With a new Airtricity League campaign rapidly approaching, Paul Buttner looks back on the highs, the lows and everything in between from the 2013 season.
By Paul Buttner
The domestic season sprung to life in earnest with Ryan Brennan shooting Drogheda United in front on their way to a 3-2 win over Portadown in the Setanta Sports Cup back in February.
Curiously, Drogheda midfielder Brennan was there to find the net again as the curtain came down on the 2013 season in yet another thrilling FAI Ford Cup final at the Aviva Stadium.
Unfortunately for Brennan and his team-mates, despite getting to both of the Cup finals in the aforementioned competitions, as well as the EA Sports Cup decider in-between, Anthony Elding’s late, late winner gave the trophy to Sligo Rovers as the season’s drama enthralled us to virtually the last kick of the ball.
Along the way, St Patrick’s Athletic lifted the biggest prize, ending a 14-year wait for the Premier Division title, unequivocally answering questions of their mettle after a shaky start.
Reigning champions Sligo had got off to the best possible start, a glut of goals from Elding inspiring them to eight successive wins. There was even talk that they could go through the season unbeaten.
A heart-to-heart after a wake-up 3-0 defeat at pre-season favourites Shamrock Rovers in the second game in focused Liam Buckley’s Saints. Five of their next six games were duly won, culminating in their title credentials being firmly flung down when the champions’ opening spurt was empathically ended by a 2-0 defeat at Richmond Park in mid-April.
Having already won in Inchicore, Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk continued to surprise, further signalling their threat at the end of May when a solitary goal from Dane Massey brought victory at The Showgrounds as Sligo, who had slipped off the top the week before, would never again regain the lead.
The draws in Europe were unkind to the Irish sides with Sligo, Drogheda and Derry City never given much hope of progress having been paired with Mold FK, Malmo FF and Trabzonspor respectively. A terrific away display brought St Pat’s a 2-2 draw at Zalgiris of Vilnius. But the Lithuanians displayed admirable patience in the return leg and, for the first time since 1999, every team crashed out at the first hurdle.
Back on the domestic front, expectations at Tallaght Stadium – just like they did in 2012 – fell flat for Shamrock Rovers. The title was out of reach from early on, but consolation came in beating Drogheda in both the Setanta Sports Cup and EA Sports Cup finals – giving Trevor Croly his first taste of success as a manager, but European football eluded them.
There were no such problems a few miles across west Dublin as St Pat’s maintained their push for the Premier Division trophy. Dundalk would make things interesting by beating them again at Oriel Park in mid-June. But a 1-1 draw at Sligo steadied matters before Buckley’s men hit Shamrock Rovers for four at Tallaght.
In the final straight, goals from Chris Forrester and the prodigal Daryl Kavanagh avenged the earlier defeats to Dundalk before Sligo arrived for the title showdown on October 13th – a year to the day of them beating the Saints to clinch the 2012 crown.
A sublime first goal of the season from Greg Bolger and a second from Anthony Flood gave St Pat’s a 2-0 win to seal it in front of a President, one Michael D Higgins, and a King, Republic of Ireland interim boss, Noel.
Dundalk would finish second to complete a remarkable turnaround having survived in the top flight via the play-offs just 12 months previously. They didn’t pick up a trophy, but the Lilywhites were back as a force again.
At the other end of the table, it was bad news for Shelbourne, who needed five years to get back into the Premier Division when last relegated, as, despite a managerial change, never recovered from a dreadful start and went down automatically.
In the First Division, an intriguing title race saw Roddy Collins work his magic in galvanising Athlone Town to lift the trophy and ensure that the oldest club in the country would be back in the top division for the first time since 1996.
For Longford Town, it must have felt like Groundhog Day as they blew a big lead, for the second year running, and lost to Bray Wanderers in the promotion/relegation play-off despite putting up a good fight.
In terms of records, Owen Heary – one of the League’s greatest servants – bowed out in the last game of the season away to Drogheda to retire after almost 20 years in the game. But his former Shelbourne and Bohemians team-mate Jason Byrne isn’t following suit just yet.
The prolific goalscorer netted four times in a remarkable 5-4 win for Bray at UCD with his second goal bringing him up to 200 goals – he would finish the season on 207, just 28 behind all-time leading scorer Brendan Bradley.
At the Aviva Stadium, for the FAI Ford Cup final, a crowd of 17.573 were not to be disappointed as Sligo lifted the Cup for the third time in four years at the expense of Drogheda, who had Mick Cooke in charge for the last time.
The better side for much of the game, Drogheda deservedly led from Paul O’Conor’s goal on 13 minutes. But the real drama came late on when substitute Danny North scored twice and looked to have won it before Ryan Brennan levelled it just after Drogheda captain Derek Prendergast was sent off.
With eight additional minutes to play, there would be one final twist as North played the ball into Elding and he smashed in the winner. It was a fitting end to a year to remember.
*Images courtesy of Sportsfile