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After guiding Sligo Rovers to a first league title in a quarter of a century, Ian Baraclough will face stern opposition from many contenders as the 2013 season kicks off

PREVIEW
By Ronan Murphy

The 2013 League of Ireland season is finally upon us, with Sligo Rovers hoping to defend their title, Derry City looking to build on their FAI Cup victory, and 2012 First Division champions Limerick FC providing some new blood into the Premier Division.

After going under the radar for most of the season last year, Drogheda United finished in second place, and it will be interesting to see can they repeat that success. St Patrick's Athletic were tipped by many, but waned after exiting Europe, while the demise of Monaghan United saw Dundalk remain in the top tier.

An exciting season of football lies ahead, where the first few weeks will give a much clearer indication of the state of the clubs following a busy off-season.

BOHEMIANS

Bohemians manager Aaron Callaghan saw his side suffer too many times last season due to an impotent strikeforce. The majority of the club's goals came from other areas of the pitch, and the Gypsies boss has dipped cleverly into the transfer market to snap up Chris Lyons and Darragh Hanaphy. Lyons impressed for UCD, while Hanaphy is a bit of a gamble following a year out of the game, but has shown his eye for goal in the past with Newry City.

Defender Michael Rafter is an exciting prospect at right-back, while veteran Owen Heary will be hoping that his last season can be a successful one. Callaghan will be hoping his new strikeforce can settle in early, having taken six games to find the net last season.

BRAY WANDERERS

Keeping on boss Pat Devlin was probably a bigger coup than any of their winter signings, as the Bray boss had hinted on a few occasions that 2012 might be his last campaign at the Carlisle Grounds. A shrewd tactician with an eye for a gem, Devlin is hoping that he's unearthed something special in Ismahil Akinade who previously impressed with St Pat's under-19 squad.

Gary Dempsey has come in from Waterford United, and the former Ireland youth international should add to their engine room, while the vast majority of last year's squad have been retained. A midtable finish like 2011's sixth would mark a successful campaign for the Seagulls.

CORK CITY

One of the busiest clubs in the transfer window, Cork City have lost strike pairing Davin O'Neill and Vinny Sullivan, but their replacements look more than adequate. Danny Furlong makes the step up from Wexford Youths after plenty of success in the First Division, while Denis Behan returns to the club where he lifted the title in 2005.

Much-travelled winger Adam Rundle and former Ireland under-21 defender Darren Dennehy bring plenty of experience to the side, which shone through in the Leesiders' Setanta Sports Cup campaign, where they have reached the semi-finals after some impressive early results.

DERRY CITY

With two more of their players heading cross-channel, Derry City have turned into a feeder club for British teams. David McDaid and Stephen McLaughlin are the latest to take their chances in England, but the Candystripes still have plenty of young talent in their squad. Barry McNamee, Shane McEleney, and Patrick McEleney are all players who could attract attention from bigger teams, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill assessing the international standard of the latter two.

Manager Declan Devine brought FAI Cup success to the Brandywell, but his league campaign was derailed by injuries last season. The Derry native will be hoping that new signings Michael Rafter, Mark Griffin, Sean Houston, and Paddy Kavanagh can stay fit enough to help mount a title challenge.

DROGHEDA UNITED

A second-place finish last season and an EA Sports Cup win was a huge achievement for manager Mick Cooke, but repeating the feat will prove a huge challenge for the Boynesiders. Drogheda had no one standout player last season with the entire team gelling to make a cohesive unit. In fact, the only two squad members not to score in 2012 were the goalkeepers.

The signing of Paul O'Conor from UCD is a huge one for Cooke, and the energetic midfielder will be central to any title aspirations at Hunky Dorys Park. Sean Brennan has moved to Shelbourne, but Ryan and Gavin remain, and both players have shown their 2012 form with standout displays in the Setanta Cup, particularly in the 8-2 aggregate victory against Portadown.

DUNDALK

There is huge expectation on new Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny, who has not settled for an easy job following his exit from Shamrock Rovers last season. The relegation-battlers have made wholesale changes to their squad, with 2012's key performers Mark Griffin and Derek Foran gone to bigger pastures.

However, Kenny has cast his net wide, bringing in the promising defender Richie Towell from Celtic, Kurtis Byrne from Ross County, and nearly a dozen others from various League of Ireland clubs. John Mountney remains from last season's squad, and the midfielder will be expected to provide creativity for Kenny's makeshift side.

LIMERICK

When Limerick won the First Division title in 2012, Pat Scully was in charge and they called Jackman Park home. Just a few months on and former Drogheda United midfielder Stuart Taylor is at the helm of the Thomond Park-based club. Local businessman Pat O'Sullivan has heavily invested in the club, helping Taylor sign six players from across the water.

Former Manchester United youth midfielder Danny Galbraith has struggled with injury for most of his career, but has the potential to light up the league this season. Another exciting newcomer is Belgian striker Axel Bossekota, who marked his arrival at the club with a goal against a Hibernian select XI.

SHAMROCK ROVERS

Whoever replaced Gary Twigg as Shamrock Rovers' leading striker would always have big boots to fill. The Glasgow forward scored 81 league goals in four years at the club, and his absence up front is a massive one for Trevor Croly's side. The new Hoops boss brought in Mark Quigley as a replacement from Sligo Rovers and Karl Sheppard returns to the club on loan from Reading.

Goals should not be in short supply for the Hoops, especially as James Chambers has come in to add a commanding presence in midfield. The return of Shane Robinson also gives Croly vital experience, while the Tallaght faithful will be hoping that Ronan Finn will have the breakout season he's been promising for the past few seasons. However, the biggest change is between the sticks with Barry Murphy and Richard Brush both offering the commanding voice that the Hoops lacked last year.

SHELBOURNE

Shelbourne marked their return to the top-flight with a respectable eighth-placed finish. Manager Alan Mathews will be hoping to use that as a platform to improve this year, and has made plenty of shrewd signings. Drogheda United captain Paul Crowley will add plenty of bite to midfield, while Graham Gartland brings experience to the backline.

Jack Memery is an exciting young player, especially on the overlap, coming from full-back, and should find more success at Tolka Park than Tallaght. In addition, Shels have a few decent prospects coming through like Rob Cornwall and Alex Prizeman, so a cup run may be on the cards.

SLIGO ROVERS

A first league title in 25 years brought a party atmosphere to Sligo last year, and made manager Ian Baraclough a local hero. The former Scunthorpe United boss has kept the vast maority of the title-winning squad, and despite losing Mark Quigley and Jason McGuinness, has made bold claims about their replacements.

Evan McMillan already looks more than a match for McGuinness, slotting in comfortably at centre-back, while Anthony Elding and Aaron Greene will also offer Sligo plenty going forward. Danny North is once again an injury worry for the club, and Baraclough will hope he can return quickly to help the Bit o' Red retain their title.

ST PATRICK'S ATHLETIC

All too often last season, St Patrick's Athletic failed to hold onto leads or let valuable points slip. However, this year, Liam Buckley's players should be older and wiser and should remain in contention throughout the season. James Chambers is a big loss in midfield, but Killian Brennan could find his home in Inchicore after underperforming for Shamrock Rovers.

Once again, Chris Forrester and Christy Fagan will be the ones to watch for Pat's, but Jordan Keegan and Shane McFaul could be the kind of players the squad was missing last season. Jake Kelly had a wonderful debut season at Richmond Park, and could be one of this season's star performers.

UCD

Perennially tipped with relegation, UCD battled their way to safety once again last year under the guidance of Martin Russell. However, the loss of key players Danny Ledwith, Graham Rusk, and particularly Paul O'Conor will hinder the Students' chances of remaining in the top flight this year.

Russell has brought back Gareth Matthews from Shelbourne and re-signed most of last year's squad, so relegation is far from a certainty. Dinny Corcoran will add options to the UCD attack, while the retention of David McMillan will ensure Russell has plenty of firepower. Of the younger players, David O'Connor stands out, having performed well in defence last year, ensuring he will take on more responsibility this season.

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