Sunday, November 3, 2013

League of Ireland Review 2013

Having seen the league title go West last year around, the Dublin sides were looking to bring the League of Ireland Premier Division title back to the Capital in 2013. Seemingly leading the line in this quest was Shamrock Rovers, who made a number of huge signings over the winter, including a new manager. Trevor Croly was instated as Rovers’ third manager in 12 months and brought in the likes of league heavyweights Jason McGuinness, Richard Brush and Mark Quigley from reigning champions Sligo Rovers, as well as James Chambers and Derek Foran from Saint Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk respectively.
Mark Quigley would be Shamrock Rovers' biggest signing
Source: RTÉ

Having just about survived relegation the season previous following a playoff win over Waterford United, Dundalk’s manager Stephen Kenny set about making wholesale changes at the Co. Louth club, despite rumours of financial constraints. Only four players were re-signed from the season previous while Stephen O’Donnell was brought in on a free and instated as captain. John Dillon was another to leave Sligo and join another LOI team, and Richie Towell (on a free) and Pat Hoban (Mervue United) were other shrewd acquisitions, though the later having never been tested beyond First Division level, despite having spent a season at Bristol City.

Sligo showed the league why they were favourites to retain their title by racing into the league with a eight game winning streak. Eventually they were undone by Drogheda Untied in the Setanta Cup and dropped seven points in their following three games. Their expected rivals Shamrock Rovers were having a frustrating start to the season, they drew six of their first seven games, before taking out their frustration on an unfortunate Bray Wanderers side 7-0.

At the other end Shelbourne, with manager Alan Matthews, were really struggling. By the time they got their first win of the season (10 games and two months later against UCD 2-0)  they had been well cast adrift at the bottom and sinking further into the abyss of the First Division, with Shels faithful calling for the head of the former Longford Town manager. Down there too were Bohemians, who despite beating Shelbourne were sitting only four points clear of the bottom.

The Billy Dennehy free-kick which broke City hearts
Source: MSN Ireland
Cork City, who finished sixth in 2012, were suffering greatly from last minute goals. Having been denied 6 points in three consecutive games against Shamrock Rovers Drogheda United and Shelbourne through last minute strikes, the Leesiders saw a Setanta Cup final berth slip through their fingers via a late free-kick by ex-City player Billy Dennehy (Playing against his brother Darren) once again for the Hoops, to see Trevor Croly’s men through to the show-piece event.

Halfway through the season it looked to be between Dundalk and St Patrick’s Athletic for the league title, though Sligo were a constant threat despite spending most of the season six points off the top. Meanwhile in the first Division it was Longford leading the way ahead of Athlone and surprise package Mervue United. Title favourites Waterford were nowhere near the pace of the leaders, but secured themselves silverware in the shape of the Munster Senior Cup against Avondale United.

The most bizarre result of the season came in the Setanta Cup final between Shamrock Rovers and Drogheda at the Tallaght Stadium. Having beaten the home side last year in the League Cup final, Mick Cooke’s Drogheda would have been feeling confident going into the final. In front of over 4,000 in Tallaght Rovers tore apart their Leinster counterparts. Ronan Finn and Billy Dennehy both got braces as the home side annihilated the Drogs 7-1. Beginning a slide for the Co. Louth team towards the bottom end of the table as the month turned to June.

David Cassidy challenging for Drogheda against Malmo
Summer always brings European football to Irish shores and there were big hopes in Sligo Rovers and St. Patrick’s Athletic to carry the Irish flag. As it turned out, Drogheda would be the league’s best representative abroad, drawing 0-0 at home to Swedish side Malmo FF at home, but bravely losing the away leg 2-0. Sligo continued their atrocious record in Europe by crashing out against out-of-form Norwegian team Molde. Pats were most certainly the most disappointing of the lot though, losing out 4-3 on aggregate to Lithuanian side Zalgiris Vilnius, after losing the home leg 2-1. That marked the end of the most unsuccessfull European campaign by Irish sides in almost 15 years, possibly showing how the league has gone backward compared to others around Europe.

Despite the poor European performance, St Patrick’s Athletic were flying in the league. They beat Shamrock Rovers 4-0 away, and despite being knocked out of both cups by Rovers, were top of the table heading into the final series of games. Not far behind them were Dundalk, completely unrecognisable from last year’s team Kenny’s men had the likes of Pat Hoban, Richie Towell, Stephen O’Donnell and Peter Cherrie in flying form, and beat Shamrock and Sligo Rovers in quick succession to announce themselves at Pats’ main title rivals.

In the first division things were really hotting up, Waterford were getting back into the race for the promotion playoff places, and despite it looking like Roddy Collins’ Athlone Town would coast to the league title, there was still plenty to play for. Mervue United, Longford Town and Waterford United all wanted the two places for a chance of reaching the Premier, and something was going to have to give.
Roddy Collins was doing a brilliant job with Athlone Town
Source: Athlone Town Club Website

The second piece of silverware for the season went to Shamrock Rovers again. It was a case of déja vu (though admittedly not quite as bad) when the 2011 champions scored two goals either side of half-time to coast to a 2-0 victory over Drogheda at the Tallaght Stadium. That was a poor consolation to the fact that it looked like Rovers would miss out on a European place for consecutive years, and following a 2-0 defeat to Limerick the pressure was mounting on Croly.

At the top Dundalk and St Pats, tied on points at the top, faced off at Richmond Park in what looked like being the title decider. A cagey opening saw the teams scoreless at half time. Chris Forrester opened the scoring for the Saints just after half time, and the score was doubled only a few minutes later. When Stephen O’Donnell was sent off for an off-the-ball incident with Pats’ Ger O’Brien, the game was Pats’. They now had the points and the momentum heading into the last 6 games.

Ciarán Kilduff scoring his fourth against Shelbourne
Source: RTÉ
The game of the season brought Cork City and Shelbourne together in front of the TV cameras. City, who had a frustrating season, had finally found some form following the sacking of former manager Tommy Dunne, and were top of the form table. Anything but a win for Shels meanwhile would leave escaping some sort of relegation battle virtually impossible, and automatic relegation very difficult. Two teams treated the crowd and the watching TV audience to a goalfest. Despite Shels’ good work going forward they were totally exposed and the five goals shipped owed nothing to their ‘keeper Lee Murphy. 5-3 it eventually finished, four to loan signing Ciarán Kilduff (Underlining his importance to Cork City) and it looked like Shelbourne’s short stint in the Premier Division was over.

The First Division came to a close with the question remaining as to who would grab those two playoff places. Anyone of the previously mentioned three could get themselves in. Waterford had arguably the easiest task against league re-comers Cobh Ramblers, who despite thumping Wexford Youths 5-0 in their first game were second from the bottom. The Cork side took the lead though, and then doubled it after half time, and despite a Ben Ryan goal on the hour mark the Blues couldn’t get the points they required. This left the door open for Mervue, who comfortably beat Wexford 4-1 to advance, while Longford beat local rivals Athlone to secure their place.

The FAI Cup semi-finals pitted the two Rovers’ against each other, while it was a Louth derby in the other game between Dundalk and Drogheda. Two ridiculous red card decisions by referee Anthony Buttemer saw Dundalk reduced to nine men in the first half and 1-0 down from the resulting penalty. Despite a fantastic effort from Kenny’s men against a very uncomfortable Drogheda (Despite the two man advantage) the Claret and Blues managed to hold off their rivals and triumph 1-0. The following game saw a very comfortable 3-0 win for Sligo, in a game in which the Hoops’ Conor McCormack saw red for a professional foul.

St Patrick’s Athletic were crowned champions in a rather fitting manner the following week: A fantastic strike from Greg Bolger and one almost from the following kickoff by Anto Flood saw the new champions take their crown from the old guard Sligo Rovers 2-0. Meanwhile Bray beat Limerick which meant things would be very interesting at the bottom for who would be the unfortunate Premier Division representative to the promotion/relegation playoff.

Killian Brennan with the league trophy
Source: INPHO/

So the final day arrived and it was down to Bohemians, UCD and Bray Wanderers to get the win which would hopefully see them clear of the relegation playoff. Bohs had the ball in their own court, while UCD’s superior goal difference over Bray Wanderers meant all they had to do was match the Seagulls result to survive. The Gypsies lost their game to Drogheda, meaning a Bray win would put one of Ireland’s most successful clubs in the playoff, with UCD beating Shelbourne. Despite Bray’s bravery, Dundalk proved to be too good, and Pat Devlin’s men were playing great escape once again.

Elsewhere Munster rivals Limerick and Cork City were fighting for sixth position, which could potentially earn them a Setanta Cup spot. Limerick faced the long trip to Derry, while Cork City took on newly crowned champions St Patrick’s Athletic, knowing a win would see them safe. At half time in Turners Cross the Rebel Army led 3-0 (Kilduff bringing his tally to eleven in fourteen games with the Leesiders). Meanwhile, in Derry, the score was 1-0 to the home side, but only a minor miracle would see Pats get anything out of Turners Cross. The Supersaints thought they had found it through Ger O’Brien’s spectacular 35 yard thunderbolt which smashed into the top right hand corner of the net. That saw the score to 3-2 and City on the ropes, could they lose 6th place? The answer to that was a resounding no. The Candystripes woke up in the second half and fired a further five into the Limerick net, finishing off the season with a resounding 6-0 win, while back in Cork Danny Morrissey wrapped up an excellent 4-2 win after some great work by Neal Horgan down the right hand side in a late cameo.

Elsewhere on the night, Mervue and Longford played the second leg of their Playoff game to decide who would face off against Bray Wanderers. With Mervue leading from the first game, Longford managed to turn things around and were leading by a goal in extra time before a Paul Sinnott goal in the 122nd minute forced the game to penalties. The Galway side couldn’t re-create that moment in either of their first two penalties, and Ryan Connolly slotted home the decisive spot-kick for De Town, seeing them through to the Promotion/relegation playoff the Wanderers.

As Halloween approached it looked like Jason Byrne would be Longford’s executioner. In the first leg he fired a quick brace to put Bray 2-0 up at half time. Tony Cousins’ men rallied though and two goals after the half hour mark restored parity heading into the deciding matchup in the Midlands. There were a further five goals and two sendings off in the return decider, Longford restored parity a further two times having seen Bray take the lead, but eventually it took a Kevin O’Connor goal five minutes from time to see Bray safe in the Premier for another season before an off-the-ball altercation saw a man from both side sent off.
Kevin O'Connor's late goal retained Bray's status
Source: RTÉ

So with everything decided in the league, the focus now switched to the Blue-Riband event of the season. The Aviva Stadium once again hosted the FAI Ford Cup final, and for the fourth time in five years Sligo Rovers were featuring. This time Drogheda United stood in their way, hoping that third time would indeed be lucky having already lost two cup finals in 2013. After a cagey opening, Drogheda took the lead. Paul O’Connor finishing off a fast counter-attack. Sligo were really struggling and looked more like the side who were making their first trip to the Aviva Stadium. The introduction of Danny North in the 70th minute, last year’s second highest scorer in the league, changed Sligo’s setup, and the game as a whole.

Eight minutes after his introduction he was wheeling away in delight from scoring the equaliser. Then, after referee Paul Tuite (reffing his final match) controversially allowed play to go on from a quick free kick having previously told the Sligo players to wait on the whistle, North capitalized on a cheeky Joseph Ndo scoop to smash the ball into the net. Drogheda captain Derek Prendergast was then sent-off for a second yellow card following his protestations and it looked like the game was all but over. But eight minutes of added time were announced and two into them Ryan Brennan was fed by Shane Grimes and powered the Drogs level.

It was always North who was going to have the last laugh though, and his magical shoulder set Anthony Elding up to turn and hit an unstoppable volley into the top left hand corner. Fitting too, that Elding, the man that blitzed the league early on (Scoring 6 goals in the first 6 games and winning the player of the month award) would be the one to bring it to a close, in the 94th minute of an incredible final. It was a frantic final fitting of a strange season, and with uncertainty even over the structure of the league next season, it promises to be just as crazy when we start it all again on the 7th March 2014!
Another year, another trophy for Sligo!
Source: RTÉ

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