diminished thing. Hopefully we are in the final stretches of this nightmare.

Paul Fennessy

1. Who will win the league?

It won’t come as a surprise to many that I think it will be between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers once again.

Jack Byrne has been many people’s choice as the best player in the league for the past two seasons, while Aaron McEneff hasn’t been far behind him.

Yet having lost that duo, Rovers appear to have recruited well — Sean Gannon, Chris McCann, Daniel Mandroiu, Richie Towell (when he arrives in the summer) and Sean Hoare are all likely to be regular starters and will improve the squad.

Dundalk, by contrast, have signed a number of foreign players who will probably take longer to adapt to the league.

Meanwhile, the loss of Hoare, Gannon, Gary Rogers, John Mountney and Dane Massey is likely to be keenly felt on the field as well as off it by the Lilywhites.

So on the basis that Dundalk face a trickier rebuilding process, I’m tipping Rovers to retain their title.

2. Who will get relegated?

Promoted sides usually find it tough to adjust to the step up in quality, and I believe that will be the case with Longford and Drogheda. Ollie Horgan has been performing minor miracles now for a number of seasons at Finn Harps, but in terms of resources, they remain one of the weakest sides in the division and so it won’t be easy for them again.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

John Caulfield’s Galway finished the season strongly last year and they look well placed to build on that progress this time around. I suspect Shelbourne won’t be far off either.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2021.

With some high-profile departures, a void needs to be filled at Rovers. Graham Burke recently committed his long-term future to the Hoops and there’s a real onus on him now to kick on and I believe he could be a real star for Stephen Bradley’s men, while the similarly talented Danny Mandroiu also warrants a mention.

For Young Player, I’ve been really impressed whenever I’ve seen Joe Hodge play and Derry getting him on loan from Man City looks like a major coup. He recently picked up a bad injury, but once he gets back fully fit, I expect him to have a big impact with the Candystripes.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

I’ve been really impressed with the work Liam Buckley has done at Sligo, guiding them to fourth place and a European spot last year. They’ve made a couple of eye-catching signings this year like Greg Bolger and Walter Figueira, so I expect the good work to continue there.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Just being at games, ideally with crowds in the not-too-distant future. Apologies for the cliche, but it really is only when they’re gone that you tend to appreciate those kinds of simple pleasures.

Kevin Brannigan

1. Who will win the league?

When is a league not a league? Well, according to some members of the Dundalk panel, last season’s Shamrock Rovers league win wasn’t really a win. The pre-season sledging between the two sides has proved a welcome distraction in the build-up to this campaign and helped get fans excited for a league that will be again played in front of empty stands.

Shamrock Rovers should win the league. But, with their wealth, Dundalk should also put up more of a challenge this time around than last season, which saw them finish in third place, 22 points adrift of Rovers by season’s end.

Bohs’ management team of Keith Long and Trevor Croly will be happy to let the pundits again predict a Shamrock Rovers-Dundalk season-long duel, but fans of the Poolbeg side should confidently expect their team to be in the mix.

2. Who will get relegated?

Not Finn Harps. Sitting snugly between the Atlantic and the border Finn Harps enter season 2021 with a manager who knows how to navigate the depths of the Premier Division. With Shelbourne at one stage last summer looking home and dry, Ollie Horgan’s rope-a-dope strategy reeled in Ian Morris’s side with a final-day victory over Waterford securing their status for this season, as Shelbourne and Gary Deegan imploded against Shamrock Rovers

Ollie’s weapon last year was set-plays, this season it could be Tunde Owalabi. The goal-scoring Belgian brought in from Hamilton has, in the past, racked up impressive goal tallies in the English lower divisions. If he does the same for the Donegal side, he’ll only enhance Ollie’s cult status.

Oh, who will get relegated? Drogheda.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

It’s fashionable to utter the phrase ‘this is one of the most exciting First Divisions in years’. In saying the line it imbues the speaker with a gravitas that can only be challenged by a member of a niche market; fans of a team in the league.

So, with Covid restrictions meaning I’m unlikely to come across one of the aforementioned fans anytime soon, I’ll say with confidence — this is one of the most exciting First Divisions in years.

Having tripped the light fantastic alongside Dundalk for some of the League of Ireland’s glory years, it’s so Cork City to be back in the First Division. Whispers that Athlone are building an unstoppable force have permeated into the mainstream. Shelbourne are spending big and Ian Morris is speaking with the same confidence of long-term plans, making him sound very much like Ian Morris who was speaking with confidence about long-term plans before relegation. Limerick have once again a side competing in senior football, while UCD will tip towards the top end.

Selfishly I want a trip to Ireland’s second city when lockdown lifts. So I’m going for Galway.

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4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2021.

Ole Erik Midtskogen is a big man. At 6’5, the Norwegian, who scored against Dundalk in last year’s Europa League play-off, will spread fear in many defences both on the island and in Europe. For players and managers alike this is a hard league to get your head around — Dundalk have invested big in importing players — Ole and his goals could be the one that pays off the most.

Is Dylan Watts too old to be young? If not I’m going for Watts. With Jack Byrne now in Cyprus, writers on the league will be desperately searching for a new Rovers player to shine a light on. With Byrne having talked him up in pre-season as the one to watch from Bradley’s squad, this is a big season for the 23-year-old.

I’m also really excited to see how Joe Hodge performs in an under-pressure Derry squad and hope his experience could set a trend of bright young things coming on loan here from some of the world’s biggest sides. I also pray it will cement his feeling of ‘Irishness’ and we can avoid another Rice/Grealish situation.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

The league table will consist of a top three of Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Dundalk. No one else will shoot from the pack to challenge this trifecta. The main surprise will be whether or not Dundalk’s awkward-looking managerial set-up can last a season.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

The worldwide suppression of the virus and a return to Friday nights surrounded by friends on terraces watching a league that has so much going for it. Until then I will make do with watching a one-camera stream with no replays and silent half-time feeds.

Garry Doyle

1. Who will win the league?

Dundalk – while the obvious answer is to go with the much safer bet, Shamrock Rovers, two things stand out. No1, defending a title often throws up unexpected problems (ask eh, Dundalk) and No2, Dundalk possess serious quality in their side, a mix of proven winners and new talent. If the new players are committed and ambitious, they will be hard to stop.

2. Who will get relegated?

Drogheda United. Finn Harps are battle-hardened and know every safety exit in the joint while Longford’s freshness should guide them to eighth.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Shelbourne — still surprised they got relegated last year — while Cabinteely could also sneak in via the play-offs.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2021.

Chris Shields or Graham Burke. Andy Lyons for Young Player of the Year.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

There won’t be one.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Bringing the young fella to his first game in over a year.

Murray Kinsella, Bernard Jackman and Gavan Casey preview Ireland’s game against England and try to figure out where this team is going under Andy Farrell, if anywhere:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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