League of Ireland tips: Alan Cawley’s pre-season picks for winner, top scorer and relegation

Alan Cawley gazes into his crystal ball ahead of the new League of Ireland season.

Stephen Bradley

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League winners: Shamrock Rovers

We’re all delighted that the season is back and ahead of the new campaign, there’s great excitement around the league and great hype on social media too. I do think that Shamrock Rovers are worthy favourites to regain their crown and I was impressed with them in the Presidents Cup last week. They played Dundalk and they put up a really good showing and after watching that game, I do think it’s going to be a lot more competitive and tighter this year.

Last season, the league was run over 18 games and Rovers won it in a canter by 11 points from Bohemians and they were 22 points clear of Dundalk. What I’ve taken away from last week’s game, and the close season, is that it will be a lot more competitive this year and it won’t be as straight forward for Rovers. They haven’t done as much business as other clubs, because they’ve more of an assembled squad, but they have lost Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff and I thought they were the two best players in the league last season.

I think losing those two players will have a massive effect on their chances although they have brought in players like Sean Hoare and Sean Gannon while Chris McCann is a very good signing too. I don’t know if those signings are going to replace the goals and assists that they had with Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff and with Dundalk bringing in some good players, I think they can be much more competitive and close the gap. The Lilywhites have brought in Sonni Nattestad, Sam Stanton, Raivis Jurkovskis and Junior, who was the leading goalscorer in the league two seasons ago, and that will add to what they have already and more importantly, they’ve kept all their firepower too.

I think they will push Shamrock Rovers all the way this year. The other team who might have a say in the title is Bohemians and I would throw them into the mix as well. With the point about Rovers coming back to the pack, I think that also gives Bohs a good chance. They’ve also signed really well and Georgie Kelly is one of those signings. I think they’re in the mix for a top three finish and outside of those, I think Sligo Rovers could be in for a European spot as well if they can push on. In terms of the title race though, I’m going to stick with Shamrock Rovers and I think they’re worthy favourites despite the loss of Byrne and McEneff. They still have a very good squad and I think they’ll be good enough to win the league again.

Top goalscorer: Georgie Kelly

As for a bet in the top goalscorer market, the four players at the top of the market are the obvious players and I think Rory Gaffney is an interesting player in that market if he gets a good run of games for Rovers this season. The player who offers a bit of value though is Georgie Kelly, who never really hit the ground running last season. He was with St Pats then and Bohemians have since signed him and under a very good manager in Keith Long, I think he could be the surprise and he could add a lot of goals for Bohemians this year. If he does, he could push them all the way to being the surprise package in the title race and he could offer a lot of value in the top goalscorer market.

Relegation: Longford Town

Last season, I thought that Cork City would struggle, and they finished bottom, and this time around, I think it could be Longford Town. I’ve narrowed it down to four teams to finish bottom in Waterford, Finn Harps, Drogheda and Longford Town but I think it will be between Longford and Waterford as to which team will struggle most.

Waterford have got Kevin Sheedy and Mike Newell and it’s great to see them in the league but the players they brought in from the UK are a complete unknown. I fear for Longford Town though as they came up through the playoffs last season but the players that they’ve brought in aren’t really good enough to keep them in the division. Longford Town fans won’t like hearing this but I think they’ll be the whipping boys of the league and I think they’ll be relegated.

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