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Who will win the league? Who will get relegated? Our writers' League of Ireland predictions

Can Dundalk retain their title or could Shamrock Rovers usurp them?

Pictured (L-R) Cork City's Conor Davis, Sligo Rovers' David Cawley, Derry City's Conor Clifford, St. Pats' Ian Birmingham, Dundalk's Darragh Leahy, Shamrock Rovers' Ronan Finn, Finn Harps' David Webster, Shelbourne's Ciaran Kilduff, Bohemians' Daniel Grant and Waterford FC's Robbie McCourt
Pictured (L-R) Cork City's Conor Davis, Sligo Rovers' David Cawley, Derry City's Conor Clifford, St. Pats' Ian Birmingham, Dundalk's Darragh Leahy, Shamrock Rovers' Ronan Finn, Finn Harps' David Webster, Shelbourne's Ciaran Kilduff, Bohemians' Daniel Grant and Waterford FC's Robbie McCourt
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

David Sneyd

1. Who will win the league?

Dundalk still look best placed to retain their title. They may have lost Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath, but the champions are not considerably weaker for it and have added depth with three new midfielders – Greg Sloggett, Will Patching and Stefan Colovic – as well as Ireland U21 left back Darragh Leahy.

Tie in Shamrock Rovers not significantly strengthening — especially in attack — and the champions should be a step ahead. Rovers have made continued strides under Stephen Bradley and if they are still in the title race come the summer, perhaps some shrewd additions then could help them for the run-in.

2. Who will be relegated?

Waterford and Cork City were the two to sprung to mind straight away, purely because of the level of upheaval over the winter. Cork manager Neal Fenn has pretty much had to assemble a new squad — 16 outgoings with 11 signings — and experience looks light on the ground. They still have goalkeeper Mark McNulty (who will be coaching and acting as back-up to Liam Bossin) and midfielder Gearoid Morrissey, and if Daire O’Connor can hit the ground running and stay fit he could provide the spark required to avoid automatic relegation.

Their Munster rivals have had an equally disruptive off-season, losing almost the entirety of their squad and scraping around to bring in a mixture of experience (Graham Cummins), unproven talent (Robbie McCourt and Tyreke Wilson) and a long shot saviour (Michael O’Connor). It’s between the two for the bottom spots unless Alan Reynolds can inspire the Blues and Fenn gets his side ticking straight away.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Drogheda came close under manager Tim Clancy last season and they look well placed to build on that push in 2020. They have a young, ambitious boss who knows the league inside out and a squad of players more than capable of sealing the deal. Bray Wanderers have the sort of stability that has been missing in recent years and, if striker Gary Shaw can hit double figures after dropping down from the Premier Division, they will go close. Bray to nick it.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2020.

It’s hard to look beyond someone from Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers for the top award. They are most likely going to be in a head-to-head battle for the title and you would have to assume that whoever makes the difference will take the honour. Sean Gannon has been consistently excellent at right back over the last number of years and, with Dundalk toying with more advanced wing backs in 2020, he could make even more of a mark.

As for the young player gong, the tendency in recent times has been to go with those exciting talents in the final third. Neil Farrugia at Shamrock Rovers will want to nail down a regular place, while someone like 22-year-old Darragh Markey has been around the league long enough at this point to contribute effectively.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

There will be players from Canada, Kenya, Norway, Belgium, Ivory Coast, Serbia, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Spain, the United States and Finland in both divisions next season. Not to mention the usual slew of signings from Britain. But it could well be a Dubliner from Church Street that captures the imagination this term. Chris Forrester is one of the most talented players this league has seen in modern times and, after a spell in Britain, the 27-year-old made a disappointing return to St Patrick’s Athletic last season. If he can regain confidence and fitness he could be the catalyst for the Saints securing a European spot.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

The football. This winter seemed more bleak and longer than ever with all of the off-field distractions. They were more than just distractions, of course, outgoing Sports Minister Shane Ross casually discussing the possible demise of the league as if it was no great loss to the sporting landscape. These next 10 months will be a reminder of the place it holds in many peoples’ hearts, and lives.

jack-bryne Shamrock Rovers' Jack Byrne. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Gavin Cooney

1. Who will win the league?

Dundalk. They keep on strengthening, and last year dispelled most of the doubts that arrived when Stephen Kenny left. I think Rovers will continue to shrink the gap, but not by enough to deny Dundalk another title.

2. Who will be relegated?

I think gravity will tell for Finn Harps, and Cork City might have to fight to retain their top-flight status in a relegation play-off.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Longford Town.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2020.

Jack Byrne will be in the running for the main award again this year if he completes the full year with Rovers, as will Sean Gannon at Dundalk. It’s less of a sure thing, but if everything clicks around him at Pat’s, then Robbie Benson might be an outside shout. More broadly, what happens at Pat’s will be one of the most interesting stories of the season outside of the top two. If the injuries stay away, I’m fairly certain that Neil Farrugia will win the Young Player award.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

I don’t think Waterford will struggle to the extent that some believe they will.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Some football, at last. That was the winter of our disconnect: spent instead at Committee rooms and Department offices, reading accounts and becoming partisan for Better Corporate Governance FC. But all of that is going to fade into the background for a while, so it’s time to say once again: on with the games! (I’m also looking forward to radio reports of the scoreline in games involving Shamrock Rovers II.)

sean-gannon Dundalk's Sean Gannon. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Paul Fennessy

1. Who will win the league?

I still find it hard to see anyone other than Dundalk triumphing. They have so many players who know what it takes to prevail over the course of the season. They’ll be weakened by the departures of Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath, but still have more than enough talent to compensate and in Darragh Leahy, they have brought on board one of the best full-backs in the country. Shamrock Rovers aren’t far behind them player-for-player, but they could still do with a really prolific goalscorer. That said, last year’s FAI Cup win will boost their confidence, and I could see the gap being closer than 11 points this time around.

2. Who will be relegated?

It’s usually quite tough for promoted teams, so Shels won’t find it easy, though they still have a fairly strong squad that boasts a number of players with Premier Division experience, which should work in their favour. Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers, given their limited resources, will likely find it difficult as is usually the case. Cork City, by their standards, had a woeful season last year. They have completely revamped the squad under Neale Fenn, and that could go one of two ways, and their many new young players may take a bit of time to adapt to this level, which won’t be ideal for a club of their ambitions. So expect all four of those teams to struggle to a degree, with Finn Harps appearing especially vulnerable.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Unlike last year, there is no obvious favourite, as had been the case with Shelbourne. I like the look of Drogheda. They have a highly rated young manager in Tim Clancy and have kept the decent portion of the squad that finished second last year, while making a few astute looking signings such as Hugh Douglas. I suspect Longford, Bray, UCD and Cabinteely won’t be too far off either.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2020.

I’m going to go with a slightly left-field choice for Player of the Year and suggest Sean Gannon. He has been in the Team of the Year for the past six consecutive seasons without ever winning the main trophy, so if he can keep up that consistency, such recognition will be overdue.

For Young Player of the Year, I’m tipping Daniel Mandroiu to win for the second year running. In terms of natural talent, few in the league can compete with him, and in Keith Long, he has a manager who will afford him the freedom to produce the type of spectacular moments that he has proven to be capable of.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

It’s debatable whether it would be a genuine surprise given their performance last year, but I expect Bohemians to be even better this time around. All their young players will be a bit wiser and in Ciaran Kelly, they have signed one of the most promising defenders in the league. I can’t see them winning the title, but behind Dundalk and Rovers, they are now comfortably the best of the rest.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

The Dublin Derby games between Bohs and Rovers. They’re always hard to predict and usually entertaining, with two teams who are capable of playing very good football on their day. And I’ve been in far bigger stadiums where the atmosphere is nowhere near as electric, as it tends to be when those two sides meet in Tallaght or Dalymount.

daniel-mandroiu Bohs' Daniel Mandroiu. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Kevin Brannigan

1. Who will win the league?

It was 2012 when Dundalk last finished outside of the top two, that year they remained in the top flight by the skin of their teeth and the future they were set to embark on would have seemed unimaginable. In 2020, Dundalk will win the league.

2. Who will be relegated?

League places, outside of the assuredness of Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers coming home in first and second, respect no known universal laws. Last season saw Cork City flirt with the drop before surviving and collectively agreeing to never again talk about their annus horribilis.

On their last visit to the Premier Division, Shelbourne didn’t stick around for long, but this time around, their battle-hardened fans and team should have more than enough with Ian Morris looking like an assured young manager.

Which leads us to Finn Harps. Extraordinarily long away trips coupled with an even more extraordinarily tight budget makes the club’s achievement of staying up in 2019 worthy of more than one standing ovation. A new season brings with it the same struggle, but does it bring the same fight?

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Which First Division?

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2020.

Jack Byrne’s stature increased with every game throughout 2019, coming to the boil during Rovers’ European run. He is high profile, enjoying life and with youth on his side the fact he will once again be lining out for Rovers is a blessing not just for those who make the bi-weekly trek to Tallaght, but also those football fans who spend a substantial amount of their week arguing with League of Ireland sceptics.

It’s hard not to see the Young Player of the Year award go to a player operating outside of Dublin 7, with young Bohemians making up seven of the 23 players earmarked by The42 as ones to watch this season. Standing head and shoulders above all is Ballymun native Daniel Mandriou. His early-season goal against UCD signalled to Bohs fans that they were in for a special season. But it was his performance and wonder goal in the televised June Dublin Derby that announced Danny to the outside world. A member of Stephen Kenny’s much-loved U21 side, he can’t be long destined for this world. So enjoy him while you can.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

Can Keith Long and Trevor Croly again over-achieve and finish just below the big two? The question is probably better phrased if not them, then who? Below the top-two spots though everything is in flux and an exhaustive opening fixture list usually answers most questions by the time summer football can properly call itself summer football.

The big surprise package could come in the form of the FAI itself. A borderline hate/hate relationship has existed between the governing organisation and fans of the league for too long, but now with the winds of change sweeping through the corridors of power at Abbotstown, this could be the dawning of a new era. Could be.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

Football. The league is bursting with young exciting talent raised on playing Fifa and watching Spain and Pep Guardiola’s teams dominate the narrative on how football should be played. These players do not want to launch it long, instead their aim is to go viral with long-range belters and turning defenders inside out.

The league is exciting to watch, and with crowds on an upward trend, the public are voting with their feet. Social media has meant clubs have been able to reach out to fans who might never have darkened the door of a League of Ireland ground. The old negative stereotypes of Irish football, sneerily fostered by naysayers, and which seeped into popular consumption through Roddy Doyle novels and Eamon Dunphy columns, are fading from view.

stephen-odonnell St Pat's boss Stephen O'Donnell. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Ciarán Kennedy

1. Who will win the league?

Dundalk. Shamrock Rovers will push them close, but are probably still a few signings away. Experience will win out in the end.

2. Who will be relegated?

Finn Harps. I’d fear it could get ugly.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Drogheda United.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2020.

A Shamrock Rovers double. Jack Byrne for the top award, if he’s not tempted away before the end of the season. Neil Farrugia for young player.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

Shelbourne have the potential to aim for more than just a relegation battle, while if St Patrick’s Athletic can finally find some consistency, they have players who can produce some really nice attacking football.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

The atmosphere. It’s been great to see the renewed sense of enthusiasm around the league over the last few years. Hopefully the big crowds that turn up for the first couple of weeks continue to do so throughout the season.

ollie-horgan-dejected-after-the-game Finn Harps manager Ollie Horgan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Ben Blake

1. Who will win the league?

Vinny Perth stepped out of Stephen Kenny’s shadow last year to lead Dundalk to their fifth Premier Division title in six attempts, and the Lilywhites appear to have recruited well again in the off-season, while keeping the bulk of their key players.

That said, Shamrock Rovers will have taken enormous confidence from winning the FAI Cup for the first time since 1987 — defeating their title rivals after a penalty shootout at the Aviva Stadium — and the belief will be there that the Hoops can end a nine-year drought going back to the Michael O’Neill era.

Rovers still haven’t been able to sign the prolific goalscorer they were crying out for at times last year, but if Stephen Bradley can hold onto his big names for the full campaign, they might just be able to go one better this time around.

2. Who will be relegated?

Very difficult to call. Ollie Horgan works wonders with limited resources every year and Finn Harps have signed some experienced players such as Barry McNamee, David Webster and Ryan Connolly, but they are likely to be down there again this year.

It will be interesting to see how Cork City and Waterford fare given the considerable turnover in playing staff at both clubs, while Sligo Rovers could well find themselves near the drop zone as well.

3. Who will get promoted from the First Division?

Drogheda United will be favourites to go up after missing out on a return last season in heartbreaking fashion — extra-time defeat in their promotion/relegation play-off with Finn Harps.

4. Name the PFAI Player and Young Player of the Year for 2020.

Dundalk’s Mr Reliable Chris Shields and (if he’s given enough game time) Shamrock Rovers schemer Brandon Kavanagh.

5. Who will be the surprise package this season?

Shelbourne are back in the big time. It’s only Ian Morris’ second season in management, but they have plenty of Premier Division experience throughout their squad and may trouble clubs at Tolka Park this term.

6. What are you most looking forward to?

The smell of curry chips on a Friday night.

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