It’s over, it’s finally over.
After nine months of action, the League of Ireland season drew to a close last weekend when runners up in the league Cork City beat Champions Dundalk to win the FAI Cup thanks to a goal from Irish under 21 international Sean Maguire in the 120th minute.
With no League of Ireland football now for a whole five months, for the first time this season I’ve have withdrawal symptoms during an international break.
The game at The Aviva Stadium, Ireland’s biggest soccer stadium, was a repeat fixture of last season’s cup final, though it was Dundalk who came out winners that day, winning the double in the process.
Cork manager John Caulfield will feel a wee bit of revenge after last season’s result. Now that the domestic season is over, Dundalk can now fully concentrate on continuing their good form in this season’s Europa League.
For those of you who don’t know, Dundalk currently sit joint second in their group after suffering back to back defeats to Russian giants Zenit St Petersburg.
This season saw a lot of action, and Dundalk certainly captured the hearts and minds of a lot of League of Ireland fans with their exploits in Europe.
The season itself saw many controversies such as the €5000 “present” from the FAI to each League of Ireland club, which was swiftly handed back to them by both Derry City and St Patrick’s Athletic, with the latter questioning the timing and the reasoning for the payout.
“What prevails with the FAI is an approach whereby it decides everything and where it dictates policy with the occasional PR flurry to try and create a public image that its senior executives are committed to change and to improvement.”
Also in the First Division, struggling Athlone Town were issued with a fine of their own (€5000 with €4000 suspended) after internal problems meant they were unable to field a team against Waterford United .
The league started in 2016 with opening day wins for Dundalk, Longford Town, Finn Harps, Shamrock Rovers, Cork City and Galway United in the Premier Division.
For many it was an early indication that Dundalk would start this season like they finished last season, sitting pretty at the top of the table with Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic fighting it out for the other European positions.
Dundalk had done some great business over the close season, managing to hold on to their star players who had helped them win the double in 2015.
The only player of note to leave Dundalk was Richie Towell who like many top League of Ireland footballers moved across the Irish Sea to try his luck with Brighton and Hove Albion. To date the former Dundalk star hasn’t played at all for the Championship side.
Dundalk manager brought in Patrick McEleney from Derry City to bolster Dundalk’s ranks.
Like Dundalk, Cork City brought in some top talent to bolster their team.
The most noticeable signing was ex Dundalk striker Sean Maguire who went on to be the league’s top scorer. Maguire’s move to Cork came back to haunt Dundalk after, as mentioned earlier, his winner in the 120th minute allowed Cork to win the FAI Cup.
Dundalk were the team to beat as they cruised to early victories over the majority of the League of Ireland teams in the opening round of games.
Cork matched them along the way but invariably dropped crucial points to Derry City, Sligo Rovers, and Wexford Youths.
As Cork were dropping points, Derry City we’re picking them up, defying the expectations of many of their fans. For a good part of the season they were challenging both Cork City and Dundalk for top spot, while enjoying impressive wins over the likes of Cork City and Shamrock Rovers early in the season.
After the first round of games Dundalk sat top of the table with Cork City, Shamrock Rovers, St Patricks Athletic and Derry City making up the top five.
The season then went on its mid-season interval which allowed teams take a well deserved rest and regroup.
It also allowed those teams playing in Europe to be ready to face whatever opposition that came before them. And as we all know now the only team to survive the rigours of Europe this season in the League of Ireland are Dundalk.
They came agonisingly close to getting through to the group stages of the Champions League, which would have created a bit of history as they would have been the first ever Irish team to make it in to the group sages of the competition.
The second round of games kicked off and only two teams in the top five won. Dundalk beat St Patricks Athletic, and Derry City beat Wexford Youths, while Cork City and Shamrock Rovers played out a bore draw in Turners Cross.
With the top of the table already setting itself up, and the majority of clubs already out of the running for Europe, for fans that had no interest in Europe the bottom half of the table was were all the action was
As expected last season’s First Division champions Wexford Youths were struggling with the demands of playing Premier Division football.
Throughout the whole season they only won six games, with the most memorable of them being coming against Shamrock Rovers in round one where, at Ferrycarrig Park, they beat the Tallaght side two nil thanks to goals from Andy Mulligan and Chris Kenny.
Sadly for Youths and their manager Shane Keegan, that was as good as it got throughout the season.
The other team who struggled this season was Longford Town which for me was a surprise because, after coming up to the Premier Division for the 2015 season, they looked at home with the big boys.
But like so many before them they suffered second season syndrome, and were relegated after winning only two games all season.
Other teams that found themselves lurking around the relegation/playoff spot were Finn Harps (who had come up through the relegation/playoff games last season), Galway United, and Bray Wanderers.
As it turned out, with a few weeks to go in the season there was only one team who would occupy the relegation/playoff spot and that was Wexford Youths.
Another disappointment for Youths was the fact that they didn’t break the 1000 fan barrier for any of their league matches. I can’t help but think that may have something to do with their owner. That’s one for Google folks…
Speaking of the graveyard that is the First Division, it was clear to all who follow the League of Ireland that there was only ever going to be one winner of that title, and that would be relegated Limerick FC.
After relegation last season they managed to hold on to the majority of their players and add a few quality signings like Aaron Greene and Paul O Connor. As it turned out it was the latter who scored the goal which won Limerick the First Division title.
Such was Limerick’s dominance in the First Division that after six games Limerick had won six, and had left every other club in the second tier of Irish football with a negative goal difference.
Dundalk’s third league title in a row see them qualify for the Champions League again next year, while Cork City’s second placed finish give them the all-important first Europa League spot.
Derry City, the surprise team of the year, finished third and take the last remaining automatic Europa League spot in the league.
Cork City’s FAI Cup win meant that the European place for the cup winners goes to the next best team in the league, who were Shamrock Rovers in fourth place.
The only business to tie up now, is the relegation/promotion playoff between Wexford Youths and Drogheda United.
The first game finished two nil to the Premier Division side and everyone expected them to go on and finish the job in Drogheda.
But it was Drogheda who booked their place back in the Premier Division by completely blowing Wexford off the park, winning three nil, making it three two on aggregate.
The heartbreak suffered by the Drogs fans the year before was forgotten, and there wasn’t a cow milked in Drogheda for a few days after that win!
I suppose it’s about time I went with the usual end of season awards.
For me personally I’ve seen a lot of great goals scored this year at the Showgrounds from players like Raffaele Cretaro and Kieran Sadlier, but this award goes to Kurtis Byrne of Bohemians who showed perfect technique to twist and send a right foot screamer into the top corner of the Dundalk net, all while running away from goal.
Manager of the year is a throw up between Harry Kenny of Bray Wanderers, or Kenny Shiels of Derry City. Thanks to their league position it’s Shiels who gets it.
For me though the most entertainment this season came at the abandoned Sligo Rovers, Finn Harps game at the Showgrounds.
For once I was early for the game and as I sat in the press box I could see there was no way that the game was going to be played.
The puddles on the pitch were so deep that I could have done the breast stroke in them. But alas the referee that night had other intentions and allowed the game to go ahead.
But with twenty minutes of the game gone he changed his mind and called it off.
As he went to speak to the FAI official at the game, who was around the home dugout at the time, over stormed Finn Harps boss Ollie Horgan to rant and rave about been left out of the loop.
I don’t think the loop was fully finished at that stage, that was after he had a go at Rovers captain Gavin Peers who, as he was leaving the pitch, kindly told him to f*** off.
In all my time reporting at games I had never seen anything like it.
I’ll not mention the scumbag behaviour of the Shamrock Rovers fans at the Showgrounds at game day one.
Nor will i mention the scumbag Shamrock Rovers players who left the away dressing room at the Showgrounds in such a state that you would swear it was a team of five year olds who were in there, not a bunch of supposed professional footballers.
So its five months of no League of Ireland football now for me, five months of pining to get back to the Showgrounds to watch my team next season.
As was said to me by a Burnley coach when I relayed these thoughts to him: “sure, you’ve always Liverpool to tide you over,” but for me there’s no place like the Showgrounds and there’s no team like Sligo Rovers.
His reply to that was “yeah mate i know.”
I’m hoping our manager, Dave Robertson, can bring in the players that will allow us to challenge for Europe next season, and hopefully I’ll be writing about Sligo Rovers winning the title ending the Dundalk grip on that particular trophy.
We can always live in hope.
Until next time, thanks for reading this, and remember there are twenty teams in the League of Ireland, and each and every one of them would love some support from far away fans.
The League of Ireland is the #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld and once you get hooked by it you’ll see why.