With the Irish First Division season well underway as the majority of teams have played seven games, we take a look at the early contenders for the title and the Play-Off positions in 2021.
With the highest wage budget in the division by over €200,000 per annum, the relegated Shelbourne were by far the bookies favourites to walk the way to the league title as odds were being offered at ⅗.
Jon Daly’s side have not got off to the blistering start in the league that everyone was expecting as they struggled to manage to earn a point in February and despite a 3-0 win over title rivals Cobh Ramblers, have continued to struggle through March.
Dublin-born striker Ciarán Kilduff has been dubbed one of the best players in the division this year following 12 goals in 35 games in the Premier League last season. However, even the 32-year-old has struggled to get off the mark so far with only one goal in five games in the league.
Shelbourne currently sit in 4th place, just above Longford Town who match their points tally for the season but four points behind the league leaders.
Conor McDonald’s Cobh Ramblers were next in line as the favourites to take home the title this season and they have made a superb beginning to the 2021 campaign, leading the league table with 14 points after some smashing wins already in the form of 5-1 results against both Athlone Town and Bray Wanderers.
McDonald has revamped his side for the new season, electing to scout his homeland of England and Northern Ireland for new additions rather than the previous strategy of domestic Irish players.
The young 23-year-old manager has added a new strike partnership to replace last season’s Danila Bogdanov - on loan from Shamrock Rovers - and Cameron Moore who followed four other players from Cobh to Shelbourne in 2020. Callum Jones and Harry Warwick joined the club from Colchester United and Truro City respectively. The duo have netted nine goals between them as Jones leads the division’s goalscoring charts with a goal every 107 minutes at his current rate.
With their nemesis's from 2020 Drogheda United and University College Dublin both promoted and out of Cobh’s way, McDonald has to ensure his side don’t collapse at the end of the season and extend their current lead at the summit of the table.
Limerick are also a side that have made a bursting entrance into the Play-Off positions despite an opening day loss to Cobh and being sixth favourite for the title in 2021.
The Super Blues were relegated from the Premier League in 2018 as a result of their continuing financial troubles and have struggled to find their way back. A rebuilding process led by manager Tommy Barrett has taken place since as he enters his third year in charge at Markets Field.
Youth team graduate Brian McCauley has led the charge on the field despite only turning 17 last May. He made 22 league appearances in 2020 and has been a tremendous influence on the team this season as his team sit level on points with the league leaders Cobh.
Limerick are one to keep an eye on for this season with a few pundits tipping them to shock the division and make a long-awaited return to the top-flight.
Bray Wanderers were automatically relegated from the Premier League last season in their first season back in the Premier League and have become a yo-yo team in recent years.
They started off well in 2021, beating Shelbourne 1-0 on the opening day. However, Conor McDonald’s Cobh Ramblers showed their defensive weaknesses as they were beaten 5-1 at St. Colman’s Park.
Right-winger Conor Barry is expected to provide the goods for the remainder of this season, having played at this level, impressing at Galway United and making 35 league appearances in the top-flight for Bray Wanderers last season.
With Gary Cronin resigning from his position at Bray following the club’s relegation in 2020, it must be said that new manager Aaron Callaghan has started this season well with The Seagulls in 3rd place, one point behind the league leaders and 2nd place Limerick.
The outsiders for this season seem to be Longford Town and Galway United, who have both come close in recent seasons.
Longford brought in former Drogheda United manager Tim Clancy to take over from the sacked Martin Russell in July 2020 and his side made the Play-Offs last season with a final day draw against Cobh Ramblers. Despite a shaky start to the new season, Clancy’s team seem to have hit the quality they know they can provide on the pitch and look set to challenge for a Play-Off place again this season.
It can be said that Galway United have underperformed since their Premier League relegation in 2017 as they have only managed to scrape into the Play-Offs once in 2019. The club brought in former Finn Harps manager Ollie Horgan in December for the new season and he will be relying on striker Achille Campion to fire their way into the Play-Offs this season despite a horrific start to the season in which The Tribesmen have only won one game in seven.
We’ve been playing out of our skin! It’s been fantastic.
The wins will certainly bring more heads into the ground on a weekly basis. The two games against the relegated sides will be a good indicator for exactly where we should be placing our expectations for the season.
It’s great to see them gelling so quickly!
Another league title challenge is a scary thing considering last season’s events but I’m excited! Conor’s personal story will continue at a later date…
Warwick has stepped into Moore’s (who isn’t getting a game at Shelbourne!) shoes very well so far, long may it continue I say!
The decision to keep O’Hara was a tough one, having to weigh up the pros (his talent & experience) and the cons (his wages and his age). He was essential to last season’s success so I think I made the right call to keep hold of him.