The curtain raiser to the new Irish football season takes place at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night as league winners Shamrock Rovers clash with Dublin rivals and FAI Cup holders St.Patrick’s Athletic (FRI, 8.00, LOI TV).
The Hoops made history last season by becoming only the second ever team to land four consecutive league titles but there was a feeling generally that Rovers were there to be shot at last season with the chasing pack just not yet ready to take such an opportunity.
If Shamrock Rovers are to make history and become the first ever team to win five in a row, they are likely to be worked much harder by their league rivals with St.Patrick’s Athletic, Derry City and Shelbourne all signing well over the off-season.
Stephen Bradley’s men won the league in cruise mode last season despite losing in the Presidents Cup against Derry City while the Tallaght outfit were also turned over in the 2021 curtain raiser by a Dundalk side who went on to have a disastrous season so the outcome of this game shouldn’t be over analysised.
What will be interesting is how St.Pat’s cope with playing away to the champions in front of a bumper crowd. The Saints have lost on three of their last four visits to Tallaght while they’ve lost their last three overall H2H encounters with their Dublin rivals.
Again, while this isn’t a game of huge importance in isolation, St.Pat’s record against the top two will have to improve if they are to build on last season’s third place finish and FAI Cup win. St.Pat’s have won just one of their last ten against Derry City, who were second last season.
Hopes are high going into the 2024 campaign however, with Jon Daly stacking his squad in all areas with quantity and quality in equal measure. Injuries to centre-half’s Joe Redmond and Tom Grivosti last season threatened to derail St.Pat’s season but Daly has reacted during the winter by padding his defensive options with the arrival of Conor Keeley from Drogheda United, Luke from Cliftonville and the loan signing of Alfie Taylor from Hull.
Further up the park, Daly has signed star striker from last season Ruairi Keating, who excelled in a really poor Cork City side while Cian Kavanagh is likely to serve as back-up after his move from Derry. A potent goal scoring number nine is something St.Pat’s have lacked for a while now, if Keating can replicate his form from last season, St.Pat’s should go close.
Many expected a rebuild by Stephen Bradley during the off-season but Rovers have been quiet enough in the transfer market with the return of midfielder Aaron McEneff from Australia their key piece of business.
Domestic dominance is no longer enough for Rovers, they are expected to mix it in Europe as well so last years early European exit was hugely disappointing. Unless Rovers can get a lot of luck with injuries, I don’t see them making any in roads in this regard based off their transfer activity.
However, they are very much still the team the rest have to catch at home and start the season as odds on favourites for the league title.
As for this game, this is a repeat of the 2022 Presidents Cup which ended 1-1 after 90 minutes with Shamrock Rovers prevailing on penalties (no extra-time). St.Pat’s played in the first Presidents Cup since it’s revival in 2014, defeating Sligo Rovers 1-0. The Saints featured again the following year but were beaten 2-1 away to Dundalk.
As mentioned, Rovers have lost out in two of the last three renewals with two of the last three finals being decided on penalties. This is likely to be another tight affair as both managers look to bed in some of the fresh arrivals.
All eyes will be on Hoops shotstopper Leon Pohls who is filling the boots and gloves left behind by Alan Mannus who has retired. Stephen Bradley has put his faith in Pohls but many feel perhaps a more experienced keeper should have been signed, this will be his first big test.
There has never been a scoreless Presidents Cup while both teams have scored in four of the last five. With Keating already finding the net in pre-season, I expect Pat’s to score on Friday (Keating is 5/1 to score first and 13/5 anytime).
Keep an eye out for regular LOI previews throughout the season from Kieran Burke here on the Bar One Racing blog.