The League of Ireland Premier Division kicks off on Friday with two Dublin derbies.
A sold-out tie between First Division champions Shelbourne and FAI Cup winners St Patrick’s Athletic at Tolka Park and the visit of promoted UCD to champions Shamrock Rovers will kick the league off with a bang.
Bohemians travel to Sligo Rovers on Saturday, while the return of Ruaidhrí Higgins and Derry City to Dundalk and Finn Harps hosting Drogheda United make for an exciting day one.
But how do we think the division will play out?
1 Shamrock Rovers
The Hoops should run away with the Premier Division with a fair amount of ease. The most settled squad in the league – just two in and three out – augmented by the return of Jack Byrne will have too much for the rest. Watch out for Aidomo Emakhu, who will have a big season.
2 St Patrick’s Athletic
The Saints were very impressive in the President’s Cup in Tallaght and probably should have had the game done and dusted by the hour, but they paid the price for not taking their chances. Tim Clancy has recruited very well and he’s a serious operator but it will be one season too soon for them
3 Derry City
Ruaidhrí Higgins has been given big backing by Philip Doherty to bring the Candystripes back to the top of Irish football, but it’s a long-term project and Higgins’ signings, a mixture of youth and experienced Derry natives, reflects that. They’ll have a serious tilt at the cup.
4 Drogheda United
All change at Drogheda United as a big chunk of their 2021 squad have left as well as manager Clancy, but Kevin Doherty knows the club well, having been Clancy’s assistant for four years, and Daire Doyle is an excellent appointment as number two. Ryan Brennan has been Shelbourne’s best player for three years, Dane Massey is a Rolls Royce and the likes of Darragh Markey and Dayle Rooney will provide flair and creativity.
Bohemians will be OK because Bohemians are always OK, and in Keith Long and Trevor Croly they have a great managerial duo who will always improve players. Despite losing five of the side that started the FAI Cup final defeat to Pats, they’ve retained a strong spine to the team and have added real depth with Kris Twardek and Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe, and look for Promise Omochere to have his breakout season at senior level up front.
6 Sligo Rovers
Not many teams could cope with the loss of two key players like Johnny Kenny up front and John Mahon at the back, to Celtic and St Johnstone respectively, but, like Bohs, Sligo always find a way to compete. Karl O’Sullivan and Will Fitzgerald coming in will offer them a wide threat they’ve lacked recently but, perhaps just as importantly, O’Sullivan’s signing will weaken Finn Harps.
There’s a lot of expectation around Shels this season as they return to the top level and have a box office manager in Damien Duff, but the heads at Tolka Park will be far more realistic. If they’re comfortable going into the final ten games, Shels will be happy, and with underrated players like Aodh Dervin and Mark Coyle they will get the results they need.
8 Finn Harps
As much as my instinct tells to go full Ollie Horgan and predict Harps will be up against it, I think the best talent scout in Irish football will make sure they’re OK. As usual, Ollie has scoured Europe and come up with some signings we don’t know about – not-the-DJ Erol Alkan and Filip Mihaijlovic are players we’ll just have to wait and see about – but the most important signings are retaining the Ramelton Ronaldinho, Barry McNamee, and Dave Webster.
It’s a testament to just how close the league was last year that Dundalk were as close to a relegation play-off as European football last year, and it would be a surprise if there was a bigger gap in 2022. Stephen O’Donnell walked away from a promising situation at St Patrick’s Athletic and he may well discover what a tough job it is to get Dundalk back to where they should be at the top table.
UCD will get relegated. They’ve brought in some exciting talent in Alex Dunne and Dylan Duffy from Shamrock Rovers but Andy Myler is up against it, especially if Collie Whelan and Liam Kerrigan are sold in the summer, which is the most likely outcome.