Youthful exuberance drives the League of Ireland

‘Horrific’ facilities can’t dampen cloud burst of entertainment on offer in coming season

Despite the SSE Airtricity League’s geographically lob-sided shape this season – with no Premier Division clubs south of the midlands – a cloud burst of entertainment visits the old haunts such as Tolka, Dalymount, Tallaght, Oriel, The Showgrounds and Finn Park swing doors wide open for an Irish soccer public who are finally embracing the domestic game.

The numbers are encouraging with 15,000 season tickets already sold across ten clubs. Future Ticketing are predicting 600,000 fans will sample the facilities Shelbourne manager Damien Duff has described as "horrific" when compared to the GAA. One-hundred caps aside, Duff's laceration of Irish football's stagnation could provide a lasting legacy for the league.

But the gift of the gab is not the only trait he intends to bring to the newly promoted Drumcondra outfit.

“I’m not delusional,” said Duff this week. “Of course I dream of being in a cup final but strip it all back, let’s stay up.”

There's more to this campaign than the prodigal Duffer. Whether it's related to a mini-revival of the national team under Stephen Kenny, and his life-long ties to the League of Ireland, or just the fact that people crave live events, the stream of Dublin derbies should cater for growing demand.

“Online ticket sales of our opening derby match against St Pat’s have been red hot,” said David O’Connor, the Shels ceo. “We are expecting a sell-out so I would urge fans to get online and purchase tickets now to avoid disappointment.”

Four thousand-plus will cram into Tolka Park tonight, mainly to see how a sleeping giant – Duff, not Shels – adapts to being the biggest football name to grace a local dugout since Johnny Giles. Both club and manager are hell bent on saving the stadium from the buy-to-rent brigade by creating enough memories to end a decade of "yo-yoing" between the First and Premier Division.

But there’s more. Honestly, much more.

South Asian superstar

Georgie Kelly left Bohemians, taking his goals to Rotherham United, so make way for Promise Omochere. St Pat's made separate trips to the High Court and Pakistan, to protect their "intellectual property", after Stephen O'Donnell left to become Dundalk manager, while also trying to unearth the first South Asian superstar. Derry City comes to the party with billionaire Philip O'Doherty's investment being distributed by an astute young manager in Ruaidhrí Higgins.

But it's the champions who look impregnable. Shamrock Rovers quietly brought Jack Byrne home and nicked Andy Lyons from their north Dublin enemies. These astute additions to Stephen Bradley's squad makes a three-peat seem inevitable. Unless, and this is a long shot, 'Pico' Lopes is rewarded for his excellence at the African Nations Cup with a lucrative move to a European club. Considering Joey O'Brien hung up his spurs, to assist Duff at Shels, the defensive cupboard looks a tad bare.

“You’ll always have a little bit taken out of the dressing room when someone like Joey leaves,” Bradley agreed. “That’s only natural. But that gives someone an opportunity to step up and we’ve had that, and I’m sure that will continue to happen. He was fantastic for us, he has moved on and we wish him well at Shels in his career. But I think we are in a good place in that regard.”

Soon-to-be 40-year-old goalkeeper Alan Mannus will also need replacing at some stage but we are nit-picking; Rovers have plenty of fire power – from Barry Cotter to Richie Towell and Byrne to Aidomo Emakhu – to sink all contenders long before winter rolls around again.

"Aidomo and young Conan Noonan have real potential," said Bradley of the 18-year-old. "He showed glimpses of it last year and hopefully over the next 12 to 18 months you will see a lot more of that. He is working really hard in pre-season, he is a good kid, a great attitude, and if he has that then he has a chance. He's going to be one that we really like."

Youthful exuberance drives this league now, as the Irish football supporter appears to be fascinated by the teenagers, forced by Brexit and Boris to exist a little longer in their own backyard. If only the facilities existed to match such burgeoning talent. But who cares about that for now.

Club by Club

Bohemians

Manager: Keith Long

Star turn: Dawson Devoy

Transfers in: Kris Twardek (FK Senica), Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (Dundalk), Max Murphy (Shamrock Rovers), Tadgh Ryan (Treaty United), Jordan Doherty (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Grant Horton (Cheltenham Town), Ryan Cassidy (Watford), JJ McKiernan (Watford), Jordan Flores (Northampton Town).

Transfers out: Keith Buckley, Keith Ward (Dundalk), Anto Breslin (St Patrick's Athletic), Rob Cornwall (Northern Colorado Hailstorm), Stephen McGuinness (Bray Wanderers), Ross Tierney (Motherwell), Jack Moylan (Shelbourne), Bastien Hery (Finn Harps), Andy Lyons (Shamrock Rovers), Georgie Kelly (Rotherham United), Roland Idowu (Waterford).

Last season: 5th, lost cup final.

Prospects: Exodus! The movement of Georgie Kelly, Ross Tierney, Andy Lyons and club captain Keith Buckley away on his travels points to another hot and cold campaign. Maybe this can be altered by Promise Omochere or Jamie Mullins coming of age.

Derry City

Manager: Ruaidhrí Higgins

Star turn: Patrick McEleney

In: Michael Duffy (Dundalk), Will Patching (Dundalk), Patrick McEleney (Dundalk), Cameron Dummigan (Dundalk), Brian Maher (Bray Wanderers), Brandon Kavanagh (Shamrock Rovers), Shane McEleney (Finn Harps), Matty Smith (St Patrick's Athletic).

Out: Will Fitzgerald (Sligo Rovers), Ronan McKinley (Ballinamallard), Caolan McLaughlin (Institute – loan), Patrick Ferry (Ballinamallard), Bastien Hery, Jack Le Moignan (Ards).

Last season: 4th

Prospects: Billionaire owner Philip O'Doherty has provided Higgins with the tools, mostly by fleecing Dundalk, to get the Candystripes into Europe. Keeping pace with Rovers in the title race is another matter entirely.

Drogheda United

Manager: Kevin Doherty

Star turn: Ryan Brennan

In: Sean Roughan (Lincoln City), Evan Weir (UCD), Andrew Quinn (Dundalk), Keith Cowan (Dungannon Swifts), Dylan Grimes (Longford Town), Adam Foley (Finn Harps), Dayle Rooney (Shelbourne), Dean Williams (Shamrock Rovers), Ryan Brennan (Shelbourne), Darragh Nugent (Shamrock Rovers), Georgie Poynton (Shelbourne), Sam Long (Lincoln City).

Out: Killian Phillips (Crystal Palace), Hugh Douglas (Bray Wanderers), Dan O'Reilly (Hamilton), Joe Redmond (St Patrick's Athletic), James Brown (Blackburn), Conor Kane (Shelbourne), Jake Hyland, Kaleem Simon, Mark Doyle (St Patrick's Athletic), Jordan Adeyemo (Galway United), Ronan Murray, Dinny Corcoran (Wexford FC), Ahu Obhakhan, David Odumosu.

Last season: 7th

Prospects: Brennan is an astute signing, as is Ireland under-21 left-back Sean Roughan on loan from Lincoln City, but Doherty knows that avoiding relegation would be a successful return: "Looking around us there's only one other part-time team in the league."

Dundalk

Manager: Stephen O'Donnell

Star turn: Robbie Benson

In: Sam Bone (St Patrick's Athletic), John Mountney (St Patrick's Athletic), John Martin (Waterford), Keith Ward (Bohemians), Paul Doyle (UCD), Robbie Benson (St Patrick's Athletic), Nathan Shepperd (Brentford), Joe Adams (Brentford), Dan Williams (Swansea City), Mark Connolly (Dundee United), Steven Bradley (Hibernian), Lewis Macari (Stoke City).

Out: Michael Duffy (Derry City), Patrick McEleney (Derry City), Cameron Dummigan (Derry City), Daniel Cleary (St Johnstone), Sean Murray (Glentoran), Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (Bohemians), Sonni Nattestad, Cameron Yates, Han Jeongwoo.

Last season: 6th

Prospects: Pencil St Pat's v Dundalk on April 8th into the diary as the former is suing the latter's manager for breach of contract. Very messy, but Dundalk are delighted to be free of the American owners Peak6 and look well capable of a top-three finish.

Finn Harps

Manager: Ollie Horgan

Star turn: David Webster

In: Jesse Devers, Conor Tourish (Letterkenny Rovers), Rob Slevin (Cork City), Jose Carrillo (FK Senica), Regan Donelon (Sligo Rovers), Bastien Hery (Bohemians), Yoyo Mahdy (Shelbourne), Erol Erdal Alkan (Usakspor), Filip Mihaljevic (Visakha FC), Elie-Gael N'Zeyi Kibonge (FK Pohronie), Gerard Mulreany (Donegal Town FC).

Out: Sean Boyd (Shelbourne), Mark Coyle (Shelbourne), Dan Hawkins (Shelbourne), Adam Foley (Drogheda United), Will Seymore (New Mexico United), Tunde Owolabi (St Patrick's Athletic), Conor Barry (Wexford), Shane McEleney (Derry City), Jordan Mustoe (Patro Eisden), Kosovar Sadiki (Virtus Entella), Karl O'Sullivan (Sligo Rovers).

Last season: 8th

Prospects: Avoiding relegation would be a surprise.

Shamrock Rovers

Manager: Stephen Bradley

Star turn: Jack Byrne

In: Jack Byrne, Andy Lyons (Bohemians).

Out: Joey O'Brien (Shelbourne, assistant coach), Alex Dunne (UCD), Dylan Duffy (UCD), Darragh Nugent (Drogheda United), Dean Williams (Drogheda United), Max Murphy (Bohemians), Adam Wells (Wexford), Dean McMenamy (Longford Town), Killian Cahill (Brighton & Hove Albion), Jordan Tallon (Wexford), Alex Moody (Wexford).

Last season: Champions.

Prospect: Concerns over a prolific goal-scorer could be allayed by Aidomo Emakhu catching fire, especially now that Jack Byrne, who is still only 25, has returned to complete the three-in-a-row.

Shelbourne

Manager: Damien Duff

Star turn: Jack Moylan

In: Aodh Dervin (Longford Town), Conor Kane (Drogheda United), Sean Boyd (Finn Harps), Mark Coyle (Finn Harps), Daniel Hawkins (Finn Harps), Jack Moylan (Bohemians), Aaron O'Driscoll (Mansfield Town), Lewis Webb (Swansea City), Sean McSweeney (Treaty United), Dan Carr (Welling United), Jordan McEneff (Arsenal), Adam Thomas (Oakleigh Cannons).

Out: Jack Brady (Treaty United), Ryan Brennan (Drogheda United), Dayle Rooney (Drogheda United), Ally Gilchrist (Cork City), Georgie Poynton (Drogheda United), Michael O'Connor (Glentoran), Denzil Fernandes (Treaty United), Yassine En-Neyah (Waterford), Yoyo Mahdy (Finn Harps), Eric Molloy (Longford Town), Alex Nolan (UCD).

Last season: First Division champions.

Prospects: The 3-4-2-1 system employed by Kenny's Ireland is set to be unveiled at Tolka Park. Jordan McEneff, on loan from Arsenal, could change everything but mid-table scrapers with a fairytale cup run would feed nicely into the Duff narrative.

Sligo Rovers

Manager: Liam Buckley

Star turn: Max Mata

In: Paddy Kirk (Longford Town), Karl O'Sullivan (Finn Harps), Will Fitzgerald (Derry City), Nando Pijnaker (Rio Ave), Jordan Hamilton (Indy Eleven), Max Mata (Real Monarchs), Aidan Keena (Falkirk).

Out: Johnny Kenny (Celtic), John Mahon (St Johnstone), Walter Figueira (Kingstonian), Ryan De Vries, Danny Kane, Melvyn Lorenzen, Romeo Parkes, Andre Wright (Telford United), Regan Donelon (Finn Harps).

Last season: 3rd

Prospects: Rovers under Liam Buckley have a habit of finding a way, but the loss of Johnny Kenny, John Mahon and Walter Figueira has the potential to plunge them into dangerous waters. Maybe the kiwis, Nando Pijnaker and Max Matta, will keep the competitive juices flowing.

St Patrick’s Athletic

Manager: Tim Clancy

Star turn: Eoin Doyle

In: Anto Breslin (Bohemians), Mark Doyle (Drogheda United), Tunde Owolabi (Finn Harps), Joe Redmond (Drogheda United), Eoin Doyle (Bolton Wanderers), Jack Scott (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Adam O'Reilly (Preston North End), Tom Grivosti (Ross County).

Out: Sam Bone (Dundalk), Robbie Benson (Dundalk), John Mountney (Dundalk), Lee Desmond (Sacramento Republic), Alfie Lewis (Plymouth Argyle), Thomas Lonergan (UCD), Matty Smith (Derry City).

Last season: 2nd, Cup winners.

Prospects: Tricky off season for the best of the rest. James Abankwah's move to Serie A this summer can be handled in stride so long as Doyle brings his scoring boots home from England.

UCD

Manager: Andy Myler

Star turn: Colm Whelan

In: Alex Dunne (Shamrock Rovers), Dylan Duffy (Shamrock Rovers), Thomas Lonergan (St Patrick's Athletic), Alex Nolan (Shelbourne), Kian Moore (Bohemians U19).

Out: Paul Doyle (Dundalk).

Last season: Promoted.

Prospects: Strong candidates to be relegated if the squad is decimated this summer, especially if Colm Whelan, the Ireland under-21 striker, moves on after graduation.