The greatest league in the world is back! You can read my season preview here. There are four games in the Premier Division on the first Friday night of the new season while champions Shamrock Rovers will begin their bid for four-in-a-row when they travel to Sligo on Saturday. Let’s take a look at what punters can look forward to on the opening weekend.
Cork City v Bohemians (RTE 2, FRI, 7.45) – Double The Odds First Goalscorer
The first live game of the new season comes from Turners Cross as newly promoted Cork City host a new look Bohemians side. The Gypsies performed way below acceptable standards last season which eventually cost Keith Long his job. Declan Devine has had a much needed clear out and has built a Bohs squad filled with attacking talent.
Dean Williams scored some big goals for Drogheda United last season and should prove to be a big hit at Dalymount Park. With Bar One Racing offering Double The Odds on first goalscorer bets for this season opener, Williams would be my selection to score first (11/2).
Cork City have also brought in a striker I’m very fond of in Tunde Owolabi and while the Belgian born front man failed to fire at St.Pat’s last season, I think we’ll see Owolabi return to the sort of form he showed at Finn Harps in 2021 so he’s another one I’d be inclined to include on my slip for this game given the Double The Odds offer applies here (13/2). Bohs boss Declan Devine has also spoken about his belief that Jonathan Afolabi could be a star in his team this season with the former Celtic striker (7/1) to net first on Friday night.
As for the outcome of this game, it’s very difficult to call given both sides have brought in so many new players. Cork City have done plenty of overseas shopping which makes it difficult to gauge what they are getting while Bohemians do look a little light in the defensive areas. I’d be inclined to go down the middle here.
PREDICTION: Draw (11/5)
Shelbourne v Drogheda United (FRI, 7.45, LOITV)
Just three points separated these two in the final standings last season as 7th hosts 8th from last year. It was a steady first season in management for Ireland legend Damien Duff as he kept Shels up following promotion and gave the fans a big day out at the Aviva Stadium in November where they were unfortunately totally outclassed by Derry City in the FAI Cup final. Upon reviewing their transfer business, I’d expect more of the same from Shels this season. They’ll be hard to beat but I’m not sure they’ll score all that many.
As for Drogheda, Kevin Doherty was one of the top preforming managers in the division last season as he kept the Louth side up without any drama and they picked up plenty of big scalps along the way. However, Drogheda United have lost several key players during the off-season and with a reduced budget this year I can only see 2023 being a struggle. If Drogheda can stay up this season it would be an incredible achievement given they are now the only part-time team left in the Premier Division.
Drogheda have lost on their last three visits to Tolka Park, including a 6-0 humbling here at the end of last season, so this looks an ideal season opener for Damien Duff’s Reds.
PREDICTION: Shelbourne (1/2)
St.Patrick’s Athletic v Derry City (FRI, 7.45, LOITV)
Without a doubt, the standout tie of the opening weekend. It’s 4th v 2nd from last season as St.Pat’s and Derry look to mark out their credentials as the number one contenders to Shamrock Rovers crown. Expectations are rapidly rising at Derry after their emphatic FAI Cup win in November and Friday’s slightly less significant Presidents Cup victory. Not only that but the Candystripes have signed some really good players, most notably Adam O’Reilly who excelled on loan at St.Pat’s from Preston last season. Signing O’Reilly not only strengthens Derry but weakens St.Pat’s.
The Saints haven’t sat around and felt sorry for themselves however, with Tim Clancy adding UCD hot shot Tommy Lonergan while he has also brought in a number of players from the UK, Europe and the States. Jake Mulraney is the arrival from America and seems to carry a big reputation but as always with these signings, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Eoin Doyle was the big name signing last season and while he scored 14 goals in 36 league appearances, perhaps unfairly given his exploits in the UK, more was expected of him but Doyle has looked sharp with his scoring boots in pre-season which could spell bad news for the rest of the league.
Derry City had the upper hand in this fixture last season with 3 wins and 1 draw and they’ll want to send out a big message to everyone else against one of the divisions top sides on opening night. That’s easier said than done though so I’m going to shy away from a prediction on this game.
Dundalk FC v UCD AFC (FRI, 7.45, LOITV)
For me, Dundalk overachieved last season by finishing third and booking themselves a return to Europe this coming summer. For Stephen O’Donnell to take over a club who had been a bit of a basket case in recent years and to build a squad essentially from scratch only to finish level on points with runners up Derry City, who had invested massively in their squad, was an amazing story but the challenge will now be trying to build on that success.
Despite qualifying for Europe, Dundalk didn’t splash the cash as maybe some fans would have liked, with the Lilywhites instead slowly adding to their squad with relative unknowns from the UK. At the moment, the squad looks a little bit light on numbers and keeping the likes of Pat Hoban and Robbie Benson fit will be key to Dundalk’s campaign.
In saying that, the Louth men have been handed the ideal opening fixture on paper with relegation favourites UCD set to visit Oriel Park on Friday night. The Students defied the odds to stay up last season but Andy Myler’s squad has been raided as a result.
Dundalk shouldn’t need any reminders about complacency given UCD turned them over at the UCD Bowl last season but Dundalk have been a different beast at Oriel Park ever since fans were allowed return to stadia post Covid and they should be getting off to a winning start here.
PREDICTION: Dundalk -1 (9/10)
Sligo Rovers v Shamrock Rovers (SAT, 7.45, LOITV)
This is always a great fixture, there’s a proper bite in the air anytime the two Rovers meet, especially at the Showgrounds and the locals will be well up for this season opener against the Champions. Shamrock Rovers relinquished their Presidents Cup crown in Derry on Friday but they were missing several first team regulars so this weekends lineup could look very different.
While many people are talking up Derry’s title chances this season, in my opinion Shamrock Rovers are still the ones to beat and they’ve added real quality during the off-season. Markus Poom, Liam Burt, Johnny Kenny, and Trevor Clarke all have the opportunity to become superstars in this Rovers team with Stephen Bradley enjoying an embarrassment of riches when it comes to rotation options this season.
Sligo Rovers haven’t been so lucky as they lost the leagues top scorer Aidan Keena in recent weeks, although he has since been replaced by Faroe Islands international Stefan Radosavljevic. The Bit O’Red also saw Paddy Kirk return to Bohemians and while Danny Lafferty is a good experienced replacement, it feels like John Russell has had to be reactive as opposed to proactive in the transfer market.
Sligo Rovers wins in Europe against Bala Town and Motherwell last year masked over what was an extremely ordinary league campaign and I find it difficult to see them improving on their 5th place finish from last term.
Shamrock Rovers have come out on top in the two most recent H2H encounters and I fancy them to bring up the hat-trick here.
PREDICTION: Sligo Rovers 1-2 Shamrock Rovers (13/2 correct score)