Wednesday, February 21, 2007


ATHLONE TOWN: 2006 - 8th: 2007 - 3rd

Michael O'Connor has left the deadwood at St. Mel's Park and begins life at Lissywoollen with an impressive new squad. Ronan Frawley, Mixie Harty and David O'Dowd have arrived from Galway United. Paul McTiernan has been smuggled from Sligo Rovers and Davy Byrne has travelled from Longford Town. Add in Colm Heffernan from Limerick and you can see the bones of a half-decent title challenge in the Midlands.

COBH RAMBLERS: 2006 - 4th: 2007 - 5th

All is not well down Queenstown way, and Ramblers promotion challenge has struck an iceberg before it even leaves shelter. Waterford United have opened their dressing room to Packie Holden, Robert Brosnan, David Breen and Willie Bruton. Another Cobh gem was lured inland when Darren Murphy accepted Cork City's offer of a full-time contract. In spite of a fourth place finish in 2006, they were 13 points off a promotion spot; a top half finish will be the limit of their hopes this time around.

DUNDALK: 2006 - 2nd: 2007 - 1st

John Gill's men face stiff competition from Finn Harps and Athlone Town this season. The recent promotion of Waterford United should ease the Lilywhite's task somewhat. The Louthmen could have been crowned Champions last season; a foul opening period eventually unbuckled their hopes. Sean Finn has moved Stateside - but the division's top scorer last term, Philip Hughes, has been retained. Ben Whelehan, David Crawley, Vinny Perth and Anto Flood have been added. The loan acquisition of Shaun Williams from friendly neighbours Drogheda United is an astute move. This squad shouldn't slip up this term.

FINN HARPS: 2006 - 6th: 2007 - 2nd

Paul Hegarty has fanned the flames in Donegal with some frenetic transfer activity. Tony Gorman, Shane Bradley, Davitt Walsh and Stephen O'Donnell are amongst those who have variously moved on. From the Irish Premier League have arrived the abilities of Stephen Parkhouse, John O'Loughlin, Tony Shields and Gordon Simms. Add in the returning Declan Boyle alongside Chris Breen and Conor Gethins and all the ingredients for a sustained title assault are in the reusable shopping bag; Higgsy's squad may lose ground if they don't bed in quickly, but they ought to be there or abouts come November.

KILDARE COUNTY: 2006 - 7th: 2007 - 4th

John Ryan has brought in ex-Limerick 'keeper Austin O'Neill, along with Kilkenny City duo Sean L'Estrange and Paul Donnelly. The migration of Stephen Cooling to Waterford United is a bodyblow, robbing them of creativity in the centre. The Brownstown Bomber, Philip Gorman is in harness from the kick off this term, and his partnership with the on-loan Padraig Almond will stretch any defence in this division given the supply. Can't see promotion in the cards for them, but they may trouble some of the fancied sides.

KILKENNY CITY: 2006 -10th: 2007 - 9th

Last year's bottom feeders may have a new boss in former hero Brendan Rea; but another tough season lies ahead for the Cats. Shamrock Rovers 'keeper, John McGuinness, has come in on loan - he'll have gained a lot of experience come season's end. Most of the mainstay of last year's side has gone; Mitch Casey and Stephen Grant have come in from Waterford United. There's stiff competition for the bottom spot in 2007, they may not retain the title.

LIMERICK 37: 2006 (Limerick FC) - 5th: 2007 - 8th

Last year's top half finish was largely due to an impressive start to the season; Lims lead the table by 5 points at one stage. Their season descended into the mire; mire from which the club did not re-emerge. So Limerick 37 has come to be. Assuming they scoop from the same player pool as the previous incumbents it will be a tough year for the committed soccer public, Shannonside. Their competitors sucked up the cream of their squad whilst Danny Drew was busy in court; subsequently Paul McGee has had to scour low and high to assemble a capable playing staff for the imminent season. A learning curve for the league's newest club.

MONAGHAN UNITED: 2006 - 9th: 2007 - 6th

The Mons were saved the ignominy of bottom spot last year only by the dismal ineptitude of Kilkenny City's efforts. Mick Cooke has made a few changes during the close season. Shane McGeown and Austin McCann have escaped across the border to Armagh City; half a dozen players have been released; Robbie Horgan has hung up his socks. The biggest loss has to be David Lee's defection to Longford Town- last year's top scorer will be missed. Former Shelbourne U 21 striker Ian McCluskey is one of those who will be hoping to fill Leeza's boots. Willie Doyle, Aaron Mooney and Peter Darcy have arrived in triumvirate from Kilkenny City. The extraordinary circumstance of having effectively 3 new squads in the league this season may help to propel the Mons to the heady heights of mid-table security.

SHELBOURNE: 2006 - Premier Champions: 2007 - 10th

A week ago the prospects were distinctly gloomy for the Richmond Road Reds, but the astute appointment of Dermot Keely has breathed new life into the corpse. A Frankenstein squad is being assembled; difficult at this point to see them achieve anything other than notional financial stability; even that is a big ask.

WEXFORD YOUTH: 2006 - n/a: 2007 - 7th

The spawn of Mick Wallace finally gets a place on the big stage. If nothing else this young side will be well prepared under the stewardship of Messrs. Wallace and Dolan. A steady start will be important to build confidence. Fortunately there are indifferent sides around them, for varying reasons, and they may well finish at the top of the bottom pile in their maiden season.

Monday, February 19, 2007


The drudgery of off-field groundhog day scenarios can at last be hoofed high and hard over the corrugated roof of a venerable stand because the real action is fast approaching. Forgive me if I salivate on your new replica jersey, but the opening ties of the 2007 Setanta Sports Cup are less than a week away. Begone you fixtures with your phalanxes of substitutions; this is proper competitive action at last.

There was much talk last season of the fitness advantage held by the IPL sides, as they were operating at the height of their season when the Setanta tournament commenced. Derry City rubbished that idea in the opening tie against Linfield. The competitive edge may tilt the balance northwards, but the vagaries of a hard season culminating in a tight title finish will sap some of the strength from those legs as the weeks roll by; thereby levelling the pitch somewhat.

Group 1 features Glentoran v Derry City and the televised offering, Drogheda United v Linfield on February 26th. At the turn of the year it would have been difficult to get a toothpick between these four, but Glentoran have suffered an outburst of defensive incontinence in the interim. They were 5 points clear of their nearest rivals, gliding high at the summit of the IPL. At time of writing they lie in 4th place, six points behind leaders Linfield.

Paul Millar is a novice boss, facing the biggest crisis yet of his managerial career. Interestingly, former Northern Ireland skipper Alan McDonald, has just been parachuted in as assistant to Windy. His influence has yet to be felt though, with the woeful Glens shipping three goals to lowly Larne in a recent game.

Gary Smyth partners Paul Leeman at the cardiac centre of their defence; the former's legs are not what they were. Up front Gary Hamilton has been scoring for fun and he'll cause any defence problems, given a decent supply. Conversely, any back four that can subdue the IPL's top scorer will render the Cock and Hens impotent. Of interest to eircom League followers will be the presence of ex-Longford Town midfielder Dean Fitzgerald, and former Hoops player Willo McDonagh in the Glentoran squad.

Linfield [I will not mention that they were 'winners of the inaugural tournament', because you will doubtless be tired of reading that phrase] have just recently ascended into pole position in the IPL. With less than a third of the season remaining they are easing into the next gear. Not the unassailable force of last season, there is a hint of vulnerability about their back line. Daithi Mor has bought wisely, and the exciting talent of Thomas Stewart has been acquired, likewise the assured touch of Conor Downey; a recent target for Bohemians. There is an impressive depth to the Blues squad, there are more full-time pros at Windsor Park now and their challenge will not be easily dismissed.

Of course the same must be said of Drogheda United. Many people's favourites for the 2007 eircom Premier Division title, the current holders were hugely impressive when they disposed of Linfield last season. Non-porous at the back when Gavin and Gartland are in tandem; they will pose a greater attacking threat with the experience of former Shelbourne duo, Ollie Cahill and Stuart Byrne in their ranks. Declan O'Brien is their main striking threat, Tony Grant is fit again and Eamonn Zayed will have benefitted from a professional pre-season - a lot is expected from the young striker this term.

Derry City collected two cups last year, and with Pat Fenlon at the helm will be expecting to be parading the Premier Division trophy at the Brandywell next winter. Although Nutsy has inherited an embarrassment of attacking options, he has added the exciting talents of Karl Bermingham and Kyle Moran to his squad. Bermingham shone brightly but briefly at Newry City earlier this season when he scored 4 goals in 4 outings before succumbing to injury. It seems as if Greg O'Halloran will be bringing his tent to the Northwest also, with another of the Shelbourne diaspora, Dean Delaney, not far behind.

In Group 2, we have Dungannon Swifts, Cork City, Portadown and Shelb, er St. Patrick's Athletic.

It's Pats v Ports and Dungannon v Cork on the opening night. Three of these protagonists did battle in the Group stages last term, and they have had mixed fortunes in the interim. This is definitely a weaker group, and it's difficult to conceive that the competition winners could emerge it.

Damian Richardson's Cork side built their 2006 season on a defence which looked upon Ebenezer Scrooge as a benevolent uncle. Neal Horgan. Alan Bennett. Danny Murphy. Gone! Neale Fenn. George O'Callaghan. Gone! The arrival of Gareth Farrelly redresses the balance marginally; Colin Healy would be a significant signing. Up front an over reliance on the brittle fitness of John O'Flynn undoes their efforts. Roy O'Donovan finished last season in a manner which was almost replicated by a certain Christmas tree in Merrion Square. el Rico may decide to persist with the speed merchant's skills up front. The Rebel fans are restless following a hollow season last term; they'll qualify from the group, but no more than that [Put your money on them so].

Ronnie Mc Fall's side disappointed in 2006, but he has used every ounce of his experience to produce an extremely competitive 2007 version. They have been one of the most consistent sides in the IPL; Kevin Pressman keeps them tight from the back, Peter Kennedy adds solidity in midfield, and Kevin Braniff is beginnning to bed in nicely up front. The Ports have the ability to make it to the knockout stage; they'll need to be lucky with injuries and suspensions, as they don't have the depth of squad that others do. They've already put it up to Linfield and Glentoran this season and need fear no one.

Dungannon Swifts are experiencing their first season with Harry Fay at the tiller; he was promoted from within when Joe McAree moved onward and upward. Accordingly the Swifts' dogma of attractive free-flowing football has been maintained. Unfortunately it is a toothless one. When Linfield bought Timmy Adamson and put him on a shelf at Windsor Park they took the bite from the Stangmore Blues. Allied to that problem is a less than convincing defensive line... Gary Fitzpatrick's prolonged absence hasn't helped. They languish currently in mid-table anonymity, and we won't be seeing them in next season's competition. The universally popular club will be happy to put on a good show.

The Saints are at once latecomers and newcomers to Setanta Cup action. They flirted briefly with the notion early last season and then produced a run of indifferent results to firmly banish the thought. Since then their strike force has taken the boat to Scotland. John McDonnell's side are not ready to make a serious challenge at this level. They'll be nobody's whipping boys, but the journey will be one of learning and experience for the Inchicoremen. 2006 Player of the Year, Joseph Ndo would grace any side; along with livewire striker Gary O'Neill he will inject a fresh spark. Keith Fahey, properly harnessed, is a hugely talented midfielder with devilish dead ball ability. They lack firepower, and the squad is a bit thin.

Bring it on!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


It's been an unusually quiet week in land. Although I am loathe to utter the words for fear of unleashing doom and pillage, that fear shall be set aside - it's been just like a normal off season week.

OK, we had the announcements regarding the induction of Juventus Wexford and the Limerick 37 have been freed; those proclamations were well flagged. Things didn't manage to get any worse for Shelbourne - and the impending pronouncements from the First Instance Committee are likely to reinforce widely held expectation, more so than shock.

The transfer activity has eased off to a trickle, but with just a couple of weeks to go before the window slams shut, a late flurry is to be anticipated. There are hopeful sounds down by the Lee; if el Rico can secure Colin Healy's signature it would go some way towards spreading some optimism about in Turner's Cross and it's environs; maybe it would also go some way towards finalising the capture of his other targets.

The close season sale at Longford Town seems to have ended; should Alan Matthews be staying on he needs to get stacking the shelves again. Dermot Ahern's fatuous All-Ireland suggestion has already run out of eco-friendly fuel.

The nouveau-riche are training in sunnier climes, while at the other end of the mercury, Brendan Rea attempts to cobble a squad together capable of keeping eL football at Buckley Park. The 'friendly' season is now with us; and those desperate for a fix follow their side via strange watering holes hoping to catch a sight of some blossoming potential.

One such fixture involved a trip to the burgeoning town of Newbridge where the Thoroughbreds hosted the Shamrock Rovers roadshow last Saturday. Kildare County modelled their lovely new kit for 2007; Pat Scully sported a new coat, it seems grey is the new black. I wish the same applied to hair!

Whether the game was good, bad or none of the above it just felt good to be attending a match again. The scent of boiling water and powdered soup on a cold February day forms a potent aroma. Bottle it and give it to your Valentine - it's novel and personal - the perfect gift combination, sure to melt the hardest heart.

Enough of fluffy romance. It's now less than two weeks to the Setanta Cup kick off. The 2007 fixture list will be pinned on the wall by the weekend. Referee's are polishing the peas, grounds have had a lick of paint; a high-powered FAI committee are meeting to decide what number the countdown will start at. Suffice to say, it won't be long now.