There are two certainties in the 2010 League of Ireland season. Galway will be in the automatic relegation spot come season’s end*, while the title will go to either Bohemians or Shamrock Rovers. The other seven slots could really go anyway and that is where matters will get rather interesting.
*Galway will finish bottom of the table but heaven knows if they’ll actually be relegated given how insane the league’s off the field antics get.
Before looking at the bulk of the pack it’s probably a good idea to give some justification to my calls. First to Galway and even the most optimistic United fan expects tough times in Terryland this season. In short this is a team without a Premier Division standard squad and no funds to improve matters. The club’s problems off the field continue to plague them but they are not alone in that, the difference is the other financially challenged clubs are starting from a much stronger position in terms of playing squad. Galway don’t have the players to mount a survival campaign and much like Bray last year will wait for the merciful end to what will be an agonising season for supporters.
The title race is a two-horse race and despite the predictions of some Sporting Fingal will not challenge the dominance of Bohemians and Rovers. The Gypsies are defending champions and are looking to pick up their third straight title but find themselves heavily restricted financially, meaning the squad they have now is the only squad they will have to work with. While there’s no doubting this is a handicap it’s not as though they haven’t got an abundance of talent. The bulk of the side that won the last two titles is still there and that will ensure they are at least in contention this year. Attitude will play a crucial role for Bohemians in 2010. It’s no secret the Gypsies future is uncertain and Pat Fenlon will know exactly the challenge ahead of him. Fenlon was at the helm of Shelbourne the last year they won the league title, before being subsequently relegated in the off-season due to problems off the field. He’ll need to get his players, many of whom were part of the Shels debacle, focussed again this year so they rise to the challenge of an ever-improving Shamrock Rovers.
Last year’s second place side received quite the bump in performances from it move to Tallaght last season. Now with a permanent home and with a solid fanbase, Shamrock Rovers look poised to make a serious title challenge in 2010. On paper they have an inferior squad to Bohemians on opening day but, unlike their rivals, Rovers will be able to improve their resources as the season progresses. There will be no shortage of expectation in Tallaght this year. Much like Damien Richardson’s first season in Cork, this is a year where only the title will satiate supporters. Rovers have the spine of a title-team, whether that is enough to stay the course will take a couple of months to work out.
This leaves seven teams chasing two European spots, albeit one through the Cup, and seeking to avoid a relegation playoff (if there even is one but no need to digress). The promoted sides, UCD and Sporting Fingal, face quite differeing expectations.
Fingal have been tipped as dark horses for the league title. The investment behind the club and it’s ability to acquire talent has seen its profile grow. Fingal however lack some core elements required to win a championship, none greater than a true centre midfielder. In Shane McFaul and Ronan Finn they have two skillful footballers who can be creative in attack. If either one was in the centre of the park I’d consider him an asset, playing both as Fingal likely will is foolhardy. Across the park, but nowhere greater than midfield, the Northside club lacks players who can command the park and play a holding role. This is a footballing team with limited physical presence. They will be competitive certainly but not in the same tier as the top two.
UCD, the First Division champions, lost only one regular starter from last year’s squad. While Fingal’s acquisition of Finn is a loss to the Students, the past 18 months has seen the club develop a solid farm of central midfield talent to replace him. Like Fingal, UCD are a footballing side in a physical league. Unlike Sporting, UCD harbour no title ambitions and will be happy with the likely mid-table finish this earns them. Having spent all but 2 of the last 16 seasons in the top flight but earning only 1 European place in that period, the Students have one the most consistent mid-table squads in the league.
The next pair are the financially challenge Drogheda United and Cork City. I’m going to assume both teams make it through the season in one piece, as speculation of collapse serves no real benefit to this piece. Both have distinctly average squads and would have more run-of-the-mill relegation worries were it not for Galway’s sheer ineptitude. That said both have players with the physicality needed to survive in this division, whether that will be enough for both to avoid the playoff is anyone’s guess.
This leaves us with a trio of Sligo Rovers, Dundalk, and St Pats. Inchicore’s finest look better entering this season than they finished last year but only enough to guarantee they avoid a playoff battle. A European place is not beyond Pats but mediocrity will suffice for now. Sligo has essentially fallen into the role of best-of-the-rest because few can tell that much difference between the chasing pack. This is often a kiss of death as such a decision is usually based on how few faults a team has rather than its assets and Sligo is hardly brimming with brilliance on the park. Sligo should contend for a European spot but if thing go wrong they could easily find themselves desperately trying to avoid a playoff. The latter scenario is unlikely but by no means impossible. Finally Dundalk will, much like UCD and Pats, be happy if they can have a quiet mid-table season though of the trio they are the most likely to have to fend off challengers to avoid ninth place and a relegation playoff.
It all makes for a rather muddy situation to predict, for as the cliché goes that only one team can come first it also holds true that only one can come fifth. In what will prove a sticking my neck out position I will predict that both remaining European slots, after first and second, go to the next best pair in the league of Sligo and Pats. After that UCD, Fingal and Cork will fill spaces five through seven while Dundalk will hold off Drogheda to force United into the playoff. All of those calls are subject to massive change over the course of the season.