Mid-season report: The compelling & unpredictable First Division

23rd November 2023

Billed as the most competitive looking First Division in League of Ireland history during the build up to the new look 2018 season, the second tier of Irish football has certainly lived up to the hype so far this year, with as many as eight of the di

Billed as the most competitive looking First Division in League of Ireland history during the build up to the new look 2018 season, the second tier of Irish football has certainly lived up to the hype so far this year, with as many as eight of the divisions ten sides still in with a real shot of promotion.

Given the off-season restructure in the League of Ireland that saw three big-name clubs relegated from the top-flight last season, many pundits had made Finn Harps, Drogheda United and particularly Galway United the red-hot favorites to battle it out for promotion this season. And while none of these three clubs can be wrote out of the promotion race during the on-going mid-season break, it's fair to say that at least two of the three relegated sides have under-performed during their return to the First Division, while Drogheda's wonderful early start to the season has not been enough to stop UCD from creating a seven-point gap at the summit. 

UCD AFC have been the story of the season so far as Collie O'Neill's scholars have shown strength and composure beyond their tender years resulting in a comfortable cushion at the top of the First Division pile. Simply put, the "Students" have been a class above anyone else in the first half of the season, winning twelve of their seventeen First Division games and losing only three, with all of those losses coming on the road. 

It hasn't just been the "College's" ability to turn draws into wins that has impressed. UCD have continued to play the game the right way with possession of the football and emphasis on attack the name of the game for the Belfield club.   

However, with speculation mounting over the future of Georgie Kelly, who was last season's SSE Airtricity League First Division golden boot winner, many critics are beginning to suggest the "Students" will be unable to cross the finish line should they lose the services of their current top goal-scorer. While such commentary may seem unfair on what is clearly an extremely talented group of players at UCD, with Kelly currently tied with Shelbourne's David O'Sullivan at the top of the division's scoring charts on 14 apiece, it's easy to see why such analysis is being offered by interested onlookers.  

One side who will certainly be hoping that Kelly's concentration may be elsewhere is the rapidly improving Longford Town. With three wins in their last four before the break, against the relegated trio of Galway, Harps and Drogheda, "De Town" find themselves just nine-points off the pace and Neale Fenn's charges head to the Capital to tackle UCD next! 

Only for some very poor game management, poor finishing and just general bad luck, many Longford fans feel they could easily have found themselves in the position UCD currently hold with a comfortable gap at the top of the table. However, the lack of a clinical striker is something many clubs in both divisions have struggled with this season, making the decisions of the next few weeks in the July transfer window by all the First Divisions managers so crucial in how this unpredictable season may end.  

One team who have not struggled for goals this season is the aforementioned Drogheda United, who have been making waves under rookie boss Tim Clancy this season. While the "Drogs" have not had a Georgie Kelly or Davy O'Sullivan type striker among their ranks, the County Louth club have displayed an impressive ability to produce numerous goalscorers from all areas of the pitch. Only two goals shy of UCD's tally of 39 and with the joint second-best defensive record in the division, former Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers defender Clancy will be delighted with his start to life in management.  

The big news from the SSE Airtricity League First Division in recent days has been the departure of popular boss Shane Keegan from Galway United. Marked up as the bookmakers title favorites in the off-season, Keegan's big name signings failed to deliver in the opening quarters of the campaign, while niggling injury issues for star-striker and former First Division winner with Wexford Youths, Danny Furlong, really went against Keegan's chances. With talk of fresh investment in the West of Ireland club, the July transfer window could be the difference between a shot at the play-offs or another season of disappointment for the club relegated from the Premier Division last year. 

Speaking of fresh off-field investment, Shelbourne's new lease of life in the directors box has been matched by on-field performances with Owen Heary's charges sitting pretty in third at the mid-season break. Often criticsed for employing a direct style of play, Heary's doubters can have no argument with the impact David O'Sullivan has had on the "Reds" with the former Longford Town legend looking back to his goal-scoring best under the orders of the former Sligo boss. 

O'Sullivan's off-season move from Longford, where the Wicklow native was the club's all-time top goal-scorer, to Tolka Park was a major talking point and "Sully" came back to haunt his former side with four goals in two-appearances against the Town already this season. A match winning hat-trick in a thriller at Tolka Park was followed up by a bullet header in an exciting draw at the City Calling Stadium to demonstrate the strikers ability to pick up valuable points. Sitting just seven points behind their Dublin rivals UCD at the break, nobody will be writing off the mighty "Reds" as long as O'Sullivan can remain injury free until the end of the campaign. 

As for the remaining Dublin club in the division, Cabinteely have recovered from a rotten run of form at the start of the season to leave themselves on the fringes of the play-off positions at the break. With just four wins inside their opening twelve league games, hopes of improving on last seasons record finish seemed to have evaporated into thin air around Stradbrook. However, thanks to some impressive results against 'the-so-called-big-boys' of the division on home soil, "Cabo" now find themselves just seven points off fourth-placed Longford, who they turned over at Stradbrook just a fortnight ago. Combine that with seemingly unthinkable home triumphs against Drogheda United and UCD, do not chalk off "Cabo's" chances of Premier Division football just yet. 

Remaining in the battle too are Stephen Henderson's Cobh Ramblers, in what has been a draining campaign in more ways than one for the "Exiles". Following a dreadful run of results that had left the "Rams" looking dead and buried, universally popular manager Stephen Henderson offered his resignation at the County Cork club. However, following a sit-down with the club, Henderson committed his future to the Cobh cause and his players ultimately responded with four wins out of seven league games before the break. Throw in the added bonus of an EA Sports Cup semi-final blockbuster at home to Dundalk and the confidence levels are starting to flow around the Island of Cobh again. With some fresh faces expected to dock in the coming weeks, write Cobh off at your peril. 

One side not mentioned yet has been Ollie Horgan’s Finn Harps. Expected to be the entertainers of the division given the arrival of a number of exciting attacking talents in the off-season, inconsistency and ironically, a lack of goals has dogged the Harps all season long. Many frustrated Harps fans have pointed to what they perceive as a negative approach by their manager. However, it is generally the same style of play that not only got Finn Harps to the top-flight via the play-offs in 2016, but almost kept the Donegal club in the 12-team Premier Division last season. Given such facts, it’s difficult to put a finger on Harps struggles so far this season but with the legendary Paddy McCourt announcing this will be his last season as a footballer, don’t be surprised to see a late surge from the Harps this season. 

Sadly, at the foot of the ten-team table Wexford FC and Athlone Town have failed to deliver despite some promising noises in the off-season but with both clubs picking up some surprise results respectively in recent weeks, maybe the divisions underdogs can still have a major say in where the title will go even if they will clearly not compete for honors themselves this season. 

Overall, we've seen two-hundred-and-forty-five goals scored in the SSE Airtricity League First Division so far this season and with just ten-points separating second position in the table and eighth place you can see why followers of this league have been waxing-lyrical in its praise. 

As expected, many bright young talents have stepped up to the plate and used this wonderful division as an opportunity to showcase their respective talents. As ever, the summer transfer window is expected to cause drama and excitement for fans of all ten First Division clubs up and down the land. In conclusion, the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division has delivered the goods so far this season and with the contribution of even more supporters inside fine grounds such as the UCD Bowl, City Calling Stadium and Eamonn Deacy Park to name just a few, the conclusion of this season's title and promotion race is set to be one of the most dramatic and unpredictable ever seen.