Five reasons why the First Division is going to be the one to watch

15th November 2023

The SSE Airtricity League website will have a number of new writers and reporters for the 2018 season to bring you closer to the action than ever before. Introducing Kieran Burke, Longford Town supporter and 'Between the Stripes' podcast host, who w

The SSE Airtricity League website will have a number of new writers and reporters for the 2018 season to bring you closer to the action than ever before.

Introducing Kieran Burke, Longford Town supporter and 'Between the Stripes' podcast host, who will be writing for the website this season on all things First Division. 

In his first piece for the, Kieran makes the argument that the First Division will be the league to watch this year...

With the Presidents cup showdown between Dundalk FC and Cork City on February 11th quickly followed by the start of the 2018 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division just five days later, SSE Airtricity League fans up and down the land and indeed across the globe are already shaking with anticipation ahead of the new domestic season. 

If that wasn't enough to get the blood flowing, the opening live game of the season will indeed be the historical Dublin derby clash involving Bohemians FC and Shamrock Rovers, as the famous old Capital clubs look to start their respective campaigns with a crucial three points and City bragging rights to boot. As for followers of the First Division, they must endure the agonising wait of an extra week as the second-tier sides begin their respective league campaigns on February 24th. 

So often in sport the build-up to a big occasion can often outlive the event itself, however there seems to be little chance of that scenario taking place in regards to the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division season. Being billed by supporters and pundits alike as potentially the most competitive First Division campaign in League of Ireland history, the new look second tier has the potential to outshine the division all ten of its competitors aspire to reach for 2019, the Premier Division. 

With First Division clubs continuing to ramp up their pre-season preparation's ahead of the February 24th starting line, here are five reasons the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division has the potential to steal the show over the course of the new year. 

1. The play-offs are back! 

New year – New look! The 2018 SSE Airtricity League will now feature two divisions consisting of ten teams each as opposed to the split of twelve to ten saw in 2017. While fans of many of the long-standing top-flight clubs may have experienced a ten-team Premier Division in the past, followers of the First Division will certainly look forward to welcoming two extra clubs to their grounds this season. As a result, what is perhaps Irish footballs most enthralling spectacle will now return after a seasons hiatus and that is the play-offs series. 

The mere uttering of those two precious words instantly brings about memories of both unforgettable highs and equally unbearable heartache to football fans all over Ireland who have been lucky enough to see their sides take part in this rollercoaster end of season competition. 

You only have to go back as recently as the promotion/relegation play-off series of 2016 to find an example of one of dozens of iconic League of Ireland play-off moments as teenage sensation BJ Banda became a Finn Harps hero forever more thanks to his last-gasp extra-time winner in the second-leg at home to the ultimately downed Limerick FC. 

Other instantly recognisable play-off moments of yesteryear include the thrilling First Division play-off final second-leg between Longford Town and Mervue United, who scored a last kick of the game equaliser to force penalties at the City Calling Stadium in 2013, only to lose out to "De Town", while more nationally remembered games include Bray's unthinkable fight-back versus Monaghan United at a stormy Carlise Ground and of course Dundalk's famous unlikely survival against Waterford United in 2012.

If those examples are not enough to set the heart racing, the fact that even more First Division teams will be given a play-off opportunity in 2018 most certainly will! For not only have the play-offs returned but this season will see the sides that finish second, third and fourth in the First Division qualify for an extended play-off series. 

In basic terms, this system will see the runners up earn a place in the First Division play-off final, while third and fourth battle it out over two-legs for the right to join them in another two-legged affair. 

Once the winner of that First Division final emerges, they will then have the final hurdle in sight with a home and away tie against the Premier Divisions ninth placed club the obstacle to clear if they are to replace that side at the top table of Irish football for 2019.  

2. Big names. 

While all football fans dread to see the end of another season nearing, one consolation we all hold onto is the knowledge that the thrills and spills of the transfer season is not too far away and will help keep us occupied until the on-field action returns. 

This off-season has been no different and while the arrivals of exotic names such as Karolis Chvvedukas to Dundalk and Eduardo Pinicelli to Sligo Rovers has naturally grabbed the headlines, there has been a host of eye-catching deals done throughout the First Division. 

David O'Sullivan's shock move from Longford Town, where the Wicklow native was the clubs all-time leading goalscorer,  to potential promotion rivals Shelbourne has as expected caused quite a stir, while Longford were in the headlines once more with the surprise capture of three-time Premier Division winner Darren Meenan. 


Elsewhere, the ever-growing Cabinteely look to have pulled off a genius signing through the addition of top-rated young goalkeeper Stephen McGuinness, while the returning Ryan Connolly will need no introduction to Galway fans given his exploits at Eamonn Deacy Park prior to a stint with Shamrock Rovers. 

Another man who needs no introduction is Finn Harps talismanic midfielder and former Northern Ireland international Paddy McCourt who will be aiming to light up First Division grounds through his creative thinking and dazzling dribbling ability. 

To say the above names are just a small snippet of the sort of fire-power that will be at the arsenal of the First Division managers in 2018 is most certainly an understatement and as always it will be interesting to see what currently unknown stars can rise up to challenge the big names next season. 

3. The next big thing? 
James McClean, Patrick Hoban and Ronan Finn are just three prime examples of household names both internationally and domestically that cut their teeth in the First Division. Ahead of the new campaign all eyes will be on the up and coming emerging talent on the books of the First Division clubs in the hope that Ireland's next underdog international player can be unearthed. 

Despite the pressure on clubs to succeed and ultimately gain promotion to the Premier Division, it is encouraging to see the majority of the First Division managers opting for predominantly younger playing squads and a passing style of play to match. 

UCD have always been a fine example of encouraging the game to be played in an attractive manner and it's no surprise the "College" have produced more elite level players than anyone else in the last decade or so with names such as Paul Corry, David McMillan, Robbie Benson and Ciaran Kilduff all coming off the UCD production line. The "Students" claimed an excellent top three finish in the First Division last season and with top marksman Georgie Kelly still in the Blue of UCD, nobody will be writing Collie O'Neill's charges off in 2018. 

Cobh Ramblers finished above the Dubliners last term and with the majority of the "Rams" predominantly local side re-signing for 2018, it would take a brave person to not count the County Cork club into the promotion equation. 

After a disappointing return to the division they last won as recently as 2014, Longford Town's rookie manager Neale Fenn has almost totally overhauled his squad ahead of what will be the former Dundalk and Cork City stars first full season in charge. Fenn has also gone for youth over experience with local lads Aodh Dervin and Tristan Noack Hoffmann currently on the fringes of the Irish underage squads, it's sure to be an exciting season at the City Calling Stadium. 

Despite a disappointing maiden season, new boys Wexford FC will be looking to improve on last season's second bottom finish by developing further what is a promising group of young talent at Ferrycarrig Park. Shamrock Rovers loanee Aaron Dobbs is the great young hope for Damien Locke's side, while Dean Kelly and Danny Bolger are quickly forging reputations of their own in the First Division. 

Athlone Town were recently crowned the inaugural under-15 national league champions and with a new management team lead by former UCD, Bohemians and Longford boss Aaron Callaghan now in place, the Midlands outfit hope to use their status as the League of Ireland's oldest club as a platform for hopefuls and in turn help return Athlone to the glory days. 

Elsewhere in the First Division. Shelbourne, Drogheda United, Galway United and Finn Harps can all list off notable names of ex-players from years past that they have helped on their respective footballing paths with plenty of young talent giving bright promise for the future also.

The message to Irish football fans is loud and clear...get down to your local ground because there's a very real chance you could spot Irish footballs next big thing. 


4. The managers

Similarly, to the playing squads, in the dugouts there will be a wonderful blend of youth and experience plus intriguing match-ups of tactics and style in the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division. 

Representing the veterans will be Cabinteely's Pat Devlin, who guided "Cabo" to a record high of 6th in the First Division last season and will surely be aiming to better that this term. Aaron Callaghan led Bohemians to a hugely impressive mid-season finish in 2012 and will be hoping his wealth of experience can help better Athlone Town's wooden spoon placing last season, while Finn Harps Ollie Horgan is undoubtedly one of the most popular League of Ireland managers for many a year. 

Cobh's Stephen Henderson is another extremely popular figure as well as being renowned as a well organised commander in chief, while media friendly Longford boss Neale Fenn won many admirer's during his debut season in management and is also often subject to attention for his fashion sense in SSE Airtricity League grounds across the country. 

On the subject of rookie managers, Tim Clancy made the decision to hang up his boots over Christmas in order to take up a first job in management and it's a big one to say the least with 2007 Premier Division champions Drogheda United his first port of call. 

With former Sligo boss Dave Roberston brought in to be Clancy's director of football at Drogheda, who can also call on the experience of new assistant manager Kevin Doherty, it will be interesting to see how the County Louth club take to life back in the First Division following a below par showing in the top-flight last season.  

Shane Keegan is another relatively young manager in the league but you wouldn't know it from looking at his CV which already boasts a First Division title with Wexford Youths and consecutive relegations, with Wexford and Galway. 

Despite the bitterly disappointing relegation of last season, Keegan was credited for always encouraging the "Tribesmen" to play on the front foot and win in the right manner, and with many tipping his side as favourites for the title this season, we should see goals galore at Deacy Park, despite the loss of Ronan Murray to Dundalk FC.

Unquestionably, the most decorated and experienced former player turned manager in the SSE Airtricity League, Shelbourne's Owen Heary will have been quietly pleased with the "Reds" mid-table finish in 2017 and will be optimistic of worrying the higher reaches of the league ladder this time around. 

A well organised unit, although you'd expect nothing less from a manager who won an astonishing seven Premier titles as a player, Shelbourne caught many opponents cold on the counter attack last season and with the shrewd addition of lethal marksman David O'Sullivan for 2018, there's no reason the Tolka Park outfit can't match those lofty ambitions.  

5. The atmosphere 

It may sound cliché but if ever the saying of "nothing beats being there" was applicable it is here. 

With the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division being touted as the most open and competitive ever, we are sure to see the noise levels at many famous old grounds rise once again, while this could be the season where iconic moments are forever stitched into the fabric of some of the divisions lesser known stadia's. 

The likes of Tolka Park and the City Calling Stadium have lived the dream and the color of European football in the past, while Eamonn Deacy Park was a fitting venue for the EA Sports Cup final of 2016. 

The Athlone Town stadium had its first real legacy moment in 2013 when Roddy Collins side captured the First Division title ahead of local foes Longford and that will be the aim for regular dwellers of Stradbrook next season where Cabinteely continue to grow as a League of Ireland club season by season. 

In fact, of the ten clubs set to take part in the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division campaign only Cabinteely, Shelbourne and Wexford FC have yet to lift the trophy which just adds an extra bit of flavour to a fast-approaching new season which will need little-added spice.