The curtain raiser to the new League of Ireland season takes place on Friday night as last seasons FAI Cup winners Derry City host league champions Shamrock Rovers. While the Hoops will be seeking a fourth consecutive league title in 2023, Derry City emerged as a real force under Ruaidhri Higgins last season. That makes tonight’s game at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium a good opportunity for City to lay down an early season marker with most LOI fans making it a two horse race between these two sides for the title this season.
Both managers have done some really nice transfer business in the off-season with Derry City bringing in UCD striker Colm Whelan and Preston North End midfielder Adam O’Reilly who excelled on loan with St.Pat’s last season. As for the Champions, former Sligo striker Johnny Kenny has joined on loan from Celtic while Estonian midfielder Markus Poom has also arrived on loan and has very much caught the eye in pre-season. Trevor Clarke returns after an unhappy time in the UK and should be a fine replacement for Andy Lyons who has left Rovers for Blackpool. Finally, Liam Burt has jumped the Dublin city divide, leaving Bohemians for Tallaght.
On the face of it, Shamrock Rovers have probably done the slightly better business overall, although it’s believed Derry City are not yet finished in the market. Despite making huge progress last season, Derry City still finished 13 points behind the champions, although it should be noted they were 24 points behind the year before with Higgins taking the club from a relegation dogfight early in the season to a top four finish and European qualification.
League title races are always full of “what could have been” and hard luck stories and certainly if you speak to anyone in Derry they will point to the month of May last year when Higgins side went winless throughout the entire month. From a neutrals point of view, you’d hope lessons have been learned and Higgins and his players can navigate their way out of any ruts they fall into this season.
While Derry have players such as Patrick McEleney and Michael Duffy who have been there and done it in terms of winning a league title from their time at Dundalk, there is a lot more of that kind of vital know how when you look around the Rovers dressing room. Going back to McEleney and Duffy, they both missed large chunks of last season through injury so luck plays a huge part in things as well, Derry will be hoping to get a rub of the green in that regard this season.
So, if you’re asking me who I fancy to win the league this season, I’d have to side with the defending champions but I don’t see there being a whole pile of difference between the two.
As for tonight, it’s believed both managers will be without some key players with Derry City unable to call upon the services of new signing Colm Whelan for at least another couple of months as he continues to recover from the serious knee injury that ended his season with UCD last term. Meanwhile, defender Ciaron Harkin won’t return until the summer as he continues his return from an equally serious knee injury.
Sean Kavanagh, Sean Hoare, Sean Gannon, Ronan Finn, and Gary O’Neill are all unavailable to Stephen Bradley through injury.
With the new season starting proper next weekend, both teams are likely to use this occasion as one last tune up opportunity with the pressure probably more in Derry’s corner given they’ll be playing in front of a bumper home crowd. Rovers have played in plenty of these curtain raisers in recent years so perhaps there will be more of a hunger from the home side to lift the trophy given it’s an entirely new experience for most of the Candystripes camp.
The last two Presidents Cups were decided on penalties (Rovers beating St.Pat’s last season) while the H2H encounters between these two sides last year were generally very tight affairs. Shamrock Rovers enjoyed two 1-0 league wins in Tallaght while Derry City went unbeaten against Rovers at the Brandywell with one league win (2-1), a scoreless draw, and a 3-1 win after extra time in the FAI Cup semi finals on route to hammering Shelbourne 4-0 in the final at the Aviva in November.
In terms of a correct score prediction, I’ll go 1-0 to Derry @ 13/2.