League of Ireland 2017: Mick Cooke's team by team forecast

Former Drogheda United manager kicks off the season with Newstalk.com

League of Ireland, SSE Airtricity League, Dundalk, Cork City, preview, Drogheda United

Pictured: (L-R) Drogheda United’s Richie Purdy, Finn Harps’ Johnny Barrett, Galway United’s Colm Horgan, Derry City’s Aaron McEneff, Shamrock Rovers’ Ronan Finn, Dundalk’s Stephen O’Donnell, Cork City’s Steven Beattie, Limerick’s Dave O’Connor, Bohemians’ Dinny Corcoran, St. Patrick’s Athletic Athletics’ Ian Bermingham, Sligo Rovers Craig Roddan and Bray Wanderer’s Conor Kenna ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

On Friday, the 2017 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division campaign kicks off. 

Dundalk are aiming for a four-in-a-row, while Cork City will look to finally come out on top at the end of a season.

At the other end of the table, the changing structure of the League of Ireland for the start 2018 season means the Premier Division will fall from 12 teams to 10 and that means three clubs rather than one will be relegated automatically from the top flight. That creates a huge pressure of its own for a host of clubs.

Starting this week, ex-Drogheda United manager Mick Cooke will be sharing his thoughts on the 2017 domestic season with Newstalk.com.

And ahead of Friday's opening round of games, he's gauged the expectations of all 12 top flight teams.

2017 Champions

Mick is tipping Dundalk to go all the way once again and it's down to manager Stephen Kenny.

"Personally, I think it will be Dundalk because of the experience of the manager," he told Newstalk.com.

"They've lost Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle but they've got good replacements that have come in and with the experience Stephen's had over the last four years and the experience of players that he has there, I think they're still the team to beat. "

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, Cork City manager John Caulfield and Dundalk's Stephen Kenny

And how about Cork City?

"Cork City I have down as second," says Cooke of last season's FAI Cup winners and league runners up. 

"This year, John Caulfield has trimmed the squad right down. He's let 11 players go and brought in five which will be handier to manage. The lads he's brought in are very, very good. Conor McCormack for Derry will be a major influence there. He's brought young Shane Griffin from Reading and Jimmy Keohane back down from Sligo. So I think they will challenge and their striker Sean Maguire is one of the leading lights of the league and I think that was a major coup to keep him at Turner's Cross."

The battle for the European places 

Ex-Shelbourne midfielder Stuart Byrne tipped Derry City and Shamrock Rovers to be in the mix if Dundalk or Cork City falter. But are they the only ones that will be involved in a Top 4 battle?

Mick says: "Both Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers got off to poor starts last season but for the final two thirds of the campaign, kicked on. I would expect Bray to be an outside bet for a European spot. They've strengthened with people who have been around the league like Keith Buckley, Aaron Greene, Gary McCabe, Derek Foran from Sacramento and Anto Flood back from Australia. So these are players who really know the League of Ireland."

Mick also adds that along with keeping the talented Dylan Connolly, Bray manager Harry Kenny has maintained much of last season's squad intact and that their start to the season sees them avoid many of the stronger sides which could help build early momentum.

Meanwhile, in the case of a Derry City that finished third in the last campaign, Mick is "expecting a big season from them".

"Their back four is one of the strongest in the League of Ireland. Plus they've a very good goalkeeper in Ger Doherty," he explained.

 

Derry City's Barry McNamee ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

"I think Barry McNamee deserves a big season. He's the catalyst at times for Derry the way he can play."

Mick also picked out Harry Monaghan as a key player and adds that the goals of Rory Patterson will be vital.

Shamrock Rovers have gone with a structure that includes a sporting director in the shape of Stephen McPhail.

Among the new arrivals on the pitch, Mick feels Ryan Connolly from Galway United and Ronan Finn from Dundalk will make a positive impact.

But he feels blending all the new arrivals together means manager Stephen Bradley will have to gel them together first.

"It will take him a while to get his best team. He's brought in a lot of experienced players and he's retained a lot of young players in the club. So how will the new experienced players cope with the young players? So I think it's an unusual mix that he has, so maybe not this year but maybe he needs another year to develop this squad of players," says Mick.

Like Bray, Sligo ended last season well and one departure to St Patrick's Athletic could have an impact.

"They lost one of their dependable players of the last few years in Gavin Peers. Gavin would be great on the training ground and dressing room. To lose him is a big loss," says Mick.

"But the manager Dave Robertson did a great job last year."

Liam Buckley

Goals may be an issue depending on how the new arrivals up front fare.

"But I still think they've got a good, strong enough squad to be a top of the table team," Mick adds.

Since winning the league in 2013, St Patrick's Athletic have done well in the cup competitions by taking home the 2015 and 2016 League of Ireland Cups as well as ending a 53 year wait for FAI Cup honours in 2014.

But last season in the league, they had to settle for 7th and it is midtable that Mick expects Liam Buckley's side to finish in 2017.

"They're going through a period of transition. Liam has done a fantastic job and this is what we talked about before regarding expectations. Liam has won the league, he's won the cup and people think he should do it every year. And they play a fantastic brand of football and Liam has a great philosophy on the way they play. But when you lose so many players and to gain that philosophy again with a new group of players takes time and I think Pats will be just outside the European places. They certainly won't be in a relegation battle."

Among the players to depart since last season are Mark Timlin, Dinny Corcoran and Brendan Clarke and David Cawley.

But Mick sees Gavin Peers as a good arrival.

The battle to avoid the bottom three

Bohemians "have lost some very experienced players" according to Mick and "have brought in a lot of players from the First Division".

But when it comes to positives, Dinny Corcoran's ability in front of goal could well be a saving grace, although it remains to be seen whether he partners Ismahil Akinade up front as a pairing or plays up front alone. 

"But I would worry about Bohemians this season," says Mick. "Last season they finished eighth, so with a weaker squad - in my opinion - I think they could struggle a bit and could be one of the teams fighting to stay out of the bottom three."

Among the teams to have come up from the First Division, Mick would "worry about Drogheda United from the point of view that Pete [Mahon] has kept most of last year's squad".

"But when you look at last year's squad, they're very young with not much Premier Division experience with them. And bringing back the Brennans, Gavin Brennan I had when I managed there myself and he's a free soul and needs to be allowed to play.

Killian Brennan ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

"Killian is one of the best players in Ireland for the last 10 years. My worry about Killian is when you saw him in league winning teams, whether it be Rovers or with Pats... it's his attitude when things are going wrong. And his attitude with senior players, he got on their nerves. So what's his attitude going to be like with younger players? I just hope Killian can rein in his temperament and help these younger players rather than get on their backs. It's a big step up for them. They have a lot of players with very little Premier Division experience."

Limerick had an excellent promotion campaign last season and Mick feels manager Martin Russell needs to make a small tweak to the team's style to help keep them up.

"My worry about Limerick would be that Martin's philosophy on playing total football got him relegated a couple of years ago. I think he needs to change his philosophy on the game slightly," says Mick.

"I think if you look at Birmingham City in the English Championship who were back to front but three points off the promotion playoffs, and then they bring in Gianfranco Zola and play beautiful football but have now won one game in the last 14.

"So there's a happy medium somewhere and I just feel Martin - and I love the way he plays - but it's okay -playing like that against weaker sides. But when he goes to Ballybofey, Cork, Rovers or Pats, I think he needs to change that philosophy a small bit. But I think Limerick will survive."

 

Paddy McCourt with Finn Harps secretary John Campbell

Last season, Galway United finished just outside the bottom three but start this season with ex-Wexford Youths boss Shane Keegan as manager.

"It's a hard call for Shane and a big thing for Shane stepping away from where he was in Wexford with the family scenario and was dealing with local players, local lads who came through the Wexford setup, he's gone into the real man's world now and it's going to be hard for him," says Mick, adding that the departure of the talented Castlebar-born midfielder Ryan Connolly to Shamrock Rovers will be a loss keenly felt.

"They are one of the teams that I would worry about."

Earlier this week, Finn Harps signed ex-Derry City and Celtic winger Paddy McCourt and they are looking to build on a 10th place finish from 2016.

"One of their great stalwarts, Kevin McHugh, has retired which is sad," says Mick.

"They've got Danny Morrissey back from Cork, they've got Jonny Bonner from Wexford, who's a little tiger in midfield.

"They struggled last year. They finished 10th and with the other sides around them, sort of adding to their squads to avoid the bottom three, I think Finn Harps are going to have a long, long season and it's going to be difficult for them to stay up."