The new League of Ireland season is finally here! The 2024 campaign begins on Friday night with Shamrock Rovers aiming to become the first-ever side to win five consecutive Premier Division titles while Galway United and Waterford FC are stepping up to the top-flight following promotion last term.
In the First Division, Cork City are favourites to go straight back up following a disastrous relegation last season while the likes of Wexford FC and Bray Wanderers will be hoping to be genuine promotion contenders.
SHAMROCK ROVERS v DUNDALK – FRI, 8.00, RTE 2 – DOUBLE THE ODDS FIRST GOALSCORER
The first live TV game of the new season comes from the home of the Champions as Shamrock Rovers welcome a new-look Dundalk outfit to Tallaght Stadium.
The Hoops wasted little time in sending out a real message of intent for the year ahead by dispatching St.Patrick’s Athletic at their ease (3-1) in the curtain-raising Presidents Cup last week. While many teams have gone on to fail to win the league title after lifting the first silverware of the season, the manner of Rovers performance on Friday was almost frightening, especially given they weren’t at full strength.
While some would argue Rovers were not at their best last season, they still cruised to the title and are clearly the one to beat again this year. If you go back to Dundalk’s era of dominance under Stephen Kenny, the former Ireland manager was never one for making bundles of additions off the back of a successful season. Instead, Kenny would add one or two players who were almost certain to improve his starting XI and Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley appears to be taking a similar approach.
Bradley has re-signed loan players from last season such as Markus Poom, Trevor Clarke, and Johnny Kenny while Aaron McEneff has returned to the club after time in Scotland and Australia with former St.Pat’s winger Darragh Burns linking up with Rovers on loan from MK Dons. Bradley knows exactly what he’ll get from these players, there is little risk attached.
The same can’t be said of Dundalk’s winter arrivals with Stephen O’Donnell again being forced to look towards the UK market with Dundalk unable to compete financially for the cream of the crop player-wise in Ireland.
Dara Keane is the only signing made from within the league with the other eight or so additions all coming from England, Scotland, and Holland.
All-time leading goalscorer Pat Hoban has departed for Derry as has Daniel Kelly. Replacing those goals will be a huge challenge, especially with their replacements being unproven at this level.
Pre-season performances haven’t been overly encouraging either and opening night assignments don’t come much tougher than this.
Shamrock Rovers looking cracking value at 2/5 and I’d even be tempted to go as bold as a Rovers -1 on the handicap here.
The opening TV game of the season is also Bar One Racing’s first Double The Odds First Goal scorer match of the new LOI season. For me, Rory Gaffney and Pat Hoban are by far and away still the two best frontmen in Ireland, and with no Hoban in a Lilywhites shirt this season, I’ll be looking towards Gaffney to open the scoring here (Price to follow).
PREDICTION: Shamrock Rovers (2/5)
BEST BET: Shamrock Rovers -1 (11/10)
ATHLONE TOWN v WEXFORD FC – FRI, 7.45, LOI TV
When the betting for this game first became available it immediately caught my attention. Wexford FC, who are among many people’s fancies to be in the top three in the First Division this season, were available at in or around 14/5 with Athlone Town a shade of odds on.
This was despite the fact that Wexford finished six points clear of Athlone Town last season and have enjoyed a much steadier off-season than the Midlanders, who lost their star striker Frantz Pierrot to Drogheda United.
The loss of Pierrot can not be underestimated, aside from his 22 goals last season, he gave Athlone Town a genuine belief that they could beat anyone in the division on any given day, and he gave Athlone Town a fear factor, something they are now less likely to posses this season.
Wexford, who have been on an upward curve over the past two seasons managed to keep a hold of pretty much everyone they wanted to over the off-season, while James Keddy has made a couple of shrewd additions with Thomas Oluwa signing permanently from Waterford after a successful loan spell while Mikie Rowe experienced promotion with Galway last season.
A little bit like I referenced with Shamrock Rovers, Wexford now have a steady squad in place which should allow them to hit the ground running. Athlone Town on the other hand have made 9 new signings and while the likes of Dylan Hand and Dean Ebbe should improve the starting XI, that is a huge turnover of players to try and bed in quickly.
The vibes coming out of Athlone during pre-season have also been worrying. Athlone’s only pre-season win came against Maynooth in the Leinster Senior Cup while in that same competition, Athlone lost at home to local rivals Longford before drawing 0-0 against Shamrock Rovers U20’s despite the Westmeath men fielding an almost full strength side.
The odds compilers appear to have since realised the error of their ways by totally flipping the market here with Wexford now 11/8 favourites and the hosts Athlone 13/8 outsiders. Thankfully, I got on early but I’m still happy to recommend Wexford at the shorter price.
BEST BET: Wexford FC (11/8)
While I’m not officially including them in this week’s column, I do need to highlight Finn Harps price away to Longford Town as looking generous at 12/5.
Longford have had some really poor results in pre-season while Finn Harps defeated a full-strength Sligo Rovers team last time out and have also performed well against the likes of Derry City in the build-up to this season opener.
Longford were beaten at home in their first game of last season and Harps will fancy their chances of repeating such a result.