Following on from last weeks excellent Premier Division special, 10 guests once again join Kieran & Jon in studio to preview the start of the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division. Shane Keegan, Aaron Callaghan, Gareth McCaffery, Kevin McHugh, Stephen Joyce, David O’Sullivan, Conor Keeley, Damien Locke, Daire Doyle & Stephen Henderson all feature. There’s also the usual Premier Division results round-up and plenty of laughs along the way.
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An improved attendance, a first ever League of Ireland victory over Cabinteely, a clean sheet and a Daniel O’Reilly wonder-goal made up the story of the night as Longford Town FC claimed a maiden triumph under new boss Neale Fenn Continue reading →
Having previously gone almost eighteen long months without a home win, Longford Town will be looking for a third consecutive home triumph on the bounce when they host surprise title contenders UCD on Saturday.
Despite being among the youngest squads in the league, Collie O’Neills UCD have proven a number of doubters wrong by climbing to within a point of heavy title favourites and big spenders Waterford FC at the top of the table. With six wins from their opening eleven league matches, UCD have double the amount of W’s on the board compared to a Longford side who also got the cheque book out quite regularly during the off-season, in the hope of an instant return to the top flight.
However, it’s been a slow start for Alan Mathews side, who failed to break down a well organised Cabinteely side at the weekend, a result which saw Longford Town’s wait for consecutive league continue. Incredibly, the tail end of the 2015 season is the last time the Midlands club managed to claim back to back league wins, that is a record that must change immediately if ”De Town” are to show the kind of constancy required to mount a title challenge.
Injuries have played a role in Longford’s inconsistency this season and the news that record goal-scorer David O’Sullivan is to be sidelined for a prolonged spell certainly comes as unwelcome to Town followers. A lack of ruthlessness in front of goals has been Longford’s biggest issue this season, with Enda Curran the latest Town striker to miss an absolute sitter in the recent meeting with ”CABO”, so for O’Sullivan to now be unavailable is a major headache for boss Alan Mathews to contend with. Perhaps the option of deploying strikers turned wingers Cody Mulhall and Don Cowan in a more central position will be a route Mathews decides to go down at some stage, but with Jake Kelly and Dylan McGlade struggling for form it would certainly leave Longford lacking in wide areas.
On the bright side for the Longford coaching staff, the teams defensive shape has certainly come on leaps and bounds in recent weeks with the back four of Mark Langtry, Stephen Walsh, Daniel O’Reilly and Tristan Noack Hofmann (Click hereto read an exclusive interview with the young Town star) now picking itself every week, while Dean Zambra is growing into his role as midfield protector with every passing game.
The only previous meeting between Longford and UCD this season came at the UCD Bowl, where a fine first half showing by the ”Students” blew a lacklustre Longford away. Despite putting in one of their worst performances of the season, Longford could have still left Dublin with a point to their credit as a youthful UCD tired dramatically in the second period and again only for poor finishing ”De Town” could have gone home with a different result. It will be interesting to see if O’Neill’s side are still struggling with their stamina now that we are into the second series of games, as this would certainly be a hindrance to his side in sustaining their early title challenge.
Poor playing surfaces have been a constant talking point throughout the 2017 League of Ireland season, particularly in the First Division but the crucible like surface at City Calling Stadium should see both sides encouraged to get the ball down and play some attractive football.
With a trip to rivals Waterford next on the cards for Longford Town, this game certainly falls into the must win category, with the gap to the ”Blues” already standing at nine-points ahead of this upcoming round of games. With a real injury crisis currently taking place at the RSC, plus the loss of key players who’s loan deals with Swindon Town have now expired, this may be Longford’s only realistic opportunity to catch Waterford FC napping and they will have to take that chance starting Saturday night against UCD!
Prediction: Longford Town 1-0 UCD– With Longford showing a lot more steel at the back in recent weeks the onus will he on their attacking players to find the key to winning this game. Expect a big performance from lone striker Enda Curran who has scored 5 goals in his last two home appearances.
With the liberty of pre-season and friendly matches now out of the way for the majority of LOI clubs, the Between the Stripes team aim to break down Longford Town’s opposition in the battle for the First Division title in 2017. Looking at each team’s pre-season performances, aims, new signings, departures and notable talking points ahead of the new campaign we will also undertake the risky business of predicting the final league table come late September. We start our First Division preview with Longford’s arch rivals.
2016 finish – 8th (Bottom)
Manager – Unknown
Key player – Niall Scullion
Opening fixture – Waterford FC (H)
The fact we are just one week away from the start of the new LOI season and it remains unclear to those outside of the Athlone Town FC committee, or at least what’s left of it, as to who the man in the managers hot-seat will be for 2017 tells you all you need to know about the crazy goings on at the Midlands club. Originally it had been announced that local man and last season’s boss Colin Fortune would take the reins at the crisis club again this season but following rumours of Portuguese investment within the club Fortune’s position is now unclear. Instead a Portuguese coach who is more known in the world of Futsal, Ricaro Monsanto is been touted as Athlone’s potential new leader with absolutely no communication coming from official channels at Athlone Town FC.
So what is known at present? Well, Athlone Town played out a humiliating 6-0 pre-season defeat to Bray Wanderers last week, while the week previous a number of foreign imports lined out for the 2013 First Division winners in a narrow 2-1 away defeat to Galway United. With no info on whom these foreign players may be or if they’ve even signed anything official as of yet the only players we can look at is those announced as signed via the Westmeath Independent newspaper. Those players include Niall Scullion and Ian Dempsey, who return to the club after a spell with St Peters FC while Ethan Keogh and Andy Nevin sign from Roscommon League side Moore United. Val Feeney also makes a surprise return having been with Limerick, while David Brookes, Aidy Byrne, Jason Lyons, Danny Molloy, Joe Moloney, Sean McGrane, Jamie Quinn, Chris Reid and Claudio Silva have all agreed to re-join the squad they were members of last season. Former Galway United man Jason Molloy has also appeared in pre-season for the Town and if signed he looks to be the real key man for this Athlone Town side given his impressive performances for Galway United in the past. Molloy was in fact a member of United’s 2014 promotion winning side, although such heights are unlikely to concern him this season with many on-lookers commenting that a successful season for Athlone Town would be to simply stay alive as a LOI club. What makes such dark comments come about? Fans boycotts, history of unpaid wages and memories of the humiliating episode of been unable to field a team against Waterford last season still fresh, it’s easy to see why such negativity surrounds what is one of Irish footballs most historic clubs.
With many predicting a cricket score for joint title favorites Waterford United in the divisions opening fixture, this really could be an even worst season than last for Athlone who finished behind Irish footballs baby boys Cabinteely at the foot of the eight-team league last season. Sadly for followers of the men in Black and Blue stripes were are predicting another wooden spoon for the Lisywoolen outfit this season.
PREDICTION: 8TH PLACE (BOTTOM)
2016 finish – 3rd (Lost to Drogheda in FD play-offs)
Manager – Stephen Henderson
Key player – Paul Hunt
Opening fixture – Wexford FC (H)
2016 was a marvellous year for Cobh Ramblers as the County Cork side reached the First Division play-offs for the first time since re-joining the LOI back in 2013. Former Waterford United “gaffer” Stephen Henderson set a three-year plan in motion upon taking the “Rams” job in March 2015 and reaching the play-offs in such fashion last season will have surpassed all expectations at St.Colman’s Park. However, that success could prove to be a hindrance to Henderson this season with a new found pressure on his side to match such feats. However, with the change in league structure meaning Cobh would have to win this division to be promoted due to the fact there will be no end of season play-offs in 2017, that pressure has pretty much been alleviated to the disgust of Henderson who has publically slammed the FAI’s tinkering with the league. In fact, Henderson feels so strongly about these changes that the Ramblers boss has come out and stated his club still being in business come next season will be a successful 2017 for the club. Comments such as this really do show the error in the FAI’s thinking behind the change to two ten-team divisions but for now teams such as Cobh will just have to do the best they can to compete at a reasonable level in 2017.
Thankfully Cobh should be well able to compete in the top half of the division this forthcoming season even if that does mean a lower finish than last term. Financially the club appear to have been prudent in the off-season given the financial loss of having no money spinning play-offs to aim for meaning a lack of transfer activity at the Island club. However, for the most part the “Rams” have been able to retain the services of most of last season’s successful squad, meaning there should be an air of familiarity around the training ground and on the pitch. A strong defensive shape was bedrock to Cobh’s story last season and they will need a similar steely shape if they are to achieve anything of note this season in a division likely to be full of goals. In Paul Hunt they have a ‘keeper who was in inspiring form upon his arrival from Longford last season, keeping eleven clean sheets in his debut season. Hunt not only claimed a First Division winner’s medal in his time with Longford but also stole the clubs record for most consecutive clean sheets in a league campaign. The English-born number one will be a key factor is how Ramblers season plays out in 2017.
Coming up against somewhat of an unknown quantity in the newly named Wexford FC in the opening league game of 2017, that stability discussed above may prove to be a huge asset to Stephen Henderson and co not only in the opening game but throughout the season with a real sense of pride back at a club which had to step away from LOI football not so long ago. Another good season ahead for the “Rams”.
PREDICTION – 4th
2016 finish – 7th
Manager – Pat Devlin
Key player – Kieran “Marty” Waters
Opening fixture – UCD (H)
There’s never a dull moment with the LOI’s infant club at this time of the year as Cabinteely enter their third season in the first division. 2015 saw “Cabo” burst onto the scene with a 1-0 opening day win at home to eventual champions Wexford Youths in front of a bumper crowd, while this off-season big name signings have grabbed the Dublin club headlines. Chasing down the LOI’s all-time goal scoring record, the legendary Jason Byrne has once again linked up with the experienced Pat Devlin in the hope of gaining that illustrious honour. Elsewhere, former Shamrock Rovers wizard Kieran “Marty” Waters has also agreed to join last season’s second bottom placed club having also previously worked with “Devo” at Bray Wanderers. Two other notable arrivals at Stradbrook are that of Corey Galvin from Waterford United and Daire Doyle from Shelbourne respectively. Having captained the “Reds” last season, Doyle like Byrne brings a lot of experience to an otherwise young squad.
For the first time since joining the league, Cabinteely have begun paying for the services of such players and with the mix of youth and experience under the guidance of Pat Devlin there appears to be a real desire to kick the “Cabo” project on. Having gotten off the foot of the division last season, promising young players such as Aaron Brilly and Joe Doyle should be well able to push their game on another level also so don’t be surprised to see these two names in particular pop up with one or two potential surprises this season.
An opening day Dublin derby at home to UCD offers the perfect test as to whether “Cabo” are still in ‘development mode’ or if this group of players carry a winning mind-set not previously seen in the clubs debut seasons. Should a good start come Cabinteely’s way don’t be surprised should they challenge at the dizzy heights of mid-table, although with Waterford, Longford and Cobh all on the cards in the close weeks following UCD that maybe easier said than done.
PREDICTION – 6th
LONGFORD TOWN FC
2016 finish – 12th (Relegated bottom of Premier Division)
Manager – Alan Mathews
Key player – Stephen Walsh
Opening fixture – Shelbourne (A)
What a difference a year makes. This time last year Town fans were scratching their heads at some of the transfer dealings by then boss Tony Cousins as the likes of Stephen Rice and Mark Salmon were disgracefully shown the door by the club they had served so well for a number of seasons, particular Salmon who was nearing a decade in the Midlands and captained the side for most of that, including the 2014 league winning season. Those shocking decisions by the unpopular Cousins were confounded by the lack of quality replacements and in truth it was no surprise to see “De Town” relegated at the end of 2016. What did surprise many though was the lack of fight or character shown as the team only won twice in the top flight all season. Fast forward to the present day and the clubs most successful ever manager Alan Mathews is back and he has brought in some real quality during the winter months. Jack Brady, Aidan Friel, Stephen Walsh, Daniel O’Reilly, Dylan McGlade, Dean Zambra, Gavin Boyne, Jake Kelly, Enda Curran, Ian Fletcher and Shane Fagan make up the army of new troops ready to join the promotion fight at the City Calling Stadium for 2017. The arrival of these new faces, coupled with a clear out of 2016’s dead-wood and the re-signing of experienced pro’s from the 2014 title winning season has left the Town faithful buzzing for the campaign ahead and wins over Premier Division outfits Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps have only added to the excitement. However, recent back to back to back defeats against Bohemians, Dundalk and St.Patrick’s Athletic have brought anyone getting ahead of themselves back down towards earth with the realisation that this season will be no cake-walk for star-studded Longford.
An opening round fixture at the atmospheric yet soon to be demolished Tolka Park will have Town fans restless come Thursday night in a match-up both sides will be eager to lay down early authority for the season ahead. It was of course Longford and “Shels” who battled it out for the 2014 trophy but the bookies make the new look Waterford outfit favourites to challenge Mathews men for that crown.
While David O’Sullivan and Enda Curran have failed to reach top goalscoring form in pre-season, nor should they be expected to at this stage of the year, goals should not be an issue for this Town side. O’Sullivan terrorised First Division defenders over the course of 2013 and 2014, scoring an incredible fifty-plus goals in that time while Enda Curran fired Athlone to the title in 2013 at Longford’s expense. Elsewhere in the squad Cody Mulhall looks to have the touch off the bench while Dylan McGlade and Jake Kelly will fancy their chances of reaching double figures from the wide areas.
This much is clear; this season’s First Division will be awash with goals given the gulf in quality between the top sides such as the three sides mentioned and the clubs fighting to avoid a wooden-spoon finish ie Athlone Town. This could lead to some cricket scores in the league and as a result it will be far more important for the top sides to have water-tight defences, especially in the big games. In Stephen Walsh and Noel Haverty, “De Town” look to have two rock-solid centre backs while new ‘keeper Jack Brady has amazed supporters with his performances in pre-season. With Alan Mathews renowned for his ability to organise his teams into a solid unit, Longford should be a lot stronger at the back than they were under previous managers.
While Longford had a slow start to their title winning season of 2014, a quick start to this campaign looks to be imperative given the quality of predicted title rivals Shelbourne and Waterford FC among others. Off the back of that mouth-watering opening tie at Tolka Park “De Town” will host Stephen Henderson’s Cobh prior to a winnable looking series of matches against Athlone Town (A), Cabinteely (H) and UCD (A) before the first big showdown of the year with free-spending Waterford at the City Calling Stadium.
PREDICTION: CHAMPIONS (1ST).
2016 finish – 5th
Manager – Pat Fenlon (D.O.F.)/Alan Reynolds (Head coach)
Key player –Mark O’Sullivan
Opening fixture – Athlone Town (A)
Just like Longford Town, what a difference a year makes in football. 2016 was one of the darkest years in the history of a proud football club, then named Waterford United FC, as the “Blues” stumbled from crisis point to crisis point. In fact, following the failure of Athlone Town to field a team for a league game at the RSC around the half-way point of last season, many feared both famous old clubs may not be around by the time everyone had finished celebrating Robbie Brady’s goal in Lille. Thankfully it’s all change at the South-East club for 2017 with a new name, new logo, new management team and most importantly a star studded squad fully expecting to win the title this season!
While the likes of Longford and “Shels” may have something else to say about that, the acquisitions of big names like Mark O’Sullivan, Kenny Browne, Patrick McClean and former Tottenham Hotspur youth Kenny McEvoy have clearly come to the RSC with one intention only and that is to be champions this season!
With over 400 season tickets sold in Waterford over recent weeks it is clear the club once again has the support of the City and that could prove to be crucial in what is expected to be a tight battle for promotion despite the “Blues” strong financial investment over the off-season. The big turnaround in resources at the RSC comes thanks to the arrival of Swindon Town chairman Lee Power, who thanks to the help of FAI CEO John Delaney decided Waterford was the club for him, apparently inspired by Dundalk’s European odyssey to get involved with an Irish club. Power, who is also reportedly looking to take-over a side in Eastern Europe, has family links to County Waterford and the Englishmen has publically stated his desire to not only match Dundalk’s success of recent years but to surpass it and put Waterford football back on the map.
However, for that to happen the “Blues” will have to jump the first hurdle of escaping the dreaded First Division and the chances are good with the bookmakers pricing Fenlon’s men as joint favorites alongside 2014 winners Longford. Despite a raft of illustrious signings it is easy to pick out the key man in this new look Waterford side with powerhouse striker Mark O’Sullivan the key asset for Fenlon and Reynolds. Arriving from Cork City, “Marky” burst onto the scene at Turners Cross in 2014 scoring 13 goals in 33 appearances. 2015 saw the target man register nine times in just over 20 outings and while 2016 saw O’Sullivan less involved he was still a key choice from the bench for John Caulfield, who he also played under previously at local side Avondale. Reportedly O’Sullivan was keen to remain with the “Rebel army” only for the fact full-time football did not suit his new working hours and that allowed Waterford to pull off a major coup. O’Sullivan has already shown his potential to be the division’s top scorer with a staggering five goals from the “Blues” six pre-season games with O’Sullivan not involved in all of those. Headed goals were a regular occurrence during O’Sullivan’s time with City and he’s lived up to that reputation in pre-season with a number of headed goals for his new side. With the creative talents of Davy McDaid, Kenny McEvoy and others playing nearby O’Sullivan there should be no shortage of chances created for the big centre-forward.
Overall in pre-season, Waterford played six times and while only claiming two victories the performances were encouraging, especially in the first-half of their final friendly against Premier Division neighbours Limerick on Friday. O’Sullivan’s first-half goal had given the “Blues” an interval lead but three unanswered strikes in the second period gave Martin Russell’s men a Munster derby win at the Market Fields. The opening games of pre-season were perhaps the most impressive for Fenlon and co. with a 4-0 win over local side Tramore backed up with a scoreless draw at home to many people’s favourites for the top-flight crown this season, Cork City. That derby game was marred by a controversial tackle on City striker Seani Maguire by new Waterford defender Patrick McClean, as a social media slagging match soon ensued involving none other than Patrick’s brother James McClean. Clearly sharing the fiery attributes of his Premier League brother, don’t be surprised to see Patrick McClean caught up in similar events throughout the course of the season thanks to his tough tackling and passionate approach to the game. Longford fans will remember McClean’s wonder goal for Derry at the City Calling Stadium last season in a 1-1 draw against Kenny Shiels side.
If the bookmakers are to be believed, and they often are, how do Waterford match up with their main title rivals Longford Town? Ironically the sides enjoyed almost identical pre-season campaigns with two wins out of six each, while both teams conceded ten goals in the process. Many pundits are tipping the First Division to contain some high-scoring games this season and in that area Waterford out performed their rivals. The “Blues” bagged themselves eight goals in pre-season, Mark O’Sullivan of course scoring more than half of those, while Longford could only manage five. Worryingly for the Midlands club, their three strikers only managed two goals between them so it easy to see why Mark O’Sullivan has been marked up as 3/1 favourite to lead the scoring charts in 2017, with Longford’s all-time goalscorer David O’Sullivan following him in second place on the bookies charts. In discussions with other supporters online, Waterford fans have admitted their concern over the goalkeeping position at the RSC this season, while Town fans seem more than happy with their young shotstopper Jack Brady for the year ahead. A strong defence may be the winning of this division and when you look at the respective back four’s man for man you’d have to say it’s much of a muchness. Waterford lined out with a trialist at right-full on Friday night, which may suggest the management team are still not fully convinced ahead of the new campaign, while Alan Mathews back-four looks set in stone bar injury. Both centre-back pairings look strong, although both have different weaknesses with Longford likely to give the odd goal away as they look to play it out from the back, while Dave Mulchahy and the aforementioned McClean may be caught for pace against the divisions pacier forwards. It is the midfield area where Waterford perhaps hold the upper hand. Again, while Waterford lined out with a trialist in one of the two holding positions, it is the attacking trio of McEvoy, O’Halloran and Estonian international Sandir Puri that will tear opposition defences to shreads in 2017. Pace, skill and creativity, throw O’Sullivan and the technically strong McDaid into this mix and this Waterford attack looks to be extremely flexible. With opposition defences likely to sit deep and look to frustrate the “Blues”, this flexibility should allow Waterford to play a more direct game if needed with both McDaid and O’Sullivan thriving under the long ball. One area that does stand out in Longford’s favour however, is the substitutes bench with a variety of options in every position for Town. With the first big head to head meeting between the sides coming early on in the year, that April 1st meeting will be no laughing matter and may go a long way to stealing a march on divisional rivals.
In conclusion it really does look to be a toss of a coin in almost all aspects regarding the predicted title race between Longford and the “Blues” with a good start/slow perhaps the only thing that could truly define each clubs title aspirations. Waterford should rack up a morale boosting win over a weak looking Athlone Town side on the opening day and with Longford facing an extremely difficult tie in Tolka Park, the “Blues” will be aiming to go on a run when they follow that up with games against unfancied Cabinteely and UCD respectively. An interesting early test of their own at Tolka Park opens up endless possibilities for both the “Reds” and the “Blues” who then have a first South-East derby against fellow newly named club Wexford FC prior to that mega-match up at the City Calling Stadium.
PREDICTION: RUNNERS-UP (2nd).
2016 finish – 11th in Premier Division (Lost play-off final to Drogheda United)
Manager – Damien Locke
Key player – Lee Duffy
Opening fixture – Cobh Ramblers (A)
Keeping with the theme of change, we come across another newly named club in Wexford FC. Formerly the Wexford Youths, a bitterly unlucky relegation via one of the most dramatic play-offs of recent years saw Shane Keegan’s men bow out in their maiden top-flight season. Controversy regarding the leaking of Keegan’s imminent departure to Galway United just hours before the second-leg of their play-off tie with Drogheda United, which they went into with a 2-0 lead from the first-leg, coupled with the unavailability of GAA all-star Lee Chin only added to the drama as the “Drogs” completed one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in play-off history. That disappointment is still felt in the South-East, where supporters feel a golden opportunity to continue to build the relatively new club (only founded in 2007) was missed out on, so couple that with the demise of the “Youths” banner in recent weeks and optimism is not high around Ferrycarrig Park at present.
While the announcement of former assistant Damien Locke as manager has gone down well locally, Wexford FC will be somewhat of an unknown quantity until results start to flow in from the first few rounds of league games. An opening pre-season fixture which resulted in a 1-0 defeat at home to Shamrock Rovers encouraged many, while a narrow 2-1 defeat against none other than Drogheda did likewise despite the flashbacks of that night in United Park that it naturally brought. However, Friday night’s 4-2 defeat in the Leinster Senior Cup against First Division rivals Shelbourne will have set alarm bells ringing as James English bagged a hat-trick with the “Reds” cruising at 4-0 up after just 49 minutes. Two late conciliation penalties restored some pride on the scoreboard at least for Wexford but Locke will be keen to see his side tighten up at the back ahead of the trip to fancied Cobh on Friday.
In terms of signings, Wexford FC have managed to bring in nine new additions and some of those names will excite the Ferrycarrig faithful. Lee Duffy left Longford Town half-way through last season due to injury issues and while stories of poor temperament may concern his new club, his quality is undoubted having previously led the line with great distinction for Drogheda in the top-flight. Duffy scored a goal of the month contender in the FAI Cup away to Wexford’s local rivals Waterford for LTFC last season and his new supporters will be keen to see the pacey striker pull of similar heroics for Wexford FC this season. Elsewhere, winger Adam Hanlon should create chances from wide areas thanks to his crossing and dead-ball ability, while John McKeown could be an inspired bit of business having been unfairly tossed aside by the unpopular Tony Cousins at Longford last season. Former Waterford man Thomas Croke offers good pace from deep, while Mark Slatter, Craig Wall, Liam Donnelly, Sean Hurley and Ross Kenny all bring their own attributes to their new club. While this new batch of talent at the club should spell a successful season, like any piece of transfer business it is always difficult to predict how players will settle, while the likes of McKeown are still extremely young making things even more unpredictable. The number of new bodies at the club also means gelling time may be required and having only played together three times in pre-season preparation has been far from ideal, not to mention all the off-field issues surrounding the change in identity. Far from ideal especially off the back of a relegation, the loss of almost a quarter of the squad mid-season in 2016 as key-players jetted off for a new life in New Zeland, while there was also supporters unrest over banning orders handed out to young fans last season, following a pyro incident at Turners Cross.
Whether Wexford can ever reach the heights of 2015 again, a year in which their now departed striker Danny Furlong fired in almost 30 goals to shoot the “Youths” to the title and national recognition remains to be seen. A difficult opening fixture away to Cobh will test out Wexford’s steel, something they were always regarded for under the hard-working Keegan, yet should Damien Locke’s men come out of that one unscathed, winnable fixtures at least on paper at home to Athlone Town and away to Cabinteely, a side who famously defeated Wexford on the opening day of that 2015 season, could help settle any early nerves at the newly named club.
2016 finish – 4th
Manager – Collie O’Neill
Key player – Cian Kavanagh
Opening fixture – Cabinteely (A)
2016 was a successful one for Collie O’Neill’s men, who despite missing out on a play-off position by just two points, showed plenty of promise and the ability to get back to the highs of years gone by. Martin Russell’s UCD were a mainstay in the top-flight of Irish football from 2010 to 2014 and despite relegation, 2015 saw the “Students” compete in Europe to get acclaim as the Dublin side progressed one round after qualifying through UEFA’s fair play system. Ryan Swann stared in that European run and sadly the College will have to do without the pacey striker for 2017 as he is poised to sign for English League 2 side Exeter City. Going with an all college based team this season, Collie O’Neill has stated he does not expect to challenge for promotion this season but does see the youngest team in the division causing a number of big upsets along the way as he looks to develop them technically with long-term success in mind.
In Cian Kavanagh the “Students” have acquired a player of great promise with the former Shamrock Rovers highly thought of during his spell in Tallaght. Also arriving from Rovers is defender Evan Osam, who should fit in nicely with UCD’s passing style of play.
As ever UCD’s pre-season planning has been disrupted by the college/universities football season, resulting in just three friendly outings for O’Neill’s side. A 4-1 defeat to Rovers and 3-0 loss to Derry were probably to be expected but Friday night’s 2-0 Leinster Senior Cup win over Drogheda United will have delighted UCD’s followers even if the County Louth side opted to field a weakened side. Kavanagh got on the scoresheet on Friday and he will be looking at this week’s opening league fixture away to Cabinteely as a chance to get his name back in the spotlight with many of this UCD squad surely looking to follow in the footsteps of Ronan Finn, Robbie Benson, Ciaran Kilduff, David McMillan, Paul Corry and the countless other stars to come through the clubs renowned development system.
2016 finish – 6th
Manager – Owen Heary
Key player – James English
Opening fixture – Longford Town (H)
Amazingly, the bookmakers price “Shels” as high as 40/1 to win the First Division this season. Taking last year’s disastrous campaign into account and all the fans unrest regarding the upcoming move to Dalymount Park and unflattering comments from the clubs chairman regarding said fans, it is easy to see why on-lookers would be pessimistic about Shelbourne’s chances. However, some solid squad building by legendary player Owen Heary should see the “Reds” represent the famous old Dublin club a lot more respectably than the crop of 2016.
The return of legendary goalkeeper Dean Delaney matched with the captures of Robert Bayly, James O’Brien, Aaron Ashe, Alan Byrne, Jason Caffery, Dylan Kavanagh, Niall Lanigan, Chris Lyons, Derek Pendergast and Jackson Ryan give this Shelbourne squad a much more serious look. In particular the arrival of Delaney, Baylt, Byrne and Pendergast give Heary some much needed experience within a dressing room lacking experience very much so last season.
Enjoying a perfect pre-season campaign with four wins from four, including three triumphs over Premier Division sides, Owen Heary’s men look set to ridicule those ridiculously large odds set by the bookies. Wins over Dublin rivals Bohemians and St.Pat’s will have been particularly pleasing to followers of the “Reds”, while Delaney proved his worth with a penalty save in the 1-0 friendly win away to Derry City last week. Friday’s 4-2 Leinster Senior Cup victory over First Division rivals was not only extremely impressive given it had competitive importance but the overall performance and the manner of the victory has grabbed the attention of the likes of Waterford and Longford, who Shelbourne will play on the opening day of the season at Tolka Park.
James English bagged a hat-trick in the win over Wexford, while Adam Evans grabbed a couple of goals from midfield throughout pre-season meaning Owen Heary has plenty of attacking options for the year ahead. Keeping clean sheets in two of those four pre-season games will have been equally as pleasing for former defender Heary and his Shelbourne side are sure to be a lot tighter at the back than last term where they conceded 40 times.
Protection in front of the back-four is set to be stepped up big time this season with Robert Bayly, Alan Byrne and James O’Brien giving the “Reds” one of the grittiest looking midfields in the league. Whether “Shels” have the strength in depth to truly match the likes of Longford and Waterford in a title race looks unlikely, although the twelve-time champions of Ireland have a golden opportunity to lay-down an early marker with victory over Alan Mathews Longford on opening night. The reception for former boss Mathews is sure to be toxic with many “Reds” fans still bitterly angry over the teams relegation in 2013, with Mathews resigning after thirteen-games and the club stuck to the foot of the table. That harrowing experience has sadly overshadowed and almost totally erased the memory of Mathews guiding the Drumcondra club to promotion and an FAI Cup final in 2011 but the Longford boss will be equally determined to get one over his former club on the night.
The importance of a strong start has been talked about a lot in this preview and with “Shels” the most unfancied of the title contenders it is if paramount importance for them. However, with Longford, Cobh Ramblers and Waterford United all on the cards within the opening four games of the season, a slow start may just open up the door for a surprise package to challenge this season. With every team playing against each other four-times in the First Division, the chance to bounce back after a weak start is always there and Shelbourne will know that better than anyone having blown a twelve-point lead over eventual Champions Longford in 2014, so Shelbourne fans should not despair should things not go their way in the opening month of the campaign. The second month of the campaign will offer Heary’s men a real chance to either build on a good start or make up lost ground with ties against Athlone Town, Wexford FC and fellow Dublin club Cabinteely before what looks to be a real make or break tie away to Longford on April 15th.
Owen Heary’s focus on strong defensive capabilities and efficiency in front of goal should see the “Reds” avoid some of the big scorelines many are predicting in this division, although should things be as tight as goal difference coming into play towards the end of September, Shelbourne may just find their lack of transfer power leaving them just short in the final standings.
FINAL FIRST DIVISION PREDICTIONS
LONGFORD TOWN FC
TOP SCORER PREDICTION – MARK O’SULLIVAN (WATERFORD FC)
PLAYER OF THE YEAR PREDICTION – JACK BRADY (LONGFORD TOWN) – The young goalkeeper could prove to be the difference in the big games for Longford this season, a special talent.
SURPRISE PACKAGE OF THE YEAR – CIAN KAVANAGH (UCD) – Kavanagh has the ability to be a real force for the “Students” this year and perhaps follow in the footsteps of former UCD stars Robbie Benson and Ronan Finn among others.