AIRTRICITY LEAGUE SOCCER: SEASON PREVIEW
Big season ahead for Kildare’s Airtricity League contingent
By Daire Walsh
NOW that all the talking is over, the action can commence. Following a wait of almost four months, the Airtricity League Premier Division gets up and running again this Friday evening with a number of tasty encounters to whet the appetite.
Can Dundalk remain on top of the pile in the wake of Stephen Kenny’s departure? Will Cork City once again be the team to challenge for their crown or can a new contender emerge to challenge the perceived status quo?
Only time will tell, but the opening weeks of the campaign should serve as a strong indication of where each team stands. It will also be a big 12 months for three of Kildare’s most recognised talents, with Gary Shaw, Rory Feely and Sam Byrne all expected to play crucial roles at their respective clubs.
Whereas Shaw and Byrne sought pastures new at the end of a frustrating 2018, Feely will embark on his second season at the RSC with Waterford. The Athy man joined the Munster club upon their promotion to the top-flight, having previously spent four years at St Patrick’s Athletic.
He proved to be a major success in the Deise county, scoring two goals in 30 league appearances. This earned him the Young Player of the Year award and it came as little surprise when his contract was renewed last December.
Feely’s versatility (he has featured at centre-back, right-back and right-wing during his time in the league) has been a major asset for the Blues, who will play Europa League football as a result of last year’s commendable fourth-place finish.
It will be tough for them to replicate this form for a second successive term, though they certainly have the resources and the quality to do so.
At his former club on Dublin’s southside, a fellow Lilywhite – Shaw – is hoping to re-establish himself as a force to be reckoned with. The Newbridge native was first-choice striker at Shamrock Rovers throughout 2017 and was proving to be a popular figure amongst the home faithful.
However, he subsequently struggled to re-discover his top form following a serious arm injury – which led to him spending a vast chunk of last season on the Hoops’ bench.
The presence of Dan Carr and Aaron Greene edged him down the attacking pecking order, leading to his eventual departure from the Tallaght Stadium.
Harry Kenny moved quickly to make the imposing Shaw his first signing as Saints boss and he will be joined by some familiar faces at Inchicore. Barry Murphy, Simon Madden, Mikey Drennan, James Doona, Dean Clarke and Brandon Miele were all team-mates of Shaw at Rovers.
They can expect a tough encounter against Cork City at Richmond Park on Friday, but the return of Christopher Forrester is a massive boost for Kenny as he begins his tenure.
While Shaw’s old charges make the visit to Feely’s Waterford on the opening weekend, their arch rivals Bohemians welcome Finn Harps to Dalymount Park.
If selected, the aforementioned Sam Byrne will be aiming to make a quick impression for the Gypsies.
The former Manchester United and Everton youth returned to these shores with Dundalk 12 months ago, where he made two league appearances before securing a loan spell at Irish Premiership outfit Glentoran.
He was on the scoresheet for Bohs in a recent friendly win over Longford Town, prompting manager Keith Long to offer him a subsequent deal on January 30. A younger brother of Leinster rugby winger Adam Byrne, it will be interesting to see how the former Republic of Ireland underage prodigy adapts to the progressive style of play deployed by Long.