The off season is coming to an end, the player and manager merry go round is finalised and the squads have been assembled, the countdown to Friday 24th of February is on. That very day, fans up and down the country will gather in their droves to attend their favourite football team as we return to the League of Ireland 2017.
Every season brings optimism, hope, fears, tears and enjoyment but this season will also bring one very big question, Can anybody stop Dundalk? The dominant lilywhites will be favourites again and despite losing 2 of their better players, they have signed superbly. One team who will hope to close the gap on them this season is Liam Buckley’s St Patricks Athletic.
The 2013 champions suffered an awful league campaign last season which eventually seen them finish in 7th place which was a staggering 37 points away from winners Dundalk. The Saints suffered all over the pitch last season with injuries to key man Christy Fagan who couldn’t get any consistency in his game while defensively they were appalling. They did have a silver lining however and one that has marked Buckley’s brilliant term since returning to the club in 2012 and that was retaining the EA Sports Cup.
The former Sporting Fingal manager has won been influential over the last 5 years at Richmond Park winning all the main trophies and playing a huge part in the clubs superb under 17s and 19s with his passing philosophy. His aim this season will be to get the Saints back into the top 6 and maybe have a say in another piece of silverware.
The first port of call for Buckley, coaches Dave Campbell and Darius Kearns was to sort out the backline that was so often poor and with so many errors. They kept just 14 clean sheets across all competitions and conceded more than 1 goal in 15 games. Re-signing for his second spell at the club is Barry Murphy, who will be a huge asset to the backline and is one of the bet keepers in the league. The highly rated and talented Sean Hoare had a season too forget as he was paired beside a slow Darren Dennehy for much of the campaign and at times he looked like he was doing two jobs at once. Hoare has since departed for Dundalk while Dennehy is into his second year of a 2-year contract at Richmond Park.
The former Cork City central defender may as well have been elsewhere for much of the season as he looked uninterested, slow on the ball and poor positional sense but the management team have giving him a second chance and will hope he can find some type of form. Gavin Peers has been signed from Sligo Rovers to replace Hoare and can turn out to be a shrewd signing from St Pats. A no-nonsense defender who can also play out from the back and will play a huge role in this campaign.
It remains to be seen who will play in the centre of defence come the 24th of February as the talented Lee Desmond and Rory Feely will also have a say but if the recent Leinster Senior Cup win over Bray Wanderers is anything to go by, it will be Peers and Dennehy. A huge feature of Liam Buckley’s style is his wing backs and staying put for the seventh consecutive season is Ian Bermingham. The left back’s energy is outstanding, rarely injured and excellent on the ball. Michael Barker looks like he will be the starter on the opposite side as Ger O’Brien has taking up a coaching role at the club and might just have a bit part role this year.
One of the reasons the defence suffered last season was the lack of protection from the midfielders as replacing the likes of Greg Bolger and Killian Brennan was much harder than initially thought from the coaching staff. David Cawley was brought in but looked lost with every minute he played, while Keith Tracey hadn’t got the attitude or fitness to play a pivotal role. Liam Buckley has fixed that already with the signing of Pat Cregg from Shamrock Rovers, he is no Brennan or Bolger but what he will gave St Pats this season is bite and instruction that they lacked last season.
Alex O’Hanlon has also signed on the dotted line at Richmond Park and the former Liverpool underage midfielder has massive potential. He scored on his debut in the Leinster Senior Cup win and will add quality going forward for St Pats. Graham Kelly is staying and will be joined by youngsters Jack Bayly, Darragh Markey while Sam Verdon will give options to the number 10 role.
Out wide Buckley has kept the services of Conan Byrne who so often turns up for St Pats and Billy Dennehy. Like his brother, Billy was another one with so many below par performances last season but was giving a 2-year contract and will see out the second year of that. The frustrating winger gave the fans nothing to cheer about for the majority of last season as he had no end product and poor over set pieces. He did play a key role in the league cup win in Limerick and the fans will be hoping for that type of form this season.
The technically brilliant Kurtis Byrne has signed from Bohemians and will put pressure on Fagan and the lads out wide. If Byrne can find some goal scoring form, then he will be a key player this season but like so many consistency isn’t there. The re-signing of Christy Fagan on a 2-year deal was one that brought St Pats fans to jubilation as the best centre forward in the league was staying put. His link up play with Conan is one of the best in the league and seen them grab 21 league goals between them last season.
One to watch this season at Richmond Park is Jonathan Lunney the extremely talented midfielder is superb on the ball and scored an outstanding goal against Dundalk at the tail end of last season. He has represented Ireland at underage levels and with the help of Buckley he will play a big role this season.
St Pats start the league campaign at home to Bray then trips to United Park and the Showgrounds before hosting Finn Harps in the first 4 games of the season and Buckley will be aiming for at least 10 points. With this squad available to him there is a mixture of youth and experience and one that should certainly get back to the top 6.
Image Credit: RTE