If the 2015 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division can somehow pick up where it left off last season, then the faithful should be in for a treat or two over the next 48 hours — and beyond.
134 days have elapsed since Dundalk beat Cork City 2-0 to win the title at a throbbing Oriel Park and, though the close season is as drearily long as the winter, the warm tingle from that dramatic final night decider still hasn’t quite subsided.
Of course, it doesn’t always pay to read too much into the opening skirmishes — recall that, last year, Dundalk began their championship campaign by getting walloped 4-1 in the Louth derby at Drogheda, a shock result certainly but, as it turned out, hardly a sign of things to come for either club.
While last year’s runners-up, Cork City, don’t kick off their league season until tomorrow — when we’ll have a more detailed look at their prospects in these pages — Dundalk begin the defence of their title in a clash of the champions tonight, with Stephen Kenny’s side welcoming First Division winners Longford Town to Oriel Park.
The Lilywhites look well primed to go again, the loss of striker Pat Hoban counter-balanced by the fact that, not only have most of last year’s key personnel been retained — not least the outstanding Richie Towell — but Kenny has made a particularly impressive addition in snaring Ronan Finn, one of the league’s most dynamic midfielders, from Shamrock Rovers.
Yet, ahead of tonight’s first test, Towell says he expects Tony Cousins’ promoted side to surprise a lot of people.
“I think with the squad Longford Town have assembled they’ll be top six definitely,” he says. “They have strengthened with real quality all across the park so it’s going to be a really tough game. We aren’t going to be complacent at all.”
While we will have to wait until tomorrow to make a first proper assessment of two other likely title-challengers — when Sligo host Cork at The Showgrounds — tonight’s first Dublin derby of the new season sees Shamrock Rovers host St Pat’s in front of the live RTÉ2 cameras in Tallaght.
Pats start the new campaign having finally buried their age-old FAI Cup jinx in the final game of the 2014 season and, with quality all over the pitch and an attractive playing style under manager Liam Buckley — the Arsenal similarities go beyond the shirt — the Inchicore club will be the favourites of many to reclaim the title they surrendered to Dundalk last time out.
And for the visitors to Tallaght, the silver lining to the suspension cloud which unfortunately robs tonight’s game of some of its most high-profile attractions, means that they won’t have to cope with facing their former talisman Keith Fahey.
But, even allowing for his selection headaches — he has five players suspended, to the opposition’s two — Pat Fenlon will be only too aware that those always sky-high expectations at Shamrock Rovers mean that, of all the top managers, he is the one who will be under most pressure to get the new season off to a winning start.
In the Premier Division’s remaining game tonight, President Michael D Higgins will be at Eamonn Deacy Park, as Tommy Dunne’s newly promoted Galway United host Derry City (7.45pm).
It’s an historic first night too in the First Division where league newcomers Cabinteely welcome Wexford Youths to Stradbrook, while Waterford United face Athlone Town at the RSC and Shelbourne take on Finn Harps at Tolka Park (8pm).
Tonight’s games kick off at 7.45pm unless otherwise indicated.
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