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The nine clubs and their star players chasing glory in Ireland's top-flight this season

Holders Peamount United open their title defence at Wexford Youths tomorrow. Here’s The42′s season preview.

AFTER AN OFF-SEASON filled with a string of positive developments, the Women’s National League [WNL] kicks off tomorrow, with plenty of talking to be done on the pitch.

peamounts-players-and-staff-celebrate Peamount United are the reigning champions. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The league’s 11th season is set to be a landmark one. SSE Airtricity have stepped up as sponsors, alongside the men’s equivalent, following notable struggles in that department over the past few years. For the first time ever, all games will be streamed live, and free, on LOI TV — a move which was met with much acclaim online, with promotion through the roof.

An U19 tier has been added to bridge the gap from U17 to senior, while prize money has been bumped by 141%. Everything is on the up in terms of off-field matters, matching the strides which have been made on the pitch in recent years.

And now it’s over to the players to continue that upward trajectory, to perform on this bigger platform as a new audience watches on and to, in turn, continue growing the league.

What better way to start this weekend than with one of the biggest games possible in Peamount United v Wexford Youths. Peamount open their title defence — and three-in-a-row bid — at Ferrycarrig Park tomorrow [KO 4pm], with Wexford hell-bent on returning to the top.

At the same time, Athlone Town welcome title challengers Shelbourne to the Midlands, and Galway and Cork City face off out West, so get ready to triple-screen. Earlier in the day, it’s all eyes on the capital as Bohemians entertain Treaty United [KO 2pm].

Here’s your club-by-club preview ahead of the 2021 season, which is sure to be another cracker.

Peamount United 

As is the way in every league across the world, all eyes are on the holders going into this one. The Greenogue outfit are eyeing three-in-a-row in 2021 — no one has ever done it — having won the double last year, proving pretty unstoppable throughout while also flying the flag in Europe.

aine-ogorman-and-stephanie-roche-celebrate-with-the-trophy Áine O'Gorman and Stephanie Roche. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

With the ‘champions’ tag comes pressure, but Peamount seem to take it in their stride, playing a stylish brand of football. This is a title-winning squad, they know what it takes. With some of the most experienced names in Irish women’s football in their ranks in Áine O’Gorman, Stephanie Roche, Karen Duggan and Niamh Reid-Burke, they’ll back themselves to do it again.

There’s plenty of continuity under James O’Callaghan, and they’ll surely shake off any off-season losses. Niamh Farrelly is probably the biggest of those, the Lucan native having moved to Glasgow City after a solid season at centre-back alongside Claire Walsh.

Farrelly moved to defence from midfield to replace Louise Corrigan after her ACL setback, who has since switched to DLR Waves. But with top young talent in Becky Watkins, Della Doherty, Sadhbh Doyle and Alannah McEvoy — and Tiegan Ruddy back fully fit after her own cruciate injury, and Eleanor Ryan Doyle in goal-scoring form — it’s hard to look past Peas’ strength in depth.

Shelbourne 

Speaking of strength in depth, Shelbourne’s recruitment drive through the off season has been nothing short of impressive. Having run Peamount close last season, ultimately losing out in a league title decider, they mean business and are eyeing glory in 2021.

noel-king Noel King is Shelbourne's new manager. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Noel King’s arrival as manager is a real statement of intent, and the former Ireland boss has proved a shrewd operator in his new job thus far. Saoirse Noonan’s move from Cork City was one which sent waves around the league, while the Reds also snapped up another international-standard player in Chloe Mustaki.

That’s just to name two of Shels’ new arrivals, with prodigious talent Jessie Stapleton and league stalwarts Rebecca Creagh and Amanda Budden among others joining an already quality line-up.

Izzy Atkinson was the highest-profile departure, crossing the water to Celtic, but the roster the Tolka Park outfit have put together is certainly envious. With Pearl Slattery, Noelle Murray, Ciara Grant, Emily Whelan and Jessica Ziu leading the charge, they’ll be confident in landing the title for the first time since 2016.

Wexford Youths

Over the past few years, Peamount, Shelbourne and Wexford have certainly established themselves as the league’s top three. Champions in 2017 and 2018, and cup winners in 2018 and 2019, Wexford are hurting after last season. 

edel-kennedy-kylie-murphy-and-ellen-molloy Edel Kennedy, Kylie Murphy and Ellen Molloy pictured as Energia launched a new three-year sponsorship contract With Wexford Youths Women’s FC. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Tom Elmes’ side will consider it an unsuccessful one, having failed to lift any silverware. But what better way to bounce back than mount a title challenge, and start out against the holders?

Like Peamount, Wexford are a title-winning squad, and one full of graft. Their captain, Kylie Murphy, epitomises the group. They’re a team of winners, and have quietly bolstered themselves in the off-season, while losing just one player in Blessing Kingsley.

Former Irish rugby international and Dublin ladies footballer Kim Flood is a welcome addition, as is Lynn Marie Grant, both vying to prove themselves as they return to the league. They’ll join a consistent bunch led by Murphy, with some Ellen Molloy magic on the side as Lauren Kelly, Sinead Taylor, Ciara Rossiter and Vanessa Ogbonna sniff out the goals. 

Galway WFC

Galway have been there or thereabouts the last few seasons, just off the top three sides but earning some positive results against them. They fancied themselves to make a real breakthrough and challenge last season, but it was a mixed one in which they finished fifth.

While they’ve lost a few key players — Budden and Maebh De Burca among them — they’ve gained some gems and have put down a good pre-season. Mayo ladies footballer Rachel Kearns will certainly be one to watch, her arrival bringing excitement out West, along with those of league stalwart and pundit Ruth Fahy, and Chloe Moloney from Peamount.

There have also been a few interesting international imports, along with the addition of former Shels boss Dave Bell to Billy Clery’s backroom staff, so expect Galway — led once again by Lynsey McKey, Keara Cormican and Savannah McCarthy — to stay firmly in the mix.

DLR Waves

Another club who have had a busy pre-season recruiting new additions, Graham Kelly’s south Dubliners will be looking to really drive on this season, having finished sixth last year.

catherine-cronin DLR Waves star Catherine Cronin. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This DLR outfit have bucketloads of potential, but have found it difficult to click in the final third at times. New signing Kate Mooney, having crossed the Liffey from Shels, will look to bring that spark in attack as they build from the now rock-solid defence.

Corrigan and Jess Gleeson bolster that department, bringing something new, along with league-winning experience from Peas and Shels respectively, adding to the really positive environment at the club. Goalkeeper Eve Badana and midfield duo Fiona Donnelly and Catherine Cronin are a few others to keep an eye on.

Cork City

Having finished fourth last season after an excellent campaign, Cork will be hoping to build on their highest finish in quite some time this year.

megan-smyth-lynch-with-zara-foley Zara Foley facing Megan Smyth-Lynch in last year;s FAI Cup final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It could be difficult, however, having lost the services of playmaker and goal-scorer Noonan and first-choice goalkeeper Maria O’Sullivan to a scholarship in the US, among others. But this young, rising team will back themselves to bounce back under the watchful eye of Ronan Collins. It’s all a learning curve.

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They have top-quality players in Éabha O’Mahony and Zara Foley, real leaders in Ciara McNamara, Danielle Burke and new captain Becky Cassin, a raft of new signings including former Peamount player Sarah McKevitt, and Sophie Liston as one to watch as they play all their home games at Turner’s Cross.

Bohemians 

Bohs are club that mean business with their women’s team, much like Cork City, with plenty of alignment evident with the men’s side. One of three new clubs in 2020, Sean Byrne’s charfes finished bottom, though showed promise and made strides.

niamh-kenna Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

They’ve done some great things off the pitch in terms of progress, securing Dalymount Park for some home fixtures and raising awareness for Inner City Helping Homelessness (ICHH) — but now they’ll look to do most of their talking on it.

Having lost a few, they’ve moved to bolster their squad in the off-season, bringing in some interesting names: rising talents Naima Chemaou and Jade Reddy from Peamount, former Athlone Town captain Paula Doran, Clare Conlon from Wexford and Erica Burke, who captained the Kildare ladies footballers in the past, just four of the new arrivals, with midfield duo Chloe Darby and Niamh Kenna set to be leading lights once again.

Athlone Town 

Another club in their second season, having got a taste of the WNL last year. While they certainly impressed for a brand new team, finishing seventh in the end, the Midlanders will now want to push on.

clare Former Clare ladies football captain Laurie Ryan is in the Athlone ranks for 2021. Source: SPORTSFILE.

The exits have been plentiful for Tommy Hewitt’s side, but so too are the arrivals. Goalkeeper Abbiegayle Royanne will likely take the number one jersey having come from Galway, with Catherine Hyndman — a former Northern Ireland international with much experience gathered both sides of the border — teenage star Muireann Devaney and former Clare ladies football captain Laurie Ryan among the standout additions.

Kayla Brady is backed as the Westmeath side’s key player, with Kellie Brennan also impressing last season. Expect underage international and multi-sport talent Devaney to certainly make a splash, coming from Sligo Rovers U17s.

Treaty United

The third “new club” last season, Treaty United joined the league in place of Limerick WFC, though were much-changed. The only side with a new manager heading into this term, Niall Connolly replaces Dave Rooney at the helm.

Connolly will have a big WNL name by his side on the line in Marie Curtin, the league veteran hanging up her playing boots in the off-season after helping Treaty to an eighth-place finish. She’ll be a loss to the playing group, along with the experienced Maggie Duncliffe, but will continue to have a huge input in the grand scheme of things.

Jesse Mendez and Olivia Gibson are among those coming in to freshen things up, with the latter backed to shine on the biggest stage. Treaty have a real superstar in Aoife Horgan, the young striker lighting up the league last season with goals aplenty, so there should be more of the same alongside Gillian Keenan.

The FAI’s in-depth club-by-club preview, with squad lists, is available here >

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Emma Duffy

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