By Ryan Kelly
After Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish team to reach the group stage of the Uefa Europa League in 2011, it was widely assumed that they would dominate Irish football for years to come. Ostensibly, it was a reasonable assumption; after all, they had just won back-to-back league titles, were crowned all-Ireland champions and with the financial windfall that accompanies domestic success alongside participation in European competition, no Irish club could conceivably compete. However, the following year, the Hoops did not even finish in the top three and Sligo Rovers, under the stewardship of Ian Baraclough, picked up their first league title in 35 years. It was a timely reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the League of Ireland and it is something that indubitably heightens the appeal of the domestic game.
Mid-way through the 2013 Airtricity Premier Division season, the incumbent champions have once again come unstuck. After a blistering start to the year, which saw them ascend immediately to the top of the table after eight successive victories, Sligo Rovers now find themselves in third place, trailing league-leaders St Patrick's Athletic by four points. For their part, Shamrock Rovers, under rookie manager Trevor Croly, picked up the Setanta Sports Cup, but have continued to underwhelm in the league, playing out nine draws in 17 games. Nevertheless, the Hoops boast one of the strongest squads in the country and remain a difficult team to beat.
Declan Devine's 2012 FAI Cup-winning Derry City team sit in second-place as the goals of Northern Ireland international Rory Patterson ensure that the Candystripes maintain pressure, but perhaps one of the most enduring testimonies to the unpredictability of the League of Ireland is the resurrection of Dundalk. The Lilywhites were on the brink of relegation and effective oblivion last season, but a remarkable turnaround in fortunes sees them in a title-race at the mid-way point by one of the most respected managers in the Irish domestic game, Stephen Kenny. On the other hand, their Louth rivals, Drogheda United, who finished the previous season in second-place while picking up the EA Sports Cup, have regressed. The Drogs have lost six league games at the half-way point, just one fewer than they suffered in the entirety of the previous campaign.
Elsewhere, the return of Limerick to the top-flight has re-ignited the passion of the Shannonsiders' support, with admirable attendances flocking to watch Stuart Taylor's men at the magnificent Thomond Park. At the bottom end of the table, a dire start to the season by Dublin sides Bohemians and Shelbourne means that either of the former behemoths could easily find themselves relegated to the First Division. Meanwhile, Cork City sit ambiguously in mid-table, with manager Tommy Dunne struggling to cope with injuries and mounting unrest at Turner's Cross.
In Wicklow, the goal-scoring exploits of veteran striker Jason Byrne have temporarily propelled Bray Wanderers out of a relegation battle, with the former Republic of Ireland international setting his sights firmly on Brendan Bradley's League of Ireland goal-record, while perennial under-dogs UCD recorded memorable victories over Derry City and Shamrock Rovers. It is fair to say that the 2013 season has thus far been an exciting one, aided by vibrant support and providing a platform for a preponderance of talent.
In a further boost, a number of players currently plying their trade in the league have earned international recognition this year. St Patrick's Athletic starlet Chris Forrester featured in the Republic of Ireland under-21s' impressive 3-0 victory over the Netherlands, while Derry City midfielder Barry McNamee and Cork City winger Daryl Horgan helped Noel King's ten-man team to a creditable 0-0 draw away to Denmark. Their form combined with an obvious ability has deservedly been rewarded and they have set a benchmark for which their peers should also strive.
The Airtricity Premier Division has reached its half-way point, but there is much more to come. Spectators will watch with eager anticipation as Sligo Rovers attempt to claw their way back to the top of the table, while St Patrick's Athletic endeavour to pick up their first league title since 1999, a feat which was interestingly achieved during Liam Buckley's last tenure in charge of the club. Domestic cup competitions will only intensify as they approach their climax and teams seek to clinch silverware.
Furthermore, four Irish clubs will commence their respective European campaigns. Sligo Rovers will soon begin their Champions League odyssey, with Ian Baraclough determined to push the Bit o' Red as far as possible in the competition and St Pat's find themselves seeded for the first qualifying round of the Europa League. Drogheda United and Derry City will also seek to draw inspiration from their European adventures of 2006 as they prepare for the Europa League.
Nothing is guaranteed in League of Ireland football. Who knows what will happen in the second half of the season?