2018 SSE Airtricity League team-by-team preview part 2

2018-02-11 23:47:55

Read Part 1 of the SSE Airtricity League team-by-team preview here


New signings: Darren Dennehy, Eoin Wearen, Cian Coleman, Shaun Kelly, Billy Dennehy, Daniel Kearns, Conor Ellis, Mark O Sullivan, Danny Morrissey, Kilian Cantwell.

Player to watch: To put it bluntly, it has been a disastrous off-season for Limerick.

Managers get plenty of sympathy in modern football for the way they are hired and fired but it was a club that came out on the rough end of a change in January.

Neil McDonald left the Super Blues on the morning of the first day of pre-season to be assistant manager at Scunthorpe, leaving Limerick with half a squad and little direction to build one.

"I came to do a specific job; to help the club maintain its Premier status, to thin the squad out and to give young players a chance - I achieved all three," said McDonald, seven months on from "I'd like to leave a legacy and push the club to boundaries where they've never been before".

Limerick fans will tell you this is not quite where no man has gone before, but it should be pointed out that during his reign Limerick did seemingly try to just coast out the season and cut costs, months on from targeting unprecedented success.

Tommy Barrett was promoted from Under-19 manager. He has been handed a difficult job. Chiedozie Ogbene and Barry Cotter were sold to the English Championship and the quality in the squad has diminished from previous seasons.

There are some bright spots. Billy Dennehy finished the season well at St Patrick’s Athletic after being poor for two thirds of the year and will be a good addition if he carries on that form.

Eoin Wearen has never hit the heights promised when he burst onto the scene at Bohemians when returning from West Ham. Injuries have hampered his career. Again there is potential to do well. However that is a familiar theme throughout this squad.

Daniel Kearns was expected to be a big player at Sligo Rovers in the last 18 months yet could not get near the form that previously took him to a good level in England. There is a question mark over how much desire he possesses now, it’s just one of the jobs for Barrett to take on in his first senior role, but he could be a gem if he finds top form.

Mark O’Sullivan spent last-year at Waterford as they cruised to a league title and steps back up to the Premier, while Connor Ellis has moved on a two-year deal from Cork City. It’s time to see just how good he can be after getting a few chances at Cork, without finding his goalscoring form. Cian Coleman is another player to not make the grade at City, and had a spell at Cobh to nurture his talent..

Biggest positive: It’s difficult to find a positive when your best player and prospect have been sold and the replacements are just familiar faces from throughout the league, looking for a new home.

The one thing they do have on their side is experience. There are hundreds of League of Ireland appearances in their squad from Brendan Clarke at the back to stalwart Shaun Kelly in defence, captain Shane Duggan and that is useful in support to the likes of Ellis and their rookie manager. If the group can be gelled together, they should be able to grind out results.

Biggest concern: The real lack of consistency in the players assembled and Barrett being thrown in at the deep end. The loss of Ogbene is going to be huge as well.

He was brilliant for Limerick, his pace and unpredictability a nightmare for defenders, and it’s up to Brentford now to mould him into a Championship player. The potential is certainly there.

The question back home is can Barrett get Kearns, Billy Dennehy and Ellis firing to replace a real livewire. It’s a tall order.

Ambition: As stated, stay in the Premier Division and maintain the club’s footing with a view to finding a new buyer. It’s not romantic, but that should be the aim.

Barrett will be asked to steady a ship and maintain their top-fight place to keep the value of the club. But if it’s a poor start the pressure will quickly come on and it will test all to avoid the play-off and relegation spot.

St Patrick's Athletic

New signings: Simon Madden, Kevin Toner, Ryan Brennan, James Doona, Dean Clarke, Michael Leahy, Thomas Byrne, Jake Keegan.

Player to watch: St Patrick’s Athletic are an example of why the League of Ireland can be hard for a casual fan to follow. The Saints stayed up on the final day of last season after a desperate first half of the season, and now as the new campaign approaches, they appear well-poised for a crack at European football again.

While much is made of the manner in which players swap teams here, it is the most important time of the year for a manager and Liam Buckley will certainly hold his hand up and say he got it wrong last winter.

In the summer, as the Saints faced up to a relegation battle, Buckley was backed by the owner of the club and brought new life to the team.

Owen Garvan was the most high-profile and while an early red card saw him play just 10 league games, he was real quality on the ball and you could see why he had such a long career in England.

Killian Brennan anchored midfield like he hadn’t been away and considering he spent the first part of the season injured with Drogheda, it was nice to see a good player get back to near his best again.

Kevin Toner was a coup given interest from Shamrock Rovers, and Simon Madden is the best right-back in the league after Sean Gannon.

James Doona, very much a local in Inchicore, has moved from Tallaght with bags of potential and believes it is the right place to be.

Jake Keegan was a very smart late addition by Buckley if their main man Christy Fagan struggles again up front. Dean Clarke is another versatile attacker that doesn’t score enough goals, so Fagan and Keegan will be tasked with hitting the target.

But Darragh Markey is another big one to track. This is his fourth season and last year was a breakthrough where in the summer he was particularly impressive. There is plenty of competition in the midfield but he is a player of the Buckley mould, comfortable on the ball, a range of passing and benefiting for a gradual introduction. This should be the year we see the best of him.

Biggest positive: The improved recruitment and one that suits the philosophy and formation Buckley likes to put on his team. Experience is something you'll see mentioned in previewing each squad but it’s there throughout the Pat’s side and there are no excuses for why they should not do well.

Toner could be the much-desired consistent centre-half Buckley has been looking for and emerge as one of the best in the country.

Biggest concern: Fagan not scoring the goals and just how many games Garvan and Brennan play in midfield.

It’s quite a simple scenario - if Toner-Garvan-Brennan-Byrne-Fagan do well in a starting XI for the Saints they will be challenging the top three.

They have better back-ups in the likes of Ryan Brennan and Leahy than last year, but only enough for mid-table, so Buckley will be desperate to get his main men firing.

Ambition: The only way is up when you think of the good players in this squad and the position they finished last year.

The Pat's boss does not get too excited one way or the other early on in the season but if they can come through the first round of games in the top half and pushing the leaders, he will be eyeing breaking the monopoly on the top four positions that has emerged.

Shamrock Rovers

New signings: Ethan Boyle, Greg Bolger, Ally Gilchriest, Joel Coustrain, Joey O’Brien

Player to watch: Expectation is growing in this era under Stephen Bradley and the 13 defeats from 33 games and 22 points off the league winners last year will not be tolerated this campaign.

Bradley knows that and set about his business quickly. Greg Bolger was a very smart signing from Cork City, bringing a winning mentality, league-winning experience and the engine in midfield that will support the likes of Ronan Finn to get forward even more.

Sean Gannon was a target that came very close, but ultimately signed a lucrative three-year deal with Dundalk.

Simon Madden exited as a result of the manoeuvring around that deal and his replacement Ethan Boyle is not in the same calibre. That was a disappointing development. Boyle has potential and offers versatility as well but he certainly will take time to become established at a top club.

There is plenty to admire in the project undertaken to develop young players, but to lose an experienced head like Madden for another 21-year-old was not wise, you'd think.

Ally Gilchrist has had spells in the lower leagues in Scotland without breaking through at St Johnstone and is another promising player, while Joel Coustrain is also highly rated after leaving Raith Rovers and playing with Ballynanty while he waited to return to the professional game.

Joey O’Brien became the latest ex-Ireland international to join the Hoops and while of course it will come down to how long he can stay fit for, it’s a good move to bring him in.

Eoghan Stokes played for Bradley’s men in the match with Brentford ‘B’ at the weekend. He left Leeds United at the close of the transfer window after five years and Bradley will soon make his decision. Former Huddersfield man Dan Carr has also been on trial which may be the preferred option.

The Hoops certainly need one more striker because while Gary Shaw scored 11 goals last year, there are doubts over whether he is the man you need to fire them into a title race. He may not be prolific, but has shown to be a good player to lead the line and they might just need to add to their options rather than an out and out number nine.

Graham Burke and Brandon Miele will pick up the slack where Shaw fails. Trevor Clarke could be the next player to head for England as the teenager gets set for another big season on the left side of defence or wing.

There is one player within the group that could step up. Sean Boyd struggled with injuries but when fit again didn’t get much of a chance. He has shown in previous seasons how lethal he can be in the box, good in the air and holding up the ball. He deserves more opportunities this year.

One area where they could have really improved on is goalkeeper. Tomer Chencinski was number one last year with Kevin Horgan deputising and Bradley has opted for the same duo again.

You could read a lot into the manager’s comments as Chencinski signed a new deal.

"We believe in Tomer and believe that he’s got a point to prove to show everyone what he can do for us," Bradley said.

"I know from speaking to him that he wants to show people what he’s about."

Chencinski was at fault for some goals last year and it was thought Bradley would try to upgrade. But he has opted to stay with what he knows.

Biggest positive: The Hoops’ transfer business could have been better but they still go into the season with a really good squad aimed at improving on third place last year.

There are the bones of good team in Bradley’s squad. Lee Grace and Roberto Lopes are a fine pairing in defence.

Bolger, Finn, Burke, Miele and Shaw are some of the best in their roles in the country and the likes of Sam Bone, Aaron Bolger and Dean Dillon have that bit of experience to make it easier to put in the team when the squad is stretched.

Grace was a tremendous addition in the middle of the season to shore up a leaky Shamrock Rovers defence.

Biggest concern: The signings made so far may not be the answer to make that step up from qualifying for Europe to really taking on the big two.

After Bolger, a couple more experienced players in a similar mould looked the sensible approach. Bradley has total faith in his young players, which is quite admirable, but a risk.

Ambition: It probably depends who are you asking – the board or the fans. Many of the Hoops fans want trophies and the big ones at that – the thoughts of long-term projects are hard to take when you lose 13 games in a season like last year. They simply have to be in the title race this year going into the final series of games.

You’ll meet 30-year-olds that have never seen Shamrock Rovers win an FAI Cup in their lifetime - when six of the 10 teams in the league have won it in the last decade and that pains as well.

If they can change that, or break into a title chase, Bradley will continue his work in a model that should eventually deliver honours. But the speed in which he produces them is key for him to survive.

Sligo Rovers

New signings: Adam Morgan, Eduardo Pincelli, David Cawley, Caolan McAleer, Adam Wixted, Lewis Morrison, Alistair Roy (on loan)

Player to watch : Much like St Pat’s, Sligo found themselves in a real pickle last summer, and they didn’t have players at the club to get them out of it. It needs changes and big ones after Dave Robertson put together an extremely poor squad and lasted less than a series of matches.

Lyttle, without using a pun here, didn’t have much to work with. He watched in the stands as his new side drew 1-1 with Derry in April and six months later, a Rovers side with eight changes to that XI took to the field to take on the Candystripes again, with the 3-0 win a big part of keeping them in the top flight.

They went from a poor group of players trying to play a decent brand of football and failing, to a more savvy side that were solid at the back and prolific at set-pieces in the final series of games. That change was probably the reason Sligo stayed up and Galway went down.

There were a couple of crucial additions as Lyttle tore up the squad. Rhys McCabe cropped up on the radar – a former first-team player at Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday. The 25-year-old makes the game look very simple in midfield and made them much more of a cohesive unit – and this year you’ll see an XI very much built around him again.

The second was Vinny Faherty - a goalscorer - and he contributed some crucial strikes and showed the value of having a player that can put the ball in the net.

Faherty has departed for Cyprus – so a replacement was needed – and step forward former Liverpool striker Adam Morgan.

The 23-year-old former wonderkid arrived to great fanfare in January and will be tasked with scoring, scoring and little else. Morgan’s game is very much based in the box, arguably becoming the most natural finisher in the league on arrival. But he will only be a success if they can create opportunities for him and if not, he could cut a frustrated figure. Lyttle has to find a system to accommodate that.

It would not be a Sligo squad without an eye-catching foreign import. Faherty, while training with a club in Cyprus, told Brazilian Eduardo Pincelli of the beautiful north-west and soon a deal was done. At 34, he is as experienced as they come with spells in his homeland, Colombia, Sweden, Malaysia and Italy.

Adam Wixted was a rare bright spot for Drogheda and should progress on his return to full-time football, while David Cawley found his feet in good style late on at Galway last year.

Ally Roy joined on loan last week from Hearts, he has come off the back of 20 games in the Scottish Championship in recent months against the likes of St Mirren, Dundee United, and regardless of how we like to think League of Ireland is on par with Scotland Premiership, he should have no issues fitting in here when reportedly doing well against the likes of those sides.

Biggest positive: This is a better squad than the one that started last season, and a better manager in charge. Since his appointment, Lyttle has been battling to recover from the Robertson era and he has finally been able to get a good run at making his own team.

Kyle Callan-McFadden is into his second season and is a competent centre-half.

Seamus Sharkey was a mid-season signing when without a club and formed a good partnership with the Donegal man, that will be important for Sligo to keep those two together.

It is a young squad again but there is more league experience and a stronger midfield than last year.

Biggest concern: Absolutely all the eggs are in one basket, but that’s hard to avoid for Sligo.

Due to their location, they must pay full-time wages to all of their players, and without the hundreds of thousands of euro that European football brings, it becomes difficult.

So much rides on Pincelli playing weekly, whether Morgan will score goals, and most of all, players staying fit.

The Bit O’ Red are going to be the busiest club in the final days before the start of the season because as it stands they have one senior goalkeeper, two centre-halves, no cover at full-back and Morgan is the only out and out striker.

They will need some big late additions and to stay away from injuries throughout the year. If it doesn’t happen, they could struggle.


Rovers fans are only too aware the days of European qualification have slipped away and expectations have shifted accordingly. Lyttle can comfort himself that the first task of this season is to improve on the 5-1 defeat to Limerick on the first day of the 2017 edition of the league.

The following week was a 4-0 defeat to Dundalk so two games in, all chances of a good season were gone, and it was a battle from there on in.

This Saturday is the first night in a year that the club can look forward to excitement and dare to dream about something a bit more than keeping the wolf from the door.

Sligo will not trouble the top four, and a season where they find more players like McCabe to build further in mid-table would not be an unhappy one. If their main men don’t fire, it's going to be another tough fight.

Waterford FC

New signings: Gavan Holohan, Stanley Aborah, Rory Feely, John Kavanagh, Dave Webster, Bastian Hery, Faysel Kasmi, Izzy Akinade, Niall Corbet

Player to watch: As debate rages over the takeover at Dundalk, a similar discussion took place in Waterford last year when Swindon Town owner Lee Power took over the Blues.

There was much less profile because the scenarios are quite different. The Blues were at a very low ebb. Attendances averaged 275 per game in a club that lack unity, direction and most of all money.

Power came in, debts were cleared and the appointments of Pat Fenlon as director of football and Alan Reynolds as manager were warmly welcomed. They built a squad to win the First Division and while it could have been smoother, they never looked like missing out on promotion.

The big fee was spent on Kenny Browne spoke volumes about their new era but Power has watched the likes of Limerick try to do too much too soon, and flip-flop on their intention when things backfire. It hasn't been gung-ho.

Gavan Holahan and Izzy Akinade are two of the best players in the country that aren’t with clubs in Europe. Akinade was overdue a move to full-time football and if he can put his injury problems behind him, he is a big asset.

Dave Webster was no longer wanted at Shamrock Rovers but he is an excellent capture for Waterford.

Midfielder Bastian Hery started slowly at Limerick and then showed why he’s played over 50 games in the Football League, albeit it came a bit late and it remains to be seen if he can be that good again over a full season.

Rory Feely is another man searching for stability as his versatility has sometime been a downfall. He said he wants a "more attacking role where I feel most comfortable" this year and given that they aren’t rich with options there, it may happen.

Then comes two foreign imports, Stanley Aborah and Faysel Kasmi. Aborah was without a club for several months. He started his career with Ajax, even playing in the Champions League, and took more Dutch clubs, as well as Slovenian, Belgian and Fenecvaros of Hungary, before making England home three years ago.

Spells with Notts County and Portsmouth saw the 30-year-old eventually leave League 2 and Waterford took advantage of a player keen to get his career going again.

Kasmi, from Belgium, spent his entire career contracted at Belgian First Division B side Lierse, but had loans spells with Standard Liege and Cypriot outfit AC Omonia, and now moves to the SSE Airtricity League with a lot to prove at 22. Another player from Europe, Sander Puri, missed nearly all of last season because of injury.

He has been retained with faith put in him by Reynolds given he possesses nearly 70 caps for Estonia and had a good spell with Sligo previously.

Paul Keegan returned to England from Doncaster last summer with a host of Premier clubs interested, but he chose a good deal at Waterford knowing the top-flight was imminent regardless, and again, it’s a very cool head in the middle of the park.

Biggest positive: Reynolds and Fenlon look to have got the mix of the squad right. There is a balance between local, young talent and players that have won trophies in this league, and played plenty of seasons at clubs in Europe.

Biggest concern: Dean O’Halloran, Dean Walsh and Akinade will be tasked with scoring goals and they could have done with another option in there.

Ambition: It’s a building job and this group should keep Waterford in the top division relatively easily.

They’re unlikely to go much further than that but if they can establish a solid home form and bed in some of the good players brought to the club with view to a push at the top four next year, Power will be very pleased.

Watch Bohemains v Shamrock Rovers live on RTE2 and RTE Player from 7pm on Friday, the first of 17 live matches on RTE Sport this season.

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