The 2020 season will be one of the most memorable in recent vintage, for both positive and negative reasons, with Covid-19 ensuring the half-length season finished behind closed doors.
What the empty stadiums couldn’t hide was the individual quality on show from the league’s top teams, in particular Shamrock Rovers, who came within a whisker of an unbeaten double.
Bohemians belied their part-time status to establish themselves as the league’s second-best side, while Dundalk reached the Europa League group stages for the second time.
Sligo Rovers put four successive defeats in the opening weeks behind them to qualify for Europe, while Finn Harps won three of their final four games to pull off a great escape from relegation.
Football is a team game but, as always, individuals stood out so here are the extratime.com choices for team of the season.
Goalkeeper: Alan Mannus (Shamrock Rovers)
Not much needs to be said about this: just seven goals conceded in 18 league games speaks for itself. Yet that doesn’t tell the entire story of the 38-year-old’s season. Mannus has been a keeper reinvented under Stephen Bradley, adapting to the Hoops’ strategy of passing from the back, even against European royalty like AC Milan. Brian Murphy and Mark McGinley have been excellent this season, but Mannus has been a colossus.
Right Back: Andy Lyons (Bohemians)
If Andy Lyons is no longer for this league, as most expect he will move on to a higher level, he will have bowed out on a high with top-class form in the league and in the narrow penalty shoot-out defeat to Fehervar in the Europa League. Crystal Palace and Wolves were sniffing around last year and likely will be again as the Dubliner has raised his stock further. Ronan Finn excelled in an unfamiliar right wing-back slot but Lyons has nailed down his slot.
Centre Back: Roberto Lopes and Lee Grace (Shamrock Rovers)
No surprise to see two more Shamrock Rovers players from a side who conceded just seven goals in the campaign, and both Lopes and Grace have been key to the Hoops’ rise from contenders to champions. Lopes’ loud howl has been a feature of lockdown football as much as Grace’s quiet efficiency. Teammate Joey O’Brien was another contender, while Rob Cornwall at Bohs has emerged as one of the league’s best defenders.
Left Back: Anto Breslin (Bohemians)
Had we proposed at the start of the season that a player with no Premier experience would be the outstanding left-back in the division, we’d have got long odds, but the former Wolves and Longford Town has lived up to the task. 2021 will see him vie for the shirt with Tyreke Wilson, who pushed him close while at Waterford last year.
Midfield: Chris Shields, Aaron McEneff, Jack Byrne (Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers)
It would be impossible to look past who backboned the team with the miserliest defensive record and a strike rate of almost 2.5 goals per game, so it’s no shock to see Aaron McEneff and Jack Byrne represented. Shields had a more mixed season, having struggled towards the beginning, but he showed his class in the truncated run-in as he starred in Dundalk’s run to the Europa League group stages. Bohemians’ Keith Buckley and Rovers’ Dylan Watts can consider themselves unlucky to miss out.
Right Wing: Michael Duffy (Dundalk)
Like Shields, Duffy didn’t come into the season in anything like the scintillating form that has characterized his four years at Dundalk, but he excelled in Dundalk’s cup runs despite being moved around from the wing to partnering David McMillan up front. His performance in the 4-1 FAI Cup semi-final win over Bohemians was particularly notable.
Left Wing: Danny Grant (Bohemians)
Now no longer of this league, there was a sense very early in the season that Dubliner Grant was quickly outgrowing his surroundings at Dalymount Park. Seven goals in 18 games doesn’t quite tell the story as the new Huddersfield Town winger was creator, finisher, outball and everything else in between for Keith Long’s side. A hat-trick in the 3-0 league win over Shelbourne was the turning point as Bohs turned around a sticky patch to seal second place and European football.
Striker: Aaron Greene (Shamrock Rovers)
Aaron Greene will probably never get the credit he deserves from League of Ireland fans and his seven-goal tally will be a source of frustration for the Kilnamanagh man. Lockdown, and particularly the Europa League game against AC Milan, showed just how key the striker’s all-round game is for the Hoops. He spearheads the high press that makes Rovers such a dangerous team to play against and he put his hand up as a leader when times were tough.
Player of the Year: Jack Byrne
If Jack Byrne does decide, as seems likely, to move on from the League of Ireland in the off-season he will sign off as one of the most impactful players to grace the league in many years. Rovers couldn’t have done what they did in Europe without him, and his tally of nine goals, one off top scorer, and four assists underlines his importance. Covid-19 affected his end-of-season form but he managed to re-establish himself in the international squad and the sky is the limit for the 24-year-old.
First Division Player of the Year: Yoyo Mahdy (UCD)
UCD missed out on promotion as they fell as the first play-off hurdle at home to Longford Town, but there’s no doubt about who were the league’s leaders in front of goal, with Mahdy and Colm Whelan bagging 29 goals between them in 18 games. Mahdy just edged his teammate with 15 goals and, with the striker looking likely to stay on in Belfield for another term, he will be key to their promotion chances.
Young Player of the Year: Danny Grant
What can be said about Danny Grant that hasn’t been said? A lot, but the 21-year-old has steadily improved year on year to become the league’s best winger. He’s stepped up to the mark consistently since Keith Long took the decision to bring him over from Leinster Senior League side Bangor Celtic, and he deserves his chance to kick on at a higher level with Huddersfield.
Manager of the Year: Stephen Bradley (Shamrock Rovers)
There are plenty of candidates for the manager of the year gong, with Keith Long, Ollie Horgan and Liam Buckley all pulling rabbits out of the hat, but it’s hard to look past the league-winning manager for the gong. An invincible season of 15 wins and three draws from 18 games, only just beaten by AC Milan in the Europa League and Dundalk in the cup final after extra time, speaks to the consistency of his group and Bradley’s tactical nous and expert recruiting is the backbone of it all.
Goal of the Year: Jordan Flores (Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers)
It’s not often a League of Ireland goal gets nominated for FIFA’s Puskas Award, but Englishman Flores announced his presence in County Louth with a stunning strike in arguably the game of the season, away to Shamrock Rovers in the early weeks of the season. The midfielder has built up a showreel of spectacular strikes but this is the best of the lot, the former Wigan man stepping into space on the edge of the box before catching Michael Duffy’s corner with a perfect volley, lifting his leg to a scarcely-believable height to meet the ball flush at shoulder-level and leave Alan Mannus with no chance.
Shamrock Rovers 1-1 Dundalk - Wow! Jordan Flores scores a goal of the season contender to level things at Tallaght. You'll be watching this goal for years to come. #rtesocer pic.twitter.com/tIhtCrKfml— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) February 28, 2020
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