It has been an off-season and upheaval in the Airtricity League. Managers and players have upped sticks, sometimes placing those sticks somewhere else in the league and in other cases moving further afield. With all the departures, arrivals and general merry-go-rounding it’s going to be a fascinating season, but the main question is ‘can anyone stop Shamrock Rovers making it three in a row?’
Last season was a remarkable one for Rovers in any era, but coming so soon after the club teetered on the brink of oblivion it was truly remarkable. The dream of a place in the group stages of the Champions League came tantalisingly close, but in the end the Europa League had to suffice. That campaign ended with no points, but given the quality of the opposition, they were far from humiliated courtesy of some hard-working performances.
As tends to happen however, the prolonged period in the shop window has alerted a lot of clubs and Rovers have had to let go of some of their star performers. With Michael O’Neill now looking after Northern Ireland, Stephen Kenny is in charge of the rebuilding and that rebuilding starts right at the back. Richard Brush hasn’t been lost to a career in the undertaking business just yet as was reported in recent months, but he has moved on to Sligo Rovers, which is not intended as a commentary on life in Yeats country. Likewise, they won’t have the services of the excellent Ryan Thompson after he was released. Enda Stevens and Karl Sheppard have been tempted over to England, but they have moved quickly to fill the gaps. They shouldn’t be dramatically weaker than the team that enjoyed a brilliant 2011, but there may be enough blips to give the chasing pack hope.
Sligo Rovers have every right to think they can emerge from that pack and win the league, but the departure of Paul Cook has complicated matters. Cook had brought a brand of free-flowing yet effective football to the Showgrounds and he leaves an intimidating pair of shoes to fill. In terms of playing personnel, they’ve done pretty well for themselves, but they still haven’t announced the man entrusted with knitting it all together and that brings a certain amount of doubt about exactly what they can achieve this term.
Outside last year’s top two, there are a lot of clubs who will fancy their chances of making an impact. Derry lost the fewest amount of games in last season’s league and if they can nudge a few more of their draws into the wins column, they’ll really be in the hunt. They have to contend with the services of the aforementioned Kenny and the stratospheric James McClean, but Rory Patterson has made a strong start to his Candystripes career. The solid foundations should limit the damage of the upheaval and a title challenge is very possible. The HR department at St. Pats was busier than most in the winter months as the revolving door at Richmond Park spun relentlessly. They’ve lost some key players, but they’ve also recruited well and under the guidance of Liam Buckley, rapid progress up the table is a possibility.
Beyond that, you would expect quite a bulky mid-table with only hairlines separating comfort and a relegation battle. None of the newly promoted trio of Cork, Shelbourne and Monaghan need to feel doomed to a quick return from where they came, but equally a strong start would help the sense that they belong in the league. The long process of reconstruction continues at Bohemians and they should be clear of relegation, but stranger things have happened. Dundalk and UCD have talented young squads, but a shaky start will test their resolve and struggle against relegation would be no major surprise. Drogheda and Bray have flirted with the drop at various points in recent seasons and they could easily find themselves in the middle of the scrap.