With the summer wrapping up, Seán O’Neill brings you up to date on what you may have missed on the domestic scene so far.
The September breeze signals that the finishing line is in sight. It’s been a long and arduous summer in the Premier Division of Irish football, but finally the most crucial phase of the season is upon us. Now that the pretenders have been separated from the contenders, it is time for titles to be won or lost and relegation battles decided.
To say it has been an eventful season so far would be an understatement. The summer league format has paid off, with the league taking centre stage as the English Premier League enters its off-season. Given that the Airtricity League simply cannot compete with the English top-flight, the inception of the summer league has really been quite a clever change.
That being said, those who shine in Irish football are still receiving major support. After the success of Shamrock Rovers last season, particularly in the Europa League, there is much hope of further success for Irish clubs in the foreseeable future.
Rovers have laid the foundations to lead this charge due to their vast fan base and modern facilities. Despite the hope of Irish teams adding to the success of last year, Rovers, St. Pat’s and Bohemians all made early exits from European competition this summer.
Regardless of the lack of success on the European front, the popularity of the league is on the rise. Attendances at games have risen and the media have followed suit with comprehensive coverage of every game, with the weekly MNS highlights showing a prime example of this.
Unfortunately, we’ve also seen the delicate nature of the league’s finances this season, with Galway United retiring from competition before the season began in March along with Monaghan United adding another blow to the league’s reputation by withdrawing midway through the new season, on June 18th.
Sligo Rovers’ six point lead at the top looks increasingly unassailable and is amplified by the fact they have a game in hand over Drogheda, who are in second place. Rovers’ aspirations of league glory were laid out with cup wins in the last two seasons and it is evident what their next aim is.
Immense quality can be seen within the squad of the Connacht challengers, with defensive steel provided by Gavin Peers and Jason McGuinness, creativity from Danny Ventre and Joseph Ndo in the middle, along with top scorer Danny North, who has 15 goals to date.
The joker in the pack has come from the North-East, with the resurgence of Drogheda United. The Boyne-siders have surpassed all expectations and lie comfortably in second place and with aspirations of a place in Europe next season. This is remarkable considering the Drogs finished ninth out of ten teams in 2011.
If Drogheda’s form has been unexpected, so has the dip in form of last year’s champions, Shamrock Rovers. The Tallaght men have experienced a hangover from last season, which saw them both win the title and depart on a long adventure in Europe, which included trips to Russia, Athens and White Hart Lane.
Rovers will certainly be aiming to consolidate at least a top-three finish that ensures European football next season. Their current fourth position does not reflect the quality within the squad, with players such as league top scorer Gary Twigg. This quality gives reason to believe they might mount a late surge for first place, although Sligo look increasingly unlikely to relinquish top spot.
Just behind Rovers, we find Derry, Bohemians, Cork City and Shelbourne are enjoying the security of mid-table mediocrity. Finally, as we trudge further down the pecking order, we find UCD involved in an unwanted relegation battle with Bray Wanderers and financially troubled Dundalk.
Bray hope their experienced squad can lift them away from the students and give themselves some breathing space from their relegation rivals. Despite the loss of Irish Under 21 midfielder Paul Corry, who joined Sheffield for an undisclosed fee at the end of the transfer window, the UCD boys stand a fighting chance of survival. A likely scenario for the remainder of the season is a one-on-one battle for survival between themselves and their Dundalk counterparts.
A recent 2-1 victory for the Belfield boys over the Louth team has only served to solidify the notion that the spirit of the youthful UCD squad will outshine the men from Oriel Park, who are bidding to justify their very existence with the shadow of impending financial ruin hanging heavy on the players’ shoulders. Unpaid wages have left the morale of the Dundalk dressing room extremely low.
With many of the top teams in the league boasting former UCD players, such as Pat Sullivan and Ciaran Kilduff at Shamrock Rovers, it shows the quality of player that the club has produced due to the time and effort exerted by all involved at the Belfield Bowl. If top-flight status can be secured for 2013, more Sullivans, Kilduffs and Corrys will undoubtedly be produced.