Opinion - The First Division prediction table

15th November 2023

, Following on from last weekend's explosive opening to the brand-new SSE Airtricity League season, First Division players, management and supporters have endured an agonising yet excitement filled week long wait for Friday’s


Following on from last weekend's explosive opening to the brand-new SSE Airtricity League season, First Division players, management and supporters have endured an agonising yet excitement filled week long wait for Friday’s big kick-off in the second tier. 

With packed out stands and terraces all across the Premier Division on opening weekend, those involved with the ten First Division sides will be hoping to capitalise on the added sense of optimism and excitement being experienced across domestic football in Ireland at this moment in time.

Much of that optimism and sense of real promise for an enthralling First Division campaign this season comes from the new league structure in place for 2018. Increasing from eight to ten teams, some big names have fallen through the trap door and found themselves in what looks to be an ultra-competitive First Division this season. Throw in the return of the play-offs and the fact it is an extended play-off series this season with second, third and fourth place in the First Division all been given the opportunity to follow the eventual champions into the Premier Division for 2019 and you have one hell of a story on your hands!

So, who are the favorites to challenge for the promotion places in 2018? Well, the answer to that question from many managers and pundits within the league is there is no favorite. However, with the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division now just hours from getting under way, we have tasked our First Division specialist Kieran Burke with predicting the outcome of the upcoming league season.

Athlone Town AFC

•    Manager: Aaron Callaghan
•    Last season: Bottom 
•    2017 top scorer: Walter Invernizzi 
•    Notable signings: Aaron Brilly (Home Farm)
•    Key player: Aaron Brilly (RB)
•    Opening fixture: Galway United (A)

A totally unknown quantity this season, Athlone Town AFC held assessment trials in recent weeks, the only League of Ireland club to operate trials in the off-season, in order to put a competitive squad together for the 2018 SSE Airtricity League season. Having finished rock bottom of the eight-team First Division in a disastrous 2017 campaign, the League of Ireland's oldest club has opted to go for a new approach with 2017 manager, Roddy Collins becoming general manager at the club, while Terry Butler has become number two to new first-team head coach, Aaron Callaghan.

Former Longford, Bohemians and UCD manager Callaghan has plenty of experience but even he has admitted entering into the unknown this season with a squad of players he is totally unfamilar with and very little pre-season minutes in the bag after a couple of postponement due to inclement weather conditions.  

Athlone Town caused a huge upset when they defeated eventual champions Waterford FC on the opening day last season but any kind of result away to this seasons title favorites Galway would be an even bigger shock result. 

The fact that twenty-two-year-old Aaron Brilly is one of the most experienced players in this seasons Athlone squad in terms of League of Ireland appearances tells you all you need to know about the Town's youthful set-up for 2018. 

Predicted finish: Bottom – With very little League of Ireland experience in the squad it is going to be almost impossible for Athlone to compete at the right end of the table this season. Being competitive in every game and developing any bright young talents that may emerge this season will be a much more realistic aim for a manager in Aaron Callaghan who is well regarded for his coaching ability. 

Cabinteely FC

•    Manager: Pat Devlin
•    Last season: 6th (Club record)
•    2017 top scorer: Kieran ‘’Marty’’ Waters (15) 
•    Notable signings: Stephen McGuinness (Drogheda United)
•    Key player: Kieran "Marty" Waters (ST)
•    Opening fixture: Wexford FC (H)

Recording a record high finish of sixth in the division last season, Cabinteely FC have been a club on the rise ever since joining the League of Ireland just three-years ago. Improving their position in the eight-team division in each season since their inception in 2015, experienced manager Pat Devlin will now be looking to put a serious promotion challenge together for the first time in the club's short history. 

Scoring a sensational fifteen league goals last season, striker Kieran "Marty" Waters will once again be key to Cabinteely's chances of a good season with the former Bray Wanderers & Shamrock Rovers star committing his future to the long-term project underway at the Stradbrook based club. 

Sadly, Cabinteely have been unable to bring in enough new faces to be considered as one of the leagues favorites for promotion but the acquisition of Drogheda shot-stopper Stephen McGuinness is an inspired one by Pat Devlin, who previously worked with the youngster at Bray. Rated by many as the best goalkeeper in the division, "Cabo" fans will be hoping McGuinness can help improve what was a leaky back-four last season, conceding 37 times in just 28 league matches.

Opening the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division with back to back games against last season's bottom two sides, Wexford FC and Athlone Town, Cabinteely supporters will certainly be hopeful of going into round three at home to last season's runners-up, Cobh Ramblers, with some real momentum under their belt and that certainly gives the Dubliners a fighting chance this season. 

However, should things not go to plan for Pat Devlin in the opening couple of weeks, March and April's fixtures against the likes of Galway United, UCD, Drogheda United and Longford Town will look all the more daunting, a good start is imperative for Cabinteely if they are to compete at the top this season. 

Predicted finish: 8th - Matching last season's record finish may prove difficult for a club who we must remember are only entering their fourth season in the League of Ireland. Not to mention the fact there are more obstacles in their way this season with the change in format, while the lack of outfield additions is a worry as is the loss of experienced campaigners Victor Ekanem and Daire Doyle. 

Cobh Ramblers

•    Manager: Stephen Henderson
•    Last season: Runners-up
•    2017 top scorer: Matthew Whelan (5)
•    Notable signings: Anthony McAlavey (Waterford FC)
•    Key player: Paul Hunt (GK)
•    Opening game: Longford Town (A)

Fighting till the death last season, Cobh Ramblers boss, Stephen Henderson will be looking to go one better in 2018 as the "Rams" look for a return to the top-flight for the first time in a decade. Managing to hold onto the majority of last season's battlers, Cian Coleman the major exception who has joined Munster rivals Limerick, Cobh may benefit from a sense of cohesion and familiarity when the season gets underway with a trip to fellow promotion hopefuls, Longford Town. 

Tuesday's addition of attacking midfielder Anthony McAlavey comes as a major boost to everyone at St.Colman's Park as McAlavey brings with him not only fine footballing ability but a sense of winning know how, having been a member of the "Blues" side that beat Ramblers to the title last season. 

A well organised side, the arrival of McAlavey should help bring some extra creativity into the mix for Cobh who will fancy their chances against any opposition this season as is the belief instilled into the players by popular manager, Stephen Henderson. 

If you were to pick out a couple of chinks in the Cork sides armor it would be the lack of a regular goal-scorer up front, while away from home the "Rams" failed to pick up any valuable draws, losing seven times when single points would have helped keep in touch with the leaders more often. 

Predicted finish: 3rd - Qualifiers for the play-off in 2016 and runners-up last term, while it's difficult to see the "Rams" going one better this season due to a lack of financial resources, Stephen Henderson has proven time and time again he can get the best out of a shoe-string budget and expect no less from the former Waterford United boss in 2018.

Drogheda United 

•    Manager: Tim Clancy 
•    Last season: Relegated (12th)
•    2017 top scorer:  Jason Marks (3)
•    Notable signings: Lee Duffy (Free agent), Gareth McCaffery (Cabinteely). 
•    Key player: Lee Duffy (ST)
•    Opening fixture

With a centre-half finishing a humiliating 2017 season as top scorer for the "Drogs", the return of mercurial centre-forward Lee Duffy is more than welcomed at United Park. Relegated without a fight last season, it's all change at the home of the 2007 League of Ireland champions, who have appointed recent retiree Tim Clancy as new manager for 2018. 

Hanging up his boots only recently, defender Clancy had considered registering as a player in case of emergency with Drogheda this season but eventually opted against it before setting about to bring in a new backroom staff to assist him in his first job in management. Former Shelbourne manager and number two at Longford last season, Kevin Doherty is a fine and experienced choice called in by Clancy to assist in what the thirty-three-year-old hopes will be a promotion push this season by United. 

It's a fresh new look on the pitch too with experienced faces such as Stephen Elliot, Chris Mulhall and Dave Mulcahy all moving on to pastures new. However, Clancy has been able to bring in some interesting replacements with Lee Duffy and Gareth McCaffery both returning to the club they departed last season, while Kealon Dillon has impressed in pre-season after a disappointing spell at Longford Town. 

In fact, Drogheda United have arguably been the league's most impressive performers in pre-season with a 1-1 draw against Premier outfit Bray followed up with a thumping 4-1 at home to Derry City. Despite defeat in the Jim Malone Cup at Oriel Park against local rivals Dundalk, many were impressed by the First Division sides performance and they backed that praise up with a surprising win over Bohemians shortly after.  

Having suffered desperately through injuries in recent seasons, there will be question marks over the longevity of star striker Duffy, while Gareth McCaffery also missed a lot of minutes last season. Defensively Drogheda were a disaster last season and the loss of top-rated 'keeper Stephen McGuinness to division rivals Cabinteely is unlikely to help matters but of course new manager Tim Clancy was a defender as a player so he may be able to find ways to rectify the issues of last season. 

Should the County Louth side get off to a winning start against fellow relegation suffers Finn Harps on Friday night, it may very well be the tonic United need to get over the blues of last season and announce themselves as serious contenders for an instant return to the Premier Division. 

Predicted finish: 6th - With three play-off places on offer this season, Drogheda United stand every chance of being in the mix right up until the death despite a mountain of change at the club over the off-season. Tim Clancy comes in totally unproven as a manager but the former Bray and Sligo Rovers defender was a fine player and if pre-season form is anything to go by his "Drogs" could be something of a dark horse this season. 

Finn Harps

•    Manager: Ollie Horgan
•    Last season: Relegated (11th) 
•    2017 top scorer: Ciaran O'Connor (5)
•    Notable signings: Ciaran O'Connor (Dundalk), Michael O'Connorv (Shamrock Rovers), John O'Flynn (Free Agent). 
•    Key player: Paddy McCourt (CM)
•    Opening fixture: Drogheda United (A) 

Having secured the services of the O'Connor brothers and League of Ireland veteran John O'Flynn, plus the re-signing of key man Paddy McCourt, Finn Harps look to have the most explosive arsenal in the division at their disposal. Having lost experienced players at the other end in Ethan Boyle, Damien McNulty and Packie Mailey, naturally questions will be asked of Harps defensive capabilities this season but should that attacking quartet click from the get go, we could be in for a season of "You score two we'll score three" at Finn Park. 

Opening with a tough trip to the side they finished one place above in the Premier Division last season, Finn Harps fell twice at the hands of the "Drogs" in 2017. With Longford Town the visitors to Finn Park next week and tricky ties against Shelbourne (H) and Cobh to follow, a quick start could be key if Ollie Horgan's men are to match all the pre-season hype. 

Predicted finish: 2nd - Undoubtedly the side with the most exciting attacking players on offer this season, Harps vulnerability at the back killed their survival hopes last season and it may do the same to their title hopes in 2018.   

Galway United

•    Manager: Shane Keegan
•    Last season: Relegated (10th)
•    2017 top scorer: Ronan Murray (13)
•    Notable signings: Danny Furlong (Southern United – New Zeland), Ryan Connolly (Shamrock Rovers)
•    Key player: Danny Furlong (ST)
•    Opening fixture: Athlone Town (H)

Danny Furlong's shock return to Irish football has grabbed the headlines in the First Division in recent days and with 114 career goals it is easy to see why. In fact, it is the capture of striker, Furlong that may very well prove the difference between the "Tribesmen" and the rest of the division this season.

A First Division winner under the guidance of Shane Keegan at Wexford Youths back in 2015, Danny Furlong is a proven goal machine at this level and with the creativity of Ryan Connolly to feed off, expect United to win more often than not this season. 

Of course, defensively Galway United often left themselves a little short last season and conceded soft goals at stages in some games where the Deacy Park outfit seemed to be well in control and that will have to stop if Shane Keegan's men want to be consistent enough to stick it out at the top of the table this time around. 

Returning from an unsuccessful spell with Dublin giants Shamrock Rovers, Ryan Connolly is a man who knows all about promotion having been a member of United's play-off winners just two-years ago, while as already mentioned, Shane Keegan and Furlong have tasted a title win during their Wexford days, meaning there should be a certain air of confidence inside the Galway dressing room. In fact, Galway should look at their tag as bookmakers favorites for promotion as a compliment rather than a pressure given the extremely tight nature of the First Division on paper this season. 

A big opening day win in front of a passionate crowd at Eamonn Deacy Park would certainly go a long way to settling any nerves, while also gathering some momentum ahead of a tricky double header against last season's second and third placed sides in the First Division, Cobh Ramblers (A) & UCD (H). 

Predicted finish: Champions - The signing of Furlong combined with the return of Connolly should give United that extra bit of quality over their many promotion rivals this season. 

Longford Town

•    Manager: Neale Fenn
•    Last season: 5th
•    2017 top scorer: David O'Sullivan (9)
•    Notable signings: Darren Meenan (Shamrock Rovers), Shane O'Connor (Waterford FC), Chris Mulhall (Drogheda United). 
•    Key player: Chris Mulhall (ST)
•    Opening fixture: Cobh Ramblers (H) 

Marked up as joint-favorites for promotion last season, Longford Town were out of the running for the title after just a few games, resulting in the dismissal of the clubs most successful ever manager, Alan Mathews. Rookie boss, Neale Fenn replaced the veteran and the uplift in both mood around the club and performances on the field was plain for all to see.   

Ahead of his first full-season in management, Fenn has managed to do some good business by bringing in three times Premier Division winner, Darren Meenan while Chris Mulhall impressed following his mid-season move from Limerick to Drogheda last season. Tying down the services of goalkeeper, Jack Brady, club player of the year, Daniel O'Reilly and midfielders, Sam Verdon and Peter Hopkins, among others was of crucial importance also.

Effectively a new squad to last seasons with fifteen fresh faces in at Longford, it may take time for this group of players to gel and pre-season results would certainly suggest that. Opening day opponents, Cobh Ramblers seemed to have Longford's number last season with three wins from four meetings, while the County Cork side have undergone very little change in personal over the off-season. Home advantage in week one should make a difficult task that little bit less daunting but should the result go south then next week's trip to many people's fancy for the title, Finn Harps, becomes an even more difficult task. 

Longford will not want to play themselves out of contention like they did last season so how Neale Fenn's men start the season may tell us a lot about "De Town's" promotion hopes this season. 

Predicted finish: 4th - The loss of club legend and all-time leading goal-scorer David O'Sullivan will be magnified should new arrival, Chris Mulhall struggle to find his feet at the Midlands club. With no other experienced strikers signed by Neale Fenn, Mulhall will have to find the sort of form that made him a fans favorite during his First Division days at Limerick if "De Town" want to avoid been blown out of the water by big hitters Finn Harps and Galway, among others this season. 

Shelbourne FC     

•    Manager: Owen Heary
•    Last season: 6th
•    2017 top scorer: James English (8)
•    Notable signings: David O'Sullivan (Longford Town), Gavin Boyne (Longford Town), Dave Mulcahy (Drogheda United)
•    Key player: David O'Sullivan (ST)
•    Opening fixture: UCD AFC (A)

Without a doubt one of the biggest stories off the off-season, David O'Sullivan's decision to depart Longford Town after five-years and join First Division rivals Shelbourne sent shock waves through the SSE Airtricity League. Registering a record-breaking 82 goals in just 160 games for the Midlanders, "Sully, as he is affectionately known by Town fans, led Longford to a famous title win in 2014, pipping "Shels" in the process. However, citing his belief that it was time for a fresh start among an off-season of total change at the Midlands club, O'Sullivan's arrival at Tolka Park has sprung a new sense of optimism about the "Reds" for 2018. 

Enjoying a good second half of last season, Owen Heary's Shelbourne played an exciting brand of counter-attacking football and picked up some impressive shock results, including the 3-0 FAI Cup hammering of eventual league winners Waterford at the RSC in the FAI cup and a 3-1 win away to a resurgent Longford Town. 

Similarly to Cobh and Cabinteely, Shelbourne have opted to stick mainly with the tried and tested from last season and build on that positive end of season form as opposed to rebuilding from scratch as the likes of Drogheda United and Longford Town have done in the transfer market. This sense of continuity could give Owen Heary's charges an early season advantage as the new bodies at other clubs take time to bed in and gel.

Suffering a heavy 4-0 defeat at the hands of this season's opening day opponents, UCD, last season, this could prove to be an important first away game of the season for Shelbourne. Not only would an opening day three points against a top three side of 2017 lay down a marker, it would give the "Reds" some breathing room ahead of an extremely difficult set of upcoming opponents which include Finn Harps (H), Longford Town (A) and Cobh Ramblers (H) but to name three. 

Make no bones about it, a play-off position is the aim for Owen Heary this season and should David O'Sullivan get on the scoresheet early against UCD on Friday night, don't be surprised to see Shelbourne pick up momentum fast in a season that promises plenty! 

Predicted finish: 5th - If O'Sullivan can stay injury free this season, something he failed to do in his last season and a half with Longford, Shelbourne have something many clubs in the division are crying out for, a proven goal-scorer at this level. The strong sense of familiarity between players and management should also help matters this season while in midfield Gavin Boyne has the ability to make things happen in the final third with father time of Irish football, Dave Mulcahy is a potentially shrewd signing for that defensive midfield role at "Shels". A very well-balanced side. 


•    Manager: Collie O'Neill
•    Last season: 3rd
•    2017 Top scorer: Georgie Kelly (19)
•    Notable signings: N/A
•    Key player: Georgie Kelly (ST)
•    Opening fixture: Shelbourne (H) 

It's been a successful past few weeks for the "College" even though the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division is yet to begin, as not only have UCD secured yet another Collingwood cup title but more importantly, Collie O'Neill has managed to secure the services of top-scorer and hot property, Georgie Kelly for another season. 

Registering a league high and UCD club record of 19 First Division goals last season, twenty-one-year-old Kelly had been strongly linked with a big move to Dundalk. However, the Student remains and will be hoping to hand out a couple of lessons to opposition defenders once again in 2018. 

Virtually the exact same side that finished an extremely impressive third place last season, with the exception of goalkeeper Niall Corbett, who has signed for Premier Division new boys, Waterford FC, the "Students" will be hopeful of again defying the odds and mixing it with the big names in the First Division this season. 

Still relatively new to the world of management, Collie O'Neill has done a stellar job since taking the reins at the UCD Bowl and has proudly stuck with the exciting brand of football associated with UCD AFC for the last decade. Unable to bring in any new players via the transfer market, if O'Neill can secure a top four finish this season he would surely be in contention for manger of the year as well as a place in the Premier Division more importantly. 

UCD have not shied away from the fact they will be relying on the talented Kelly to provide them with the goals to compete once again this season but second season syndrome can often come back to bite an inexperienced striker and if opposition defenders do begin to double up on Kelly, it will be an all new test for the Student to overcome. 

Predicted finish: 7th -Probably the most difficult of the ten teams to analyse given the lack of transfers and pre-season matches to judge from but UCD's style of play will be no surprise to anyone and if they can keep Georgie Kelly fit and firing, as he has been in Universities action over the off-season, you'd be a fool to write off the "Students".  

Wexford FC

•    Manager: Damien Locke
•    Last season: 7th
•    2017 top scorer: Thomas Croke (6)
•    Notable signings: Aaron Dobbs (Shamrock Rovers – One year loan) 
•    Key player: Aaron Dobbs (ST) 
•    Opening fixture: Cabinteely (A) 

It was a disappointing maiden season in the First Division for Wexford FC in 2017 as the team from the South-East only avoided the wooden spoon by two points. Throw in a humiliating FAI Cup exit to Crumlin and you'd think there would be a lack of optimism surrounding Damien Locke's charges this season? Thankfully, a good patch of form towards the tail end of the season combined with some good transfer business over the close season sees Wexford FC head into the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division with a sense of hope and excitement. 

Wexford's mini-revival at the end of last year can be put down to the arrival of a number of highly rated young players, namely Aaron Dobbs and Dean Kelly. With the duo returning for a full season to Ferrycarrig Park in 2018, Wexford fans will be hoping for a lot more consistency from their side this season. 

While many pundits are tipping Friday's opening opponents Cabinteely as potential surprise package this season, those within the Wexford FC camp will definitely fancy their chances of claiming a morale boosting away win in series one of the 2018 SSE Airtricity League First Division season. 

Should Locke's men manage to get off to a positive start, back to back home matches in the next fortnight will offer Wexford FC a real opportunity to upset the apple cart in the early stages of the new campaign. 

Predicted finish: 9th - Make no mistake about it, Wexford FC are a side going through a development phase at present and while a push for promotion is most likely out of their reach as a result, they should face no issues in surpassing the four wins picked up last season, they simply have to! 

Kieran Burke's First Division Prediction Table

1.    Galway United
2.    Finn Harps
3.    Cobh Ramblers
4.    Longford Town
5.    Shelbourne FC
6.    Drogheda United
7.    UCD
8.    Cabinteely
9.    Wexford FC
10.    Athlone Town

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