We are just over 10 days until the League of Ireland makes its much anticipated return up and down the country. This season will bring much more excitement, drama, goals and anarchy amongst all 20 teams. 2018 will see the Premier Division and First Division revert back to 10 team leagues; with clubs facing each other no more than 4 times in the Premier Division.
A fast start is what will be needed for all the sides that will have their own objectives for the forthcoming season and none more so than St Patricks Athletic. The 2013 champions struggled for much of last season, that seen them fall deep into a fight for survival. Thankfully to some shrewd business in the summer transfer window, Liam Buckley seen his side stake their place in the Premier Division for this season.
Owen Garvan, Jordi Balk and Killian Brennan where all signed and as expected, the quality of each player would change the path for the Saints. They helped the Inchicore side finish in 8th position, 4 points clear of that elusive trap door that gave a massive relief to the fans.
The 2017 league campaign was the 1st time St Pats had not reached double figures in league wins since 2006. That season they finished 7th but well clear of the drop zone. You would have to go back to the 78-79 season to see a St Pats side, with a worse defence than last season. That year they conceded 62 times while in 2017 they seen 52 goals fly past them.
11 of those 52 goals where against Dundalk, who eased past the Saints on 3 occasions last year without conceding. Liam Buckley will have to get his side more competitive against the bigger sides this year if they are to have any chance of having a successful 2018. The off season has giving the manager a chance to rebuild and so far he’s signed really well.
Jordi Balk will be a massive loss, as he has opted for a return home but Buckley has held onto Ian Bermingham, Michael Barker and Lee Desmond. While he has added former Sligo and Limerick defender Michael Leahy to the back line. The signings that will excite the fans will be the recruitment of Simon Madden from Shamrock Rovers. The decision from the Hoops to not renew Madden’s deal will be a very costly one as he is arguably the best right back in the league.
Liam Buckley now has the best two attacking full backs in the league with Bermingham on the other side but keeping the goals out will be a priority first and foremost. Also added to the ranks is Kevin Toner who has returned from a stint in England with Aston Villa. The 21 year old will virtually be unknown like most players that come back across the water and the Saints will need to be patient.
Barry Murphy will be the clubs number 1 goalkeeper this year but will be kept on his toes by Ireland under 17 international Brian Maher. The 17 year old has been promoted by Buckley and will be eager to get his name on the team sheet.
Killian Brennan and Owen Garvan are staying on for anther season and for the former, it’s a brilliant signing. He is one of the best midfielders to play in the league of Ireland and the way in which he controls the tempo of the game is top class. Owen Garvan’s mobility will be a problem again this season but has plenty offer on the ball.
Graham Kelly, Ian Turner, Darragh Markey and the outstanding Conan Byrne are also staying on for the 2018 season. For Markey, he will hope to stay in the team this season after he was one of the ones that was left out after the summer arrivals last year. The midfielder has outstanding potential with a key eye for a pass, skill and so much confidence on the ball.
Conan Byrne was yet again St Pats stand out player last year with some key and outrageous goals. Although as a winger he lacks pace, he makes up for it with his goals. Thomas Byrne, Ryan Brennan and Jamie Lennon are new recruits. The latter signed his first professional contract with the club while Brennan could play a key role with his energy and skill on the ball.
The midfield is in good nick ahead of the season but any long term injuries will hurt the team.
Christy Fagan is just 10 goals away from his 100th goal in a St Pats jersey. That’s a remarkable feat for any league of Ireland player but if he is to reach that in 2018, he will need to stay fit. The striker has yet to hit consistent form since 2014 and only scored 7 league goals last season but has struggled with his fitness in recent times.
As the Saints main marksman, he needs to be better with his decision making and 1st touch on the ball. He so often gives it away that leads to a quick transitional break from the opposition. There will some pressure coming on him after the signings of James Doona, Dean Clarke and Jake Keegan.
New recruits, Clarke and Doona can also play out wide so it will be interesting to see how Buckley sets up throughout the season. American born Jake Keegan has returned to the league of Ireland having previous played with Galway in 2014. The American bagged 27 goals for the Tribesmen and the Saints will be hoping he can find the net on a regular basis at Richmond Park.
St Pats have clearly extended their budget to recruit players and after last seasons relegation fight, they needed to. The squad size isn’t huge, so fitness and some rotation will be key to a good season. Liam Buckley will stick with his 4-3-3 system but will vary throughout the course of 90 minutes.
The fans can expect a much better season than what 2017 brought and if they stay injury free, a top 3 or 4 will be very much a possibility. The manager and staff, will have to get the basics right and get the team competing from the off. Its time for the Saints roar to return, its time to turn the Stadium of Light into a fortress and watch the Saints go marching in!!!