First Division mid-season review: Galway United on top as Waterford try to close the gap

We have just passed the halfway point of this season’s First Division, with Galway United wheeling away at the top of the pile.

Waterford are second – but they are ten points behind the Tribesmen and it is unlikely that Keith Long’s side will be able to bridge the gap to the leaders.

Meanwhile, Cobh Ramblers and Athlone Town have caught the eye in the play-off chase and sit comfortably in the top-five.

Bray Wanderers are fifth but they are closely followed by Wexford, Finn Harps, Longford Town and Treaty United. Newcomers Kerry prop up the table.

Top performers: Galway United

Galway United look almost unstoppable in their bid to secure promotion to the Premier Division – dropping just five points so far this season.

Only Longford Town have defeated the Tribesmen, while Bray Wanderers also picked up a valuable point at home against John Caulfield’s side.

In all, the Tribes have claimed 17 wins from a possible 19 – and they possess the best defensive record in the second-tier by a fair distance.

Keeper Brendan Clarke has conceded just eight goals and picked up 11 clean sheets as the Tribesmen’s new first-choice keeper after taking over the mantle from departing Conor Kearns.

And they are not bad as an attacking threat either – they have scored 53 goals in 19 games.

That may underline other issues in regard to the lack of a challenge in the second-tier but Galway can only beat what is in front of them.

Surprise package: Cobh Ramblers

With just 17 points on the board last season, few expected Cobh Ramblers to enjoy the kind of campaign they are in the midst of now.

The Rams, under the stewardship of Shane Keegan, have caught the eye and are looking good in the play-off positions.

While they have been able to add experienced players like Lee Steacy and Jack Doherty to their squad, the level of improvement they have shown is quite impressive.

They have already picked up 29 points from 19 games and it would be a surprise at this point if they were to miss out on a play-off berth at the end of the season.

Player of the season: Rónán Coughlan

Like Galway United, this is a fairly straightforward pick.

Coughlan, 27, has netted 25 goals in just 17 games this season for the Blues – but he has really come to the fore since new boss Long took over at the RSC.

The former St Pat’s striiker struggled for match fitness at the start of the season after missing most of pre-season, but he has made up for lost time with a scintillating few weeks.

Courtesy of Andrew Cuneen, only four of the 10 First Division clubs have scored more goals than the striker this season, including the one he plays for.

And with his manager labelling him a ‘Premier Division striker’ in the First Division, perhaps it is no surprise that he has found it as easy as he had.

But like the Tribesmen, Coughlan can only play against what is in front of him.

Do not be surprised if he breaks all sorts of goal scoring records this season.

Signing of the season: Brendan Clarke

Coughlan is also an easy pick for this but Clarke has been a major part of why Galway United have been as dominant as they have been.

The Dubliner joined the Tribesmen from Shelbourne at the end of last season despite impressing under Damien Duff at Tolka Park.

But rather than losing faith, the former St Pat’s keeper has played an integral role for Caulfield’s side this term.

With 11 clean sheets already, Clarke’s know-how and experience has given Galway the platform to impress this season – and he has conceded just eight league goals.

What can we expect in the second half of the campaign?

The First Division has been fairly competitive this season, highlighted by the fact there is such a small gap between Longford Town in ninth and Athlone Town in third.

Just 11 points separate the two Midlands rivals - and that reflects the similarity of the teams vying for a play-off place.

Kerry are the only side who are out of the promotion play-off picture – sitting on six points – but there is so much to play for.

But saying there is so much to play for ignores the elephant in the room. The gap between the top two and the rest is stark, and it will only widen.

Galway United are likely to win the league – barring a collapse, of course – but can anyone beat Waterford in the play-offs?

Yes, it is the play-offs so theoretically anything can happen. But the reality is that it is highly unlikely.

Only Wexford have defeated the Blues this season aside from Galway - while Longford Town (twice) and Bray Wanderers (once) have drawn with them.

And with Long’s side expected to add to their squad in the coming weeks, you would expect odds on a play-off upset at the expense of Waterford to lengthen.

Things can change but, as it stands, it is hard to see anything other than a Galway United procession to the title – and Waterford coming through the First Division playoffs before playing a Premier Division side in the final.