THE 2021 League of Ireland season returns tonight.
I wouldn’t agree that Shamrock Rovers are favourites to lift the trophy again.
The Hoops were head and shoulders above any other team in the league last year and would have won the title even if it were a 36-game league, although some Dundalk players would not agree.
Although Rovers have strengthened their squad with the signings of players like, Seán Hoare, Seán Gannon and Daniel Mandroiu, the departures of Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff have weakened the Hoops starting line-up.
We all know how good a player Byrne was for Rovers and he has been the best player in the league for the past two seasons.
Rovers are counting on Mandroiu to replace Byrne and I don’t feel the former Bohemians player is ready to fill that void yet. Mandroiu is a talented player but lacks real consistency and there must be some reason why he spent a lot of last season warming the Bohs bench.
Mandroiu is at his best when he plays with a target man and makes runs in behind the defence, but I wouldn’t say Rovers have a target man. And with their style of play, it’s rare that they look to play long balls in behind opposition defences.
McEneff brought a lot of energy to the Hoops’ midfield and judging by the Presidents Cup final, Rovers are looking to replace the Hearts player by switching Ronan Finn back into midfield from wing-back. Finn is a midfielder by trade but the switch to wing-back suited him.
He’s still an exceptional midfielder but at 33, it will be hard for him to cover the yards McEneff did.
From what Dundalk players have been saying in the media, they are really motivated to win the title back. It is their time to show that they are still the best team when it comes to a 36-game season.
There has been a much-needed large turnover of players at the club over the off-season. A lot of players fans in the league won’t have heard about but going off the game against Rovers last weekend, the Lilywhites have recruited very well.
The most important signing they have made is goalkeeper Alessio Abibi. Gary Rodgers was excellent during his time at Dundalk but towards the last end of his career with the Lilywhites, there were signs that his time was up. He wasn’t saving shots he should have been.
Abibi is an upgrade on Rodgers and we all know how important it is for teams these days to have a good reliable ’keeper. Rovers struggled for years before Alan McMannus return to the club and we have seen just how big an impact he has made.
I think Dundalk underestimated Rovers last year but it’s obvious they aren’t going to make that mistake this year and they are my favourites to win the league.
Bohs have been touted by many to win the title this year. Bastien Henry is an exciting signing and maybe a sign the Keith Long is going to change the way his Bohs side are going to play this season. Bohs are known for their no-nonsense approach but with Henry in the side, he is a player that will want the ball played into him in dangerous areas, something Bohs haven’t done in the past.
Andre Wright is a big loss for Bohs and Georgie Kelly really has to start producing this year.
St Patrick’s Athletic are always a team that look like they could challenge at the top with signings they make and that seems to be the case again this year. Pat's have been crying out for a goal scorer centre-forward for years and although I don’t think Ronan Coughlan will score 15-20 goals this season, he will bring a presence and give the team a focal point.
Matty Smith is a player I know from our time together at Waterford and he is also an option up front for Pats and is a player that could really make an impact on the league this year.
Waterford, Longford Town and Drogheda United will all find life difficult in the division. I don’t see anything but relegation for the Blues, with Longford and Drogheda trying to avoid the relegation play-off position.