By Gerard Browne
With the return of action in the League of Ireland this weekend after the summer break, we grade each Premier Division team’s season to date.
After a second-place finish last time out, hopes were high for a serious challenge for the number one spot this term, but the Phibsborough club were slow out of the traps. In truth, the first series of fixtures was a major disappointment with only two wins, and plenty of points thrown away from stable positions.
Longford Town came from 2-0 down inside the last 14 minutes at Dalymount Park back in March to earn a share of the spoils, while Derry City scored an 89th-minute winner at the same venue and Drogheda United grabbed an injury-time leveller within a period of four days.
Bohs haven’t looked back since that double disappointment though, winning four of the last five games before the break, including finally registering their first home victory. That 4-0 triumph over Finn Harps has kick-started their season, and the goals have continued to flow. Keith Long’s side have found the net 15 times in this recent upturn in form, and now find themselves only two points outside the European spots.
It could be argued the break has come at the wrong time, but they’re plenty of reasons for Gypsies fans to still be optimistic. If the likes of Liam Burt and Ross Tierney keep providing the same displays, and if Georgie Kelly can build on his hat-trick against Dundalk, a third season of European football should be heading towards Dalymount Park.
No win from their opening six games left Derry City bottom of the table and ultimately cost Declan Devine his job. They wasted no time in hiring ex-player Ruairi Higgins and The Candystripes’ fortunes have improved.
Since Higgins’ appointment, Derry has the third-best record in the league and they top the away charts. Sligo Rovers (1-0), Bohemians (2-1) and Drogheda United (2-1) are just some of the scalps the northwest club have taken on their travels. From his eight games in charge, only Finn Harps have walked away victorious. Despite all this, Derry City still finds themselves one place above the relegation zone, but with a comfortable 10-point gap.
The loan signing of Joe Hodge didn’t work out, but the arrival of Will Patching for the season has been a massive revelation. The Dundalk loanee is their top scorer with four goals, but The Candystripes will need more players to chip in if they want to climb up that table.
While most pundits predicted the newly-promoted side would survive, nobody foresaw a potential push for Europe. Drogheda United occupies the final Europa Conference League position, despite Derry City ending their six-game unbeaten run last Friday week.
That recent good form included four-straight victories, with a 3-1 home win over St Pats being the standout achievement. The Drogs’ performance that night summed up perfectly what this side is all about – a constant threat, well organised in defence and a good balance in midfield. Manager Tim Clancy deserves huge credit for allowing his players to express themselves.
Their season got off on the right note with a late winner versus Waterford, but it hasn’t always been rosy in the garden for the county Louth outfit. Only another sole triumph was recorded in their next six games, leaving them with fares of being sucked into a relegation battle. A 1-1 draw against Sligo Rovers, in a game they should’ve won, has proven to be a turning point.
Drogheda were praised for their close-season signings, and Dane Massey, Gary Deegan and Ronan Murray haven’t let the team down. James Brown, Chris Lyons and Mark Doyle have all made a seamless transition from the First Division. They mightn’t hold onto 4th spot come November, but Drogs remain on course for a memorable season.
To say it’s been an eventful start to the season would be an understatement, with enough conflicts to last an entire campaign. It all began before a ball was kicked when Shane Keegan replaced Filippo Giovagnoli in the role of Head Coach, but a return of just two points from five games saw both out the door at Oriel Park.
Nearly two months on and Dundalk still don’t have a permanent replacement, with Jim Magilton still filling in on an interim basis. Fans regularly protesting against the Peak6 ownership, all just adds to uncertain times for a club that were in the Europa League group stages only last December.
Results initially improved after Giovagnoli’s and Keegan’s departures, with back-to-back wins over Drogheda and Waterford, but that only turned into a mini-revival. Draws away to Longford Town and Finn Harps along with a defeat on their turf to Sligo Rovers added to The Lilywhites growing frustrations.
There does appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel with recent joys over high-flyers Shamrock Rovers and St Pats, but a 5-1 hammering against Bohemians sandwiched in-between, underlines that last season’s FAI Cup winners still have much to improve upon.
Finn Harps had a strong end to 2020 and the early form indicated they had carried that momentum into the new year. Joint top in mid-April had Harps fans dreaming big, and while they haven’t maintained that constituency, another relegation dog scrap doesn’t look on the horizon.
Their quick start wasn’t a case of a kind fixture list, as Bohemians (home) and Dundalk (away) were put to the sword. Top scorer Adam Foley was on fire in those games, scoring all three goals. David Webster then grabbed a dramatic stoppage-time winner against Waterford, to secure a hat-trick of victories.
Sligo Rovers burst Ollie Horgan’s charges bubble a week later with their initial defeat and they’ve failed to fully recover since. That sparked a further five losses in the nine games thereafter. It hasn’t all been bad though, as a first-ever win at the Brandywell was recorded, with that man Foley the hero again.
The Dublin native has half-a-dozen goals to his name, but he isn’t the only player to impress. Karl O’Sullivan, Barry McNamee and Mark Coyle have all established themselves as real leaders for the Donegal outfit. Despite a recent wobble, a mid-table finish is looking healthy.
It was always expected to be a struggle for Longford Town and that’s exactly what it has been, lying 9th during this break. The pre-season favourites for the drop did turn a few heads early on, beating Derry City on the opening weekend, but the search for win number two has still escaped them.
Conor Davis’ brace at Dalymount Park against Bohs did add a point to those three claimed against The Candystripes. Unfortunately for Daire Doyle’s men, that’s as good as things got, suffering nine defeats over the last 12 matches.
There have been some hard-luck stories along the way. Twice Shamrock Rovers have inflicted injury-time heartbreak, delivering the decisive moments. Within the space of a week, a two-goal lead was wiped against Dundalk and Derry City also stunned them with a 90th-minute equaliser. So close to a potential maximum return, ended up only being two points.
When action resumes this weekend, the Midlanders and Waterford look certain to battle it out to avoid the slip automatically down to the second tier. Longford Twin holds a slight advantage, obtaining the play-off spot. If they find themselves in the same standings after 36 games, they will be satisfied with their efforts.
At various points, the hallmarks of champions have been written all over Shamrock Rovers. On seven occasions, they’ve scored from the 88th-minute onwards to either win or draw. Their incredible “never say die” attitude has earned them 10-valuable points and branded the phrase “Rovers time”.
However, a run of three games without a win during May sees the reigning kingpins stand in 2nd place, just a point shy of leaders Sligo Rovers. Before that drought last month, the Tallaght club had broken the longest unbeaten run in the league – 33 games in total and opened up a five-point lead on the chasing pack.
After Danny Mandroiu’s sole effort helped saw off St. Pats, it looked like there was no stopping The Hoops. A draw at home to Derry, pursued by defeats to Dundalk and the current table-toppers, means Stephen Bradley’s charges will have to fight hard if they want to reclaim the honour of Ireland’s number one.
New signing Mandroiu is flying and he is currently involved with the national team. Graham Burke and Rory Gaffney have also been sharp in the final third, and Liam Scales is going from strength to strength at the back. Performances haven’t always been the best, but their mentality is one of a group that knows how to get over the line.
What a difference a year can make. Cast your minds back to March 2020, when the Covid-19 Pandemic put a hold on the League of Ireland, Sligo Rovers were making up the numbers. This time around at a scheduled pause, every other side is looking up at Liam Buckley’s team.
The Bit O’Red did eventually turn things around last term and now have European football coming to The Showgrounds next month. Good business that was done during the winter had raised expectations of a title push, and so far it’s going to script. An excellent beginning saw 14 points collected from a possible 18 on offer.
Derry City did cause an upset in late April, ending their unbeaten run, and a couple of draws afterwards started to raise question marks. Starman Jordan Gibson’s brilliance at Oriel Park got Sligo Rovers back on the horse, and it has been an upward curve again.
That result against Dundalk has kindled their current five-game winning streak, which has them in pole position ahead of the visit of Drogheda this weekend. There was a walkover from Waterford, but beating Shamrock Rovers in their backyard, demonstrates the westerners are in this for the long haul.
St Patrick’s Athletic
It could be said this interval came at the right time for St Pats. Sitting top after eight games, one win from their last half a dozen represents relegation form. They find themselves in 3rd now, but overall Alan Matthews and Stephen O’Donnell will still have smiles on their faces.
Those happy facial expressions were as wide as the Camac River back in the spring. Good days out against the likes of Drogheda, Bohemians, Derry City and Finn Harps created high morale around Inchicore. New attacker Ronan Coughlan was gelling in quickly and Chris Forrester was rolling back the years, with samples of genius play.
Both emotions of an additional-time goal were experienced in the first week of May. Ian Bermingham’s header rescued a draw away to Sligo Rovers, before Danny Mandroiu gave Shamrock Rovers the bragging rights of south Dublin. The Saints haven’t fully recovered from that blow, losing to both sides from The Wee county.
St Pat’s aim at the start of the campaign was to get European football back at Richmond Park, and that remains the case. Their recent slump is a concern, but facing other clubs from around the continent in 2022 still looks like a good prospect.
Just like Dundalk, Waterford has endured enough off-field dramas to last a full season. Bust-up with players, a managerial exit, positive Covid tests and the club now up for sale gives an accurate summary of events. Matters aren’t much better on the pitch, routed to the bottom of the pile and showing no signs of moving up the ladder.
Ex-Republic of Ireland international Kevin Sheedy and Mike Newell began the league in the dugout. Despite a win up in Derry, late goals conceded against Drogheda and Finn Harps left a reflection of what could have been. Confidence was low and tempers started to flare, as reports emerged of management and players unrest.
Sheedy and Newell didn’t last much longer, but then came the Covid issues. The Under-19’s team were forced to line out against Drogheda, with the senior squad in isolation. A 7-0 trashing was dished out, and to avoid a similar scoreline, the points were awarded to Sligo Rovers.
The first team are back but the results remain negative, with three consecutive losses. Marc Bircham is now calling the shots and the former QPR coach will have his work cut out to keep The Blues afloat.