No first night nerves for Sligo’s Baraclough

For the faithful, the dawning of the first day of the new Airtricity League season brings with it a familiar quickening of the pulse and the heady sensation that anything is possible.

However, before a ball is kicked in the 2013 campaign, there’s widespread consensus in the game that this will be an exceptionally competitive season, the pitch having been levelled by a combination of the age of austerity and, during the close season, the significant redistribution of both playing and management personnel.

And, straight away, the two biggest winners of last year will learn something of what’s in store for them over the coming seven months when league champions Sligo Rovers travel to the Brandywell to take on FAI Cup holders Derry City.

Despite losing a couple of big guns to those other Rovers, Sligo manager Ian Baraclough is convinced his side are in fine fettle to mount a defence of their title.

“We have more options in the squad at the start of this season compared to last,” he says.

“Everyone knows what is expected of them and what they must do when they get into the team. I saw for myself last season that every game in Derry is hard-fought.

“It’s our closest game in the division and we’ll be backed to the hilt by a large travelling support which is great for us. It should be a good atmosphere and a fantastic match to open the season with.”

Derry boss Declan Devine is also rubbing his hands in anticipation.

“It’s one that we are all looking forward to, and one that will test us as a squad,” he says.

“Ian has made great strides with this side over the last season and he has added some quality players to what was an already solid squad. But there is nothing quite like a north-west derby between the current FAI Cup champions and the Airtricity League champions to get a great atmosphere going around the town and ground.”

There is also added spice to the meeting of Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers at Oriel Park, since it brings the former champions face to face with their former manager.

Stephen Kenny’s spell in charge ended prematurely in Tallaght where, it’s fair to say, the club had grown all too accustomed to success after back-to-back titles and that epic Europa League voyage.

But, confounding expectations, they finished last season with the cupboard bare and have now turned to Trevor Croly — Liam Buckley’s former assistant at St Pat’s — to reinvigorate their challenge.

Mark Quigley, one of the players the Hoops took from Sligo, missed Monday night’s 4-1 demolition of Linfield in the Setanta Cup with a calf problem and will be assessed before tonight’s game, while Sean O’Connor and Ken Oman are both suspended. Absentees notwithstanding, Croly is happy to share in the general enthusiasm as the first night looms.

“The Setanta Cup has been very exciting for us so far, but the league kicking off is what we have been waiting for,” he says. “We’re very much looking forward to the game up in Oriel Park, and we will be looking to make a good start. We’re all very keen to get going.”

Counterpart Kenny wouldn’t be human if he didn’t fantasise about the possibility of putting one over on his previous employers but, as the new man in charge of a club which barely held on to its Premier Division status at the end of a miserable campaign last season, he is realistic about the challenge his side faces tonight.

“It will be a tough game and it won’t be easy but the players are up for it,” he says. “We have a fully fit squad, we’re ready and we are hoping we can carry our form from pre-season into Friday night. It’s a new team and we have a lot of young players who have big futures ahead of them. We’ll have to be at our very best to get something and I think we can be.”

On paper, the pick of the Dublin games sees St Patrick’s Athletic hosting Drogheda United at Richmond Park, last season’s FAI Cup runners-up up against last season’s league runners-up and EA Sports Cup winners under the canny guidance of manager Mick Cooke. The fixture will also be notable for the rare sighting at a League of Ireland game of senior international manager Giovanni Trapattoni.

Elsewhere, Bohemians kick off their competitive season at home to UCD while, at the Carlisle Grounds, it’s Bray Wanderers versus Shelbourne.

Arguably the most intriguing and attractive of the first round of fixtures will see Limerick, back in the top-flight after a 19-year absence, hosting Cork City in a Munster derby at the home of Munster rugby. To facilitate live coverage on RTÉ, however, the game at Thomond Park won’t take place until Sunday at 5.15pm, which means rival managers Stuart Taylor and Tommy Dunne have an extra 46 hours or so in which to sweat and dream.

For the rest of the sides, reality will kick in when all tonight’s games kick off at 7.45pm, as do the evening’s two First Division games, Waterford United v Finn Harps and Salthill Devon v Longford Town.

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