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Ireland's top flight returns tonight for the second stage of the season following the summer break; we look back at the highlights of phase one

ANALYSIS
By Ryan Kelly

Despite still being just a third of the way through, the 2012 Airtricity League season has granted spectators an abundance of drama, casting up plenty of heroes, and indeed, villains.

With the champions Shamrock Rovers stuttering under new management, Sligo Rovers lead the pack following an impressive start, with St Patrick's Athletic assuming the role of title-challengers.

The shocking news of Monaghan United's demise created disappointment in league circles, but there has nevertheless been plenty to cheer about as Goal.com Ireland chooses some of the highlights of the first part of the season.

BEST GOAL - Chris Forrester v Shamrock Rovers


When St Patrick's Athletic trounced their Dublin rivals Shamrock Rovers 5-1 at the beginning of the season, 19-year-old midfielder Chris Forrester was the chief orchestrator as he bagged two tremendous goals and set another one up.

However, it was his second goal of the evening, a deft lob over goalkeeper Oscar Jansson, which will live long in the memory of St Pat's fans. Such was admiration for the goal that it appeared on popular football show Soccer AM as well as being a contender in The Guardian's 'European Goal of the Season' competition.

Runners-up

Ryan McEvoy - Bohemians v Monaghan United
Bohemians midfielder picked the ball up in midfield before rifling a 35-yard shot past the Monaghan United goalkeeper.


David Cawley - Sligo Rovers v Shamrock Rovers
Former Ipswich Town midfielder Cawley aided with the destruction of title-rivals with a wonderfully taken goal off the cross-bar and into the net.


BEST MANAGER - Liam Buckley - St Patrick's Athletic


Currently in his second spell with the Inchicore club, Liam Buckley has impressively mounted a serious challenge for the league with an entirely new squad of players.

Having previously steered The Saints to the league title in 1999, the 52-year-old former Ireland international has inculcated his team to play a fluid, attacking brand of football which has renewed positivity among the Richmond Park faithful.

Runners-up

Mick Cooke - Drogheda United
After keeping Drogheda in the league last season, Mick Cooke has bolstered his squad and has surprisingly mounted a credible challenge for a top-four spot.


Ian Baraclough - Sligo Rovers
Inherited a strong squad from Paul Cook only days before the league commenced and has done well to settle things down following a period of uncertainty.


BEST SIGNING - Jason Byrne - BRAY WANDERERS



Pat Devlin pulled off a transfer-market masterstroke when he convinced Jason Byrne to sign with Bray Wanderers for this season.

At 34 years of age, the former Shelbourne and Cardiff City striker is experiencing an Indian Summer with the Seagulls, finding himself among the top goalscorers in the league. Indeed, Byrne's undoubted goal-scoring pedigree is single-handedly helping to propel the Wicklow club away from the relegation zone.

Runners-up

Declan O'Brien - Drogheda United
Like Jason Byrne, Declan O'Brien is back where it all started. The striker has brought significant experience to the Drogs' squad.


Gary Rogers - Sligo Rovers
Sligo Rovers signed Gary Rogers from St Pat's Athletic and the Meath man has played an important part in west-coast side's impressive defensive record.


BEST PLAYER - Gary Twigg - Shamrock Rovers


In what has been a surprisingly lacklustre start by the champions' standards, Shamrock Rovers marksman Gary Twigg has been utterly defiant in his goal-scoring habits for the club.

Despite his side falling behind rivals Sligo Rovers in the race for the league title, the Scottish striker has been an inspirational captain, salvaging crucial points for the club with 13 important league goals.

Runners-up

Danny North - Sligo Rovers
A new signing for Sligo, English striker North has hit the ground running at the Showgrounds and leads the club's goal-scoring charts.

Greg Bolger - St Patrick's Athletic
Former Dundalk midfielder Greg Bolger has been one of St Patrick's Athletic's most consistent performers during the Inchicore club's resurgence.


BEST TEAM - Sligo Rovers


After several seasons in the shadow of Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers have laid down a legitimate challenge for the title this year as they find themselves seven points clear at the summit of the table.

The west coast club have performed exceptionally well thus far, winning eight of their first 13 games and easily dispatching of their rivals Shamrock Rovers along the way as they cruised to a 3-0 victory at The Showgrounds.

However, Ian Baraclough's men began to falter towards the break, losing their first league game to UCD and suffering defeat to Monaghan in the FAI Ford Cup.

Runners-up

St. Patrick's Athletic
Have lost just one league game this season and have adopted an attractive philosophy under Buckley which has seen them dominate matches.


Drogheda United

The surprise package of the league this season, the Louth club find themselves in the mix for a top four place as a result of their workmanlike displays.

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