Dundalk and Rovers look set to be the two leading horses again
Vinny Perth’s side face tough test at Derry City while new signings give Rovers high hopes
Dundalk celebrate winning the SSE Airtricity League cup at Oriel Park, Co Louth on October 25th. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
It is hard to argue with the bookies’ assessment that the 2020 Airtricity League title race will be another two-horse affair. And, if Shamrock Rovers can maintain their improvement of recent seasons, then there may be – as the betting would suggest – next to nothing between Dundalk and the Dubliners come the end of October.
If that’s the case, then every point will be precious indeed, and so it will be interesting to see how the would-be frontrunners kick off the new campaign.
Dundalk face Derry City, whose manager Declan Devine displayed a knack for testing Vinny Perth’s side last season. The clubs played six times in all competitions and, though they won two of the four league games, they drew two more and failed to beat City over 90 minutes in either of their cup encounters. That’s still a better record than Rovers managed against arch-rivals Bohemians, though, with the southsiders losing three of five.
Ahead of Saturday afternoon’s game in Dalymount, however, Stephen Bradley will doubtless prefer to view his side as being on a two-match winning streak.
Like the rest of us, the Rovers boss will have a slightly better sense of how much, if at all really, the champions have changed over the close season by then. New signings Darragh Leahy, Greg Sloggett and Cammy Smith are all in contention to feature at Oriel Park on Friday evening.
All the signings have generated high hopes, although none, perhaps, will have resulted in quite so much satisfaction among supporters as the news on Thursday that Chris Shields has agreed a deal that will take him through to the end of the 2021 campaign.
“This will be his ninth season at the club,” said Perth as the new contract was announced, “and he has gone from being a squad player to becoming one of the most-decorated players in the history of the League of Ireland. It’s a testament to Chris and how hard he works, both on and off the pitch.”
A year ago, Devine was predicting that there were goals in the strikers that he had reunited – and he turned out to be right. With both having left again, the question now is whether City can maintain the momentum he seemed to restore in that first campaign back. Tim Nilsen and Walter Figueira look most likely to be leading the line this time around, and both have shown themselves to be good finishers.
This will be an interesting test, although the team’s overall fortunes will not be decided by how they do at Oriel Park.
Stephen O’Donnell has a full St Patrick’s Athletic squad to choose from, and so we will get an early indication of what he feels his best 11 is from what is a very changed group. The arrival of Robbie Benson is probably the pick of the close season transfers, but the return of Rory Feely after a couple of good campaigns at Waterford, as well as the signings of Shane Griffin and Conor Kearns, all look like good bits of business. Having underperformed in recent seasons, the hope will be that O’Donnell can now get the team to deliver.
Waterford are likely to be more or less unrecognisable for the game, with Alan Reynolds still frantically assembling a squad over the past week or so. Sam Bone, Kevin O’Connor and Michael O’Connor are among the new arrivals likely to feature here but Tyreke Wilson and Will Fitzgerald are ruled out by ankle and groin injuries respectively.
Nigerian defender Joseph Olowu should be available to Neale Fenn’s Cork City after completing his loan move from Arsenal, but it was not clear on Thursday whether Deshane Dalling’s international clearance would go through in time for him to be available for the visit of newly promoted Shelbourne. Ian Morris has everyone fit and available as he takes charge of his side in a top-flight game for the very first time.
Finn Harps, meanwhile, set out to defy the odds once more without long-term injury victim Mark Timlin. Shaun Kelly is a doubt too and there is a suggestion that Barry McNamee might not start given the short amount of time he has been about the place, although that surely not stop Ollie Horgan getting such a quality player into action.