If Claudio Ranieri’s sacking has left you thoroughly fed up with the Premier League, then you’re in luck. Tonight sees the return of proper football, as the 2017 Airtricity League of Ireland season gets underway.
The main talking point in the build up to this season has been the restructuring of the league format, which means that from next season the Premier Division will be made up of ten teams rather than twelve. The result of this is that three teams will be automatically relegated from the Premier Division. For the less mathematically minded reader, that means a quarter of the division’s teams will be relegated this season.
The decision taken by the FAI to re-format the league has been steeped in controversy. A ten team Premier Division has been tried in the past and has on both occasions been deemed unsuccessful. Furthermore, it was revealed that only a small number of Premier teams were in favour of the move, while First Division clubs were not even consulted. All this comes off the back of the FAI’s strategic development plans for each club last season, all of which were based of a twelve team league structure.
As a result of these changes, this season’s Premier Division promises to be one of the most exciting in years, as each team will either be gunning for those highly sought European places, or looking nervously over their shoulder at the dreaded relegation zone.
THE BATTLE AT THE TOP
The question, of course, is whether Dundalk can win a fourth successive title. The champions have lost key men in the off season, though, with Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle – two key figures in their title victories in the past – moving to Preston. Ronan Finn has also left for Shamrock Rovers, and while Dundalk still have the basis of a title-winning squad, their crown has never looked under greater threat than this season.
The two obvious challengers to Dundalk’s throne are Cork City – who have finished as runners up to the Lilywhites in each of the past three seasons – and Shamrock Rovers, who have been something of a sleeping giant in the last few seasons, failing to reach the expectations of their considerable support. Both sides have strengthened considerably, and will be desperate to steal the title from Stephen Kenny’s clutches.
Of course, Derry City will be there or thereabouts, as manager Kenny Shiels enters his second season as boss of the Candystripes, having secured a return to European football for Derry in his first campaign. This season sees Derry take up residence at Maginn Park as their own ground the Brandywell undergoes refurbishment. It will be interesting to see how the Candystripes adapt to their temporary home in Buncrana.
Perhaps a dark horse at the top of the table could be Bray Wanderers. Bray looked like candidates for relegation for a large part of last season before miraculously turning their season around to finish in sixth place. The Seagulls play an attractive brand of football under manager Harry Kenny and will be aiming to build on last season’s strong finish.
THE FIGHT TO BEAT THE DROP
The fact that three teams will be automatically relegated means the stakes have never been higher at the bottom of the table. Drogheda United are among most peoples’ favourites to go down. The Drogs incredibly overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit to beat Wexford Youths in last season’s play-offs and while they’ve added experience in Killian Brennan, its hard to see the Louth outfit having what it takes to survive in this particular format.
Limerick, however, have more cause for optimism. They stormed to the First Division title and have a strong squad more than capable of competing in the Premier Division. In a normal twelve team season, you wouldn’t expect Limerick to be in too much danger, but a bad run this season could see any team slide into that bottom three.
Finn Harps will be up against it from the off again this season having survived against expectation by an ultimately comfortable nine points last term. Harps have made the marquee signing of former Celtic hero Paddy McCourt, but a lack of strength in depth could cost the Donegal side as the season wears on. Their home form will be vital if they are to defy the odds again and survive this time round.
Bohemians are another team for which the three team relegation poses significant danger. Bohs will need to get off to a strong start or else fans could turn on Keith Long and the team. Sligo have largely the same squad as last season, and they too will be hoping to make a strong start which could be all the difference in the end, and the same goes for Galway United who are now under the stewardship of Shane Keegan.
Overall, it promises to be an enthralling season. While the league restructuring has been met with heaps of criticism, it can’t be denied that it means this transitory season will be one full of twists and turns.