After one of the most dramatic and scandal-filled winters in the history of Irish football, attention can once again return to on-the-field matters as the 2020 League of Ireland season gets underway on Friday night.
Last season saw Dundalk dominate domestically as Vinny Perth’s men almost claimed an historic treble only for Stephen Bradley to thwart those plans by landing his first piece of silverware as Shamrock Rovers boss after a dramatic penalty shoot-out FAI Cup final win over Dundalk.
2019 will also be remembered as the season Cork City fell from grace with Neale Fenn the man selected to try and return the Rebels to their former glories this term ,while Shelbourne are back in the big time after rookie manager Ian Morris guided the Reds to First Division success.
Despite so much change in the off-season, one trend that is expected to continue is the Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers domination with the top two looking set to finish well clear of the rest once again.
DUNDALK v DERRY CITY, FRI 7.45
Let’s start with the champions Dundalk. The Lilywhites have yet again been able to enjoy a warm-weather training camp in Spain pre-season, a clear indication of the resources the County Louth club have built up through their on-field success in recent years.
Despite defeats against CSKA Moscow and FC Cluj, Dundalk impressed through the manner of their performances against these European regulars and put seven past UCD in their first pre-season friendly on home soil.
The retention of top marksman Patrick Hoban was absolutely massive for Vinny Perth and co after some whispers of discontent towards the end of last season, and while Jamie McGrath has moved on to pastures new at St.Mirren, overall Dundalk look in very rude health for the defence of their title.
The arrival of Darragh Leahy from Bohemians will give Dane Massey his first genuine test in years for the starting left-back position while additions such as Will Patching and Cammy Smith should add some much-needed cover in the final third, with the likes of Jordan Flores, Patrick McEleney and Sean Murray all regular absentees at stages of last season.
As for Derry City, they have lost a massive 36 goals out of their team from last season with loanees Junior and David Parkhouse returning to their parent clubs, while Derry native Barry McNamee has made a surprise move to local rivals Finn Harps.
As has often been the case down the years, Derry have shopped abroad to try and counter the fact they simply can’t compete financially for Irish-based players against clubs like Dundalk and Rovers and Declan Devine has found a potential gem in Tim Nilsen, who held a fantastic goals record with Friedrikstad FK in Norway.
In terms of more familiar faces, Walter Figueira impressed in a weak Waterford team last season while Conor McCormack and Conor Clifford will bring plenty of experience and steel to the midfield.
The big question will be if Derry can cope without the two big goalscorers of last season, and given that the Candystripes failed to defeat any of the top-three sides last season, then it’s hard to see them walking away with anything from a ground where Dundalk were simply faultless last term (P18, W16, D2).
VERDICT: This is far from being an easy task for the champions, but when you have the options of Pat Hoban and George Kelly up top then it’s difficult to see how you can shut a team like this out, especially considering the amount of possession they will enjoy.
ST.PAT’S v WATERFORD FC, FRI 7.45
This is a game with a couple of interesting story lines to keep an eye on. Firstly, we all remember the bad blood between these clubs at boardroom level after Waterford FC were denied a place in Europe last season due to licencing issues, with St.Pat’s very much the beneficiary.
Aside from that we’ve got Stephen O’Donnell setting out on his first full campaign as Saints boss while Waterford have retained manager Alan Reynolds after much doubt, with the Blues boss forced to do his transfer business late after uncertainty over owner Lee Power’s future support of the club.
Despite that, Reynolds has done pretty quite OK in terms of incomings, with Kevin O’Connor arriving on loan from Preston while Scott Allardice impressed Bohs fans during his brief spell with the club. Michael O’Connor is also back at the RSC, but when you weigh the incomings against the outgoings it does look to be an up hill struggle for Waterford in 2020.
Since originally penning this piece, Waterford FC have announced the major signing of Cardiff City goalkeeper Brian Murphy. The former Manchester City and QPR shot-stopper last played in the LOI with Bohemians in 2009 and has spent the majority of his career in the UK and is returning to play with his hometown club.
Irish under-21 international Zack Elbouzedi has moved to Lincoln City while Rory Feely and Cory Galvin will also be missed by followers of the Blues.
It’s all change at Richmond Park as well with Dundalk legend O’Donnell clearing house and putting a very clear stamp onto this Saints team. It’s already very clear how O’Donnell will ask his team to play, with the likes of Jason McClelland, Shane Griffin and Rory Feely all exciting prospects, while Robbie Benson has been there and done that, so to speak, with Dundalk meaning that, if O’Donnell can get the best out of his former teammate, Pat’s may well have made the signing of the off-season.
The departures of Glen McAuley and Mikey Drennan do pose a question mark over who might be the main marksman this season, but Pats’ fans seem positive about the chances of Martin Rennie, who has arrived from Montrose, and if he can hit the ground running then I have to say I really like the looks of what Stephen O’Donnell has built here.
VERDICT: Pat’s should have enough to see off a Waterford team who will simply be looking to survive this season.
PREDICTION: St.Pat’s 2-1 Waterford (15/2)
CORK CITY v SHELBOURNE, FRI 7.45
Turners Cross should be packed for a meeting between two old rivals on Friday night as newly promoted Shelbourne take on a very different looking Cork City.
It’s clear the Rebels no longer shop at the top of the market for players like the could do under John Caulfield and as a result Neale Fenn has been forced to look to the First Division and to the lower leagues in England for talent.
Out go the experienced heads of Karl Sheppard and Conor McCormack and overall this is a very youthful looking CCFC side. As a result, a few early bumps in the road could pose huge questions of the relatively inexperienced Neale Fenn who is enjoying his first season as a top-flight manager meaning this opening game is huge for City.
Shels boss Ian Morris will also be experiencing his first campaign in the Premier Division as a manager and has been rewarded for guiding the Reds to promotion last season with a new one year contract.
On the pitch it’s very much more of the same for Shelbourne who have retained all the players they wanted to keep a hold of while the addition of ex-Longford pair Jack Brady and Daniel O’Reilly look promising with Karl Sheppard and Gary Deegan adding some mental strength which will be needed if the Drumcondra side are to ensure they stay a top-flight side this season.
Cork City had the worst home record in the league last term and also struggled for goals with just 29 in their 36 league games and while Reyon Dillon caught the eye in pre-season versus Longford there is no certainty he will take to the LOI having played at a very low level in England whereas Shelbourne know exactly what they will get out of Ciaran Kilduff.
VERDICT: While I’m tempted to lean towards an away win I don’t see there being much between these two sides not only on Friday night but throughout the season.
PREDICTION: 0-0 (11/2)
FINN HARPS v SLIGO ROVERS, FRI 8PM
Things were looking fairly bleak for Finn Harps supporters up until a couple of weeks ago, the departure of Keith Cowan and Daniel O’Reilly looked to have taken out the spine of the back four while LOI veteran Raf Cretaro announced his intentions to hang up his boots.
However, just like Cretaro who performed a retirement u-turn Harps boss Ollie Horgan has pulled off something of a transfers u-turn by securing the signitures of some major names.
Barry McNamee was once regarded as one of the best number tens in the league but has lost his way in recent seasons but it would be foolish to dismiss the potential impact he may have on this Harps team. Shane McEleney also carried a lofy reputation during his time at Derry and has since played with NIFL financial powerhouses Larne while Karl O’Sullivan is an exciting young player brought in from crisis club Limerick. Finally, Kosovar Sadiki is an intriguing loan addition from Hibernian in Scotland.
As for Sligo Rovers it has been a winter of departure after departure after departure with Dante Leverock, Kris Twardek and Romeo Parkes very much part of the spine of Liam Buckley’s team of 2019 who finished comfortably in mid-table.
With no obviously encouraging arrivals to speak of and a clear lack of goals in this Sligo Rovers team it’s easy to see why some pundits are talking about a potential relegation dog-fight this season.
VERDICT: We very well could be looking at the bottom two in the league this season making this opening game of crucial importance and with neither side possessing an obvious goal threat I’m going to side with another draw this weekend.
PREDICTION: DRAW (85/40)
BOHEMIANS v SHAMROCK ROVERS, SAT 2PM, LIVE ON RTE 2
This is a ‘Double The Odds On First Goalscorer Bets’ match with us (see above)
An unusual sight for LOI fans with the opening televised fixture of 2020 taking place on a Saturday afternoon but that will not take away from what is always a wonderful occasion. Undoubtedly the biggest fixture in Irish football this is a fixture Bohemians dominated in recent years.
Two years without defeat in the Dublin derby Bohemians finally came out on the wrong end of things in last seasons FAI Cup semi-final as Shamrock Rovers went on to lift the FAI Cup for the first time in over thirty years.
Keith Long has worked wonders at Bohs since his arrival and the former Athlone boss was rewarded for his good work with European qualification last term which will give the Gypsies a huge financial boost going forward while Shamrock Rovers will be expected to go one better and topple Dundalk in the league this time around.
Thirteen points clear in April the pundits had chalked up Rovers as title winners early doors in 2019 only for a relentless Dundalk run of results to turn the title picture on its head.
The retention of Jack Byrne and Graham Burke for 2020 should ensure that if a similar situation is to arise this season that the Hoops do capatilise but Bohemians will have ambitions of their own after some decent transfer business.
Anto Breslin looks a ready made replacement for Darragh Leahy who has gone to Dundalk while Kris Twardek is definitely one to watch this season having stood out in a fairly average Sligo side last season. Ciaran Kelly and Glen McAuley fit the Bohs profile nicely as youngsters with plenty of scope for improvement while the return to fitness of top marksman Dinny Corcoran is the major good news story of the off-season for the Gypsies.
In Corcoran Bohemians have a proven clinical finisher whereas Shamrock Rovers have once again been asked questions in the off-season as to whether Aaron Greene is of the caliber required to narrow the gap on a Dundalk side blessed with the attacking firepower of Hoban and Kelly.
However, the trump card this season could be youngster Dean Williams who lit up the First Division while on loan at Athlone Town and Bray last season and is surely deserving of an opportunity with the Hoops senior side this season.
Unfortunately with last Sunday’s Presidents Cup final against Dundalk being called off we were robbed of the opportunity to see whether Bradley may have given the youngster the nod against high profile opposition.
VERDICT: On the game itself, these are often cagey affairs and with so many eyes on this opening fixture of the season I can see defenses coming out on top.
PREDICTION: Draw (9/4)
KIERAN BURKE’S LOI BET OF THE WEEKEND
As you can see from the above predictions this weekend looks an extremely tough set of fixtures to make definite calls on so let’s play is safe on the opening night and go with an old reliable in Dundalk to win and Patrick Hoban to score first.
Dundalk to win and Pat Hoban to score first is available with us at 9/2