Review of the year: Rovers rule the roost again in 2021 but chasing pack are closing in

Finn Harps Babatunde Owolabi with Eoin Toal of Derry City at Finn Park, Ballybofey on Friday night. Picture Margaret McLaughlin 5-11-2021.
Paul McConville

As usual there were a lot of twists and turns in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division in 2021 but a familiar outcome as Shamrock Rovers deservedly made it back-to-back top-flight titles.

The 2021 campaign began as 2020 had ended, with no fans attending games and the season really didn't kick into life until June whenever supporters started to come back.

Stephen Bradley's side again were the team to beat, despite losing the likes of Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff during the off season.

The Hoops, in truth, just had that little bit more experience and know-how to get the job done in so many games in the early stages of the season with midfielder Daniel Mandroiu scoring a host of late winning goals, as he settled in nicely to life at Tallaght.

In the end, Rovers cruised to their 19th title and while next season they'll be looking for a 20th, they'll also want to perform better in Europe.

Before a ball was kicked, everyone felt that Dundalk, having added a host of new additions from across Europe, were going to be the team most likely to push Rovers all the way.

However, in the end the Oriel Park circus meant they had a terrible campaign, which saw them have three different managers and finishing in a disappointing sixth place.

The team closest to the Tallaght men were St Patrick's Athletic, who finished a massive 16 points behind their neighbours, but Stephen O'Donnell's men also went on to secure the FAI Cup, seeing off Bohemians on penalties in the showpiece final, which was played in front of 37,000 fans at the Aviva Stadium.

Sligo Rovers finished highest amongst the north-west sides, after they secured third spot and European football for the 2022 campaign and in young striker Johnny Kenny they certainly have a star for the future.

At the Brandywell things certainly are on the up, despite a nightmare start which saw Derry City boss Declan Devine being relieved of his duties and replaced with Ruaidhri Higgins, the Limavady man taking to life in the management game like a duck to water.

The 38-year-old left Stephen Kenny's Republic of Ireland back-room team to take over from Devine and in his debut season in the dug-out, he guided the Candystripes into fourth spot, which thanks to Pat's shoot-out win over Bohs in the FAI Cup final, means Europa Conference League football will be staged at the Brandywell next season.

The way Derry finished the campaign with striker Jamie McGonigle looking particularly sharp up front and having already added the likes of Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy, Will Patching, Brian Maher, Cameron Dummigan, Shane McEleney and Brandon Kavanagh, the excitement and expectation levels amongst the Derry faithful for next season are already high.

Chairman Philip O'Doherty, who sold his E&I Engineering business to an American company for $2 billion, certainly has backed his new boss and both hope to secure a top flight title in the next three years.

While Derry will certainly be one of the contenders for the Premier Division crown next season, there will be a host of other clubs trying to finish ahead of favourites Rovers.

Everyone's favourite other League of Ireland club Bohemians still can't brush off that ‘always the bridesmaid never the bride' tag, as they dropped into fifth place on the final night of the season.

They could only manage a draw at Sligo, and with Derry winning at Dundalk, that meant Higgins's side moved above them in the table. Bohs then suffered that FAI Cup final heartache and with a host of players expected to join Ross Tierney in exiting the club, boss Keith Long is again having to rebuild a squad for the 2022 campaign.

In striker Georgie Kelly, they had the league's top scorer and the Donegal man also deservedly won the PFAI Player of the Year prize and if he, as expected departs, he'll be a tough man to replace.

Like Bohs it's all change at Drogheda, but their change comes in the dug-out as the League of Ireland manager merry-go-round began early with Drogs gaffer Tim Clancy replacing Stephen O'Donnell, who decided to leave St Pat's a few days after their cup success for Dundalk, while Clancy's number two Kevin Doherty stepping up and taking over at Head in the Game Park.

Ollie Horgan's Finn Harps, for the second season running, avoided the relegation play-off spot and had a host of memorable moments, defeating neighbours Derry on a few occasions and also having big victories over Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Dundalk.

At the bottom basement side Longford Town were always looking like a team who were going to be relegated, despite having an opening night win over Derry, they only managed to secure one other victory throughout the season and that was the reason why they finished a massive 27 points behind second from bottom Waterford.

The Munster men, like Dundalk, had so much going on off the field meant they were relegated in the play-off losing to UCD.

Having started the season with former Everton and Republic of Ireland legend Kevin Sheedy as their manager, they ended the campaign with Ian Hendon leading the team, after Marc Bircham, who replaced Sheedy, was sacked just a few days before the play-off encounter against the Students.

Also joining UCD in the top flight next season are First Division champions Shelbourne, who after clinching the title decided to part ways with Ian Morris and they replaced him with former English Premier League winner and Ireland international Damien Duff taking his first managerial role.

Already the excitement is building for the 2022 campaign with clubs planning for the forthcoming season having signed a host of players and with Jack Byrne returning to Tallaght, the Dubliners again will be the team to catch next year, but one thing is for sure is that there will be a host of clubs chasing them down and the title race will certainly be a lot closer.

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