Keeping the peace
Michael O'Neill has added a host of talent to his title-winning squad - but will he be able to maintain a happy Hoops camp?
THEY stumbled over the line last October to secure a first league title since 1994, yet a short few months later there is a widespread expectation that Shamrock Rovers will regain their crown with plenty to spare. It's a different kind of pressure.
Tonight at Tallaght, Michael O'Neill and his players start their journey with the visit of Dundalk, opponents who proved to be their bogey team in 2010 and who also have pretensions to challenge at the right end of the table this year after some notable winter acquisitions.
However, with the resources at O'Neill's disposal, the reality is that a key factor in this year's title race will be his ability to keep a talented squad happy while identifying his strongest team.
Every week, he will be forced to leave coveted individuals on the sideline, even if a relatively congested fixture schedule should provide all with plenty of opportunities.
Take the striking department as an example. The Hoops have retained the services of Gary Twigg, the outstanding player in the domestic game over the past two seasons, and the top scorer in last year's charts with 21 goals.
Over the winter they added Ciaran Kilduff, the joint second top scorer with 14 goals, Gary O'Neill, who scored 11 with the defunct Sporting Fingal and is renowned for his ability to hold the ball up and bring others into play, and Karl Sheppard, who grabbed nine for a poor Galway side.
To put it into context, of the top 10 marksmen in the 2010 charts, only six remain in the Airtricity League and four now ply their trade in Dublin 24 -- Bray's Jake Kelly and Dundalk new boy Jason Byrne are the others.
Rovers also added Dean Kelly from Oldham, although O'Neill points out that "he can play wide as well".
And they've got plenty of wide options too.
"I think there's more versatility in the squad than what we had last year," O'Neill says, with perfect understatement. Nevertheless, the Rovers manager feels that his charges face a severe test to make it two in a row, pointing out that the demise of Sporting Fingal, in addition to the trauma at Bohs, has resulted in a spread of talent around the other clubs.
"The majority of the best players from the last two years are still in the league," he states. "Okay, there's a few who might have emigrated, but the majority are there. It's just probably harder to attract players from outside the league now.
"It's going to be difficult. The tag of favourites comes from outside the club, but we'll deal with it. The league is the priority, but we want to be competitive on all fronts as well."
It was old foes Bohs who pushed Rovers to the wire last time, but Pat Fenlon starts the new campaign in Bray tonight with a shadow of his former squad.
O'Neill reckons it would be unwise to write them off, though, even if Sligo, St Patrick's Athletic and Dundalk look to have stronger claims.
"They've got a lot of people with experience in this league," he warns. "They may not have the depth of squad, but if they keep everyone fit and available, they'll challenge."
Sligo begin their year in Derry, where a big crowd is expected as the Foylesiders welcome back Premier Division football. St Pat's are in Galway, where a good turnout is needed to reward the efforts of the Tribesmen supporters who saved the club in the off-season.
Meanwhile, neither Drogheda United nor manager Mick Cooke were planning for Premier Division football until the last fortnight. Cooke, recruited from Monaghan last weekend after Drogheda's reprieve due to Fingal folding, is working with a modest budget, but is confident he can perform.
"The budget is realistic enough from where the club is coming from," he says. "Hopefully if I do alright between now and the window, we'll be able to bring in a few players then."
It is a world away from the dilemma which O'Neill faces.
Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk,
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