The new League of Ireland season kicks-off on next Friday night, Feb. 16, with action in the Premier and First Divisions. Shamrock Rovers were not one of the eight founder members of the League of Ireland in the 1921-22 season when St James’s Gate were the inaugural winners. But the next year, the Hoops won the League in their first season in membership. Last season Rovers won four in-a-row for the second time in their history to bring their total number of League title wins to 21. When you take in the fact that The Hoops have won the FAI Cup a record 25 times then there is no doubt that Rovers are regarded as the top club in the League.
On Friday, the Hoops begin the new season at home to Dundalk on Friday night bidding to become the first club to win five in-a-row. Rovers’ “drive for five” is being led by their young manager Stephen Bradley. The 39-year-old Tallaght native, a former Arsenal apprentice, has been the manager since November 2016, and is now chasing history as the Tallaght Hoops bid to become the first club in the 103-year history of the League to win five consecutively.
Rovers will probably start as favorites in a season where we are likely to see a lot of new faces. Jonathan Afolabi and Jack Moylan, the joint top scorers in the premier division last season, have both moved on; Afolabi has left Bohemians for Belgian club KV Kortrijk and Moylan has gone from Shelbourne to join English League One club Lincoln City. And Ronan Coughlan, who scored a record 35 League goals for Waterford in the first division last season, has joined the Blues sister club Fleetwood Town, also in League One.
Of course there are plenty of new stars on the horizon to replace those that have moved on. Rovers have lost a few players, but Bradley has re-signed Derry-born Aaron McEneff who has come home from Australia and he has also made a few local signings including the impressive Josh Honohan from Cork City and former St Pat’s winger Darren Burns, who is on loan from MK Dons. The manager is hoping that Irish international midfielder Jack Byrne will be free from injury this season. Rovers made a terrible start last term, but Derry City and St Pat’s failed to capitalize. It looks like the Saints, Derry and possibly Shels are the clubs most likely to stop Rovers “drive for five.”
Galway United, who won the first division last season, are managed by the experienced John Caulfield, who won the League with Cork City, while Waterford, who won the play-off are managed by Keith Long, who has plenty of premier division experience from his time with Bohemians. The prize money for the Premier Division, First Division and Women’s Division has been increased by 17 per cent. Attendances rose by 20 per cent last season and it looks like this welcome trend will continue.