Carew Park concluded a long-drawn-out hunt for Albert Slattery’s replacement with the surprising appointment of Regional United’s Michael Aherne.
The list of names who turned down the financially-hamstrung champions reads like a veritable who’s who (and who isn’t) of the Limerick junior soccer scene, but the southsiders eventually settled for prising Aherne from the jaws of Geraldines at the 11th hour.
Much has rightly been made of the order that the authoritative Slattery brought to a previously chaotic Carew dressing room when he assumed the helm four years ago, and it remains to be seen if Aherne’s carefully cultivated Mr. Nice Guy persona can maintain that order.
While several of his former Dooradoyle charges speak highly of Aherne’s man management skills, even the most loyal among them would not be drawn on his acumen in other departments. Accustomed to an ultra-shrewd gaffer with an impressive capacity to read the game, one wonders how much patience the Carew playing staff would have for a comparatively facile successor.
Doubts also prevail about how the outwardly affable Aherne will behave when the pressure is inevitably applied; with his 12-month suspension from football recently commuted to six, Slattery’s shadow hangs ominously in the background.
Nonetheless, pre-season reports have been positive, with Aherne leveraging his hard-earned bank of contacts to recruit Limerick’s Shane Duggan to assist in bringing fitness levels up to scratch. Several players of varying pedigrees have also been recruited to strengthen a previously threadbare squad with Regional’s David Cowpar and Moyross United’s Alex Purcell standing out as the most useful of the haul.
Cowpar’s aerial ability theoretically fills the long-vacant gap created by Mark Keane’s 2013 departure; on paper, the centre back complements the talents of Mark Slattery perfectly. Although raw, with work to do on his end product, Purcell’s attitude and ability to terrorise his full back adds a much-needed wide threat to Carew’s squad, perhaps signaling a move away from Slattery’s successful 4-3-1-2 formation.
The arrivals of Ken Nealon and Alex Assouiss also adds to Carew’s wide options, with Assouiss representing a potentially fearsome weapon for the champions if they can buff the very visible edges off his game during his second stint at the club.
Midfielder-cum-defender Tommy Culhane’s departure is a huge loss for the southsiders, but they will hope that Cowpar’s recruitment, paired with the importation of the versatile Ian Maher from Portland Park, will compensate for it.
It’s all-change at the helm of last season’s runners-up Pike Rovers too, with Hoops stalwarts Eddie O’Donovan and Colm Enright alighting to the throne after Mick Sheil’s abrupt end-of-season defection. Daithi O’Donoghue, previously of Janesboro, has has also been appointed in a coaching capacity.
Pike’s summer started well with the return of John Boyle to Crossagalla, but the news emanating from the camp has veered from bad to worse since then. Despite initially appearing to retain the Clare cohort that Sheil brought to the club, the Hoops were hit this week with the news that midfielder Steven McGann will be returning to Avenue United for the coming season.
McGann’s last-minute change of heart adds weight to the rumours that pre-season preparations aren’t as thorough as they were under the watchful gaze of Sheil and his assistant Keith Higgins.
Recent surgeries undergone by Wayne Colbert and Shane Walsh, paired with Eoin Hanrahan’s continuing recovery from injury, means that last season’s FAI Junior Cup finalists’ options in midfield are threadbare to say the least. Renewed attempts to sign Newmarket Celtic’s Colin Smyth also look to be faltering for the second consecutive summer.
Boyle aside, recruitment has been underwhelming. Veteran defenders Enright and Pa McGarry are unlikely to feature every week, while the front-line trio of Peter Ryan, Kevin Barry and Brian ‘Clemy’ O’Sullivan don’t inspire massive confidence; Ryan and Barry started six and two Premier Division games respectively last season, while O’Sullivan is an unknown quantity at this level.
With Dave Ryan also out the exit door, Pike will be praying that Cian Collins can continue the impressive form that Sheil was capable of coaxing from him last season. Otherwise, the Hoops will need to rely upon the surprise return of the fiery Pa Moloney to bear goalscoring fruit.
Shane O’Hanlon’s disappointing finish to the 2015/16 season at the helm of third-placed Janesboro may have been a blessing disguise for the shrewd Pearse Stadium supremo, as it appeared to strengthen his hand in arguing for a change in the coaching department.
O’Hanlon has finally been successful in arranging a long-desired meeting of the minds with ex-Geraldines head honcho Aidan Ryan, who replaces the outgoing duo of Derek Braddish and Daithi O’Donoghue.
While Boyle’s defection to Crossagalla leaves the 2014/15 champions looking weaker in central midfield, the overall recruitment picture looks promising. Mike Hogan’s understandable choice to participate in his hometown club Nenagh’s maiden Premier Division season was quickly addressed by the arrival of Mike Ryan from Cashel.
Securing the signature of Bridge United’s aerially gifted goalkeeper John Mulready, whose footballing ability reportedly suits Ryan’s preference for building from the back, also represents a upgrade on last season’s options.
Convincing attacking right back Danny O’Neill and the versatile Donie Curtin to follow Ryan from Garryowen also looks shrewd; Curtin can fill in at left back, centre back, or even in central midfield. O’Neill, meanwhile, was the league’s second-highest scoring defender last season, behind new teammate Thomas Clarke.
Player testimonials from the training ground have been overwhelmingly positive, tinged by the slight reservation that Ryan may be overly married to a short passing style. Recall how a high-pressing Ballynanty made mincemeat of Boro’s defenders when O’Hanlon briefly danced with a similarly idealistic coach at the beginning of the 2014/15 season.
Efforts are currently focused on sourcing a back-up, or indeed a foil, for the prolific Shane Clarke, who is being encouraged behind the scenes to prioritise holding the ball up over flicking it on; a tactic that should secure greater change out of his continuing partnership with number ten John Tierney in the bigger games.
A creditable fourth-placed finish looks unlikely to be matched by Brian O’Callaghan’s Regional United, whose squad looked in far finer fettle at the beginning of the previous campaign.
The January departure of the irreplaceable Garbhan Coughlan, whose pre-Christmas form almost singlehandedly secured such a high finish for the Dooradoyle natives, remains unaddressed, with the returning Byron Fitzgerald unlikely to provide the answer to Regional’s 2016 woes in front of goal.
The dual departures of goalkeeper Rob Shier and centre back David Cowpar leaves the spine of team looking brittle too; a vulnerability that may not be helped by the number of callow youths that O’Callaghan has brought in in the close-season.
In that sense, Regional’s focus should be on the future, and transforming the likes of Evan Cusack, Michael Guerin, Evan Patterson, Paudie Walsh, Ruairi Casserly, Nathan Clancy and Darren Butler from promising individual prospects into a coherent Premier Division force to be reckoned with.
The assistance of Shane O’Donoghue will also be vital, if O’Callaghan is again to attempt to balance playing duties with his managerial responsibilities.
After a disappointing fifth-placed finish, earned in spite of a busy summer transfer window, and in the teeth of rumoured behind-the-scenes recriminations about inadequate training methods, Paul O’Donnell and Trevor Cosgrave will know that the clock is already ticking on their Fairview Rangers tenures.
Fitness issues dogged the ‘View last year, with Craig Madigan’s mid-season breakdown proving a particularly bitter blow, given his stellar pre-Christmas form. While Madigan’s ongoing issues are unfortunate and unavoidable, others are less so, with more than one Fairview player standing out as not being in the requisite condition for this level last season. A less arm-around-the-shoulder, more authoritarian approach, may be called for from the sociable O’Donnell.
The recruitment of right back Steven Conway from Tralee Dynamos looks a shrewd one, and may free up Bobby Tier to return to the midfield fray again. Fellow Kerry native Jonathan Hannafin has also been retained on the opposite flank, while Mervue United’s Peter Healy has been brought in to cover for the injured Andrew Walsh.
The uncertainty around the managerial situation doesn’t help Fairview’s cause, but the stability of their playing staff may see them improve significantly, especially if the exciting former Herbertstown minor David Hannon can continue his explosive arrival on the junior scene.
Having lost three of their starting back four, in the shape of Danny O’Neill, Donie Curtin and Pa McGarry, Geraldines – under Mike Considine and Keith Higgins – look unlikely to consolidate their top half status.
The ‘Dines will be hopeful that promising young left back Conor McNamara, together with the likes of Thomas O’Grady and Paul Fitzgerald, can compensate for those losses. Rumours also abound that midfielder Philip Naughton, a summer pick-up from struggling Summerville Rovers, may also be earmarked for a right back role.
However, hanging on to the likes of Christy O’Neill, Eddie Lee, Darren O’Sullivan, Keith O’Connor and, crucially, James Cleary means that all is not lost for the Garryowen natives, who will be equipped for a bottom-half battle nonetheless. The return of former goalkeeper Keith McCarthy between the sticks will also provide a boost, if he is regularly available.
Pike Rovers’ players will surely miss the professional fitness regimen implemented by Higgins at Crossagalla. While their loss is the ‘Dines gain, one wonders if his partnership with Considine, who has to this point been reluctant to assume numero uno responsibilities, will ultimately be a fruitful one.
Over at Ballynanty Rovers, the decisions of Damien Conway and Garrett Ryan to step away after last season’s Lawson Cup triumph, has been met with the appointment of former captain Tom Daly at the helm. Daly will be assisted by Gary Ryan and former Pike Rovers manager Declan Considine, who reportedly turned out for the northsiders at full back in a recent friendly.
Considine bears the reputation of a man who can attract big-name players, but that influx has yet to materialise for the Rovers. Certainly, there are few bigger names than former League of Ireland winner Bobby Ryan on the Limerick scene, but it remains to be seen what kind of an impact the 37-year-old can bring to bear on Balla’s fortunes.
Meanwhile, the deceptively young Dave Ryan, in the door from Pike Rovers, will provide much-needed experience and tactical nous, while left back Grant Murphy, who arrives from Moyross United, is one of the best full backs in the league when available; Murphy managed only six league starts last season.
The impending return of Dermot Fitzgerald to these shores should provide a boost however, as will the re-signing of former Limerick and Sligo Rovers midfielder Jason Hughes, secured in the last couple of days.
Balla’s issue will again be goals; although Kevin Nolan and Lloyd Whyte possess excellent goals-to-games ratios, neither were regularly available last season. Kevin Barry, who disappeared after a strong run of form upon his arrival at the club, has also departed for Pike Rovers.
Northside neighbours Moyross United have also undergone managerial surgery, with Jason O’Connor and Stephen Conway stepping in to assist Frank Hogan in the departing Philip Power’s stead.
While Adrian Power and Barry Quinn are certain to continue waging their two-pronged campaign of terror on opposing defences, Moyross will hope to finally tighten up their own rearguard, which stood as the second-worst in the league last season, despite the club’s eighth-placed finish.
Bringing in Aisling Annacotty’s Mybamba N’diaye may represent part of the solution for the northsiders, but the centre back is young and lacks game time at this level. Inexperience remains a problem for Moyross across the board, but the likes of James Cleary and Stephen Hannon are learning and improving at a rapid rate. Hogan et al will be hopeful that the club can sustain the losses of Alex Purcell, Grant Murphy, and Michael Guerin and avoid a relegation scrap.
Return of the Mawd is the big story at Aisling Annacotty, where manager Mike McCarthy – back himself after a one-year sabbatical – has persuaded marksman Keith Mawdsley to re-sign from Limerick.
Mawdsley, who bagged a whopping 13 goals in 11 league games before his January departure is bound to again strike fear in the hearts of opposing defences, who seem powerless to stop what is ostensibly the simplistic game of an old-style poacher; only Ballynanty’s Ryan Earls was able to get a handle on the Herbertstown-bred striker last year.
McCarthy’s return at the helm, in place of Ray McMahon and his Tipperary-based contingent, also signals the return of midfielder Stephen Goggin, while goalkeeper Stephen Walsh has also arrived from Janesboro.
Mawdsley’s goals singlehandedly ensured safety for an otherwise chaotic Aisling last season; McCarthy, who skirmished with relegation in his last stint at the club, will be the first to say “Well done, Keith” if the youngster avoids that difficult sophomore album syndrome.
Sadly, Summerville Rovers, last season’s 10th-placed finishers, look unlikely to complete the 2016/17 season. A brief dalliance with Ray McMahon at the managerial helm was quickly cut short, with players unfortunately reluctant to commit to another season of fighting to keep their heads above water.
The efforts of loyal servants like Mike Costello and Mike Monahan to salvage something from the wreckage unfortunately look futile, and the club will surely now focus only on fulfilling its opening two fixtures in order to avoid a Division 4 return from the ashes.
Although much has rightly been made of the cliquishness and dysfunctionality behind the scenes that has led Summerville to this point, it is still very sad to see such a close-knit group of lads, who have been together for so long, go their separate ways.
Newly promoted sides Nenagh and Kilmallock United both look reasonably well-equipped enough to be competitive in this division, although any hope of Nenagh challenging in the upper reaches of the table look to have been hamstrung by a poor pre-season, in which the club has lost centre back Mark Cahill and midfielder Mikey O’Gorman.
O’Gorman’s loss, whose cruciate ligament/cartilage surgery rules him out for the season is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for the Tipperary side, who will be relieved that they managed to fend off the advances of others to retain James McGrath’s midfield services.
Kilmallock, meanwhile, can look to proven goalgetters Tommy Heffernan and Barry Sheedy to keep them afloat, while former FAI under-17 winner Paudie Sheedy might also be ready to make the step up from minor football.