Pursuers shake up squads in effort to topple Dundalk
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
Stephen Kenny has gambled and won the past two seasons - and he is prepared to gamble again. With only 16 established Premier players in his squad, he is bidding to make it an unprecedented three-in-a-row of League of Ireland titles for Dundalk this season.
He acknowledges that he has been lucky with injuries, and that he will need more of the same in a season where he is hoping that, with FAI Cup, League Cup and Champions League action, his players could face up to 50 games. "It's a big ask," he admitted, "but these players have always responded well to a challenge."
Kenny would also like to make progress in Europe. "Two or three rounds would bring in a lot of money," he explained, "and the players have the experience now to go further."
If the champions are ambitious, the same can be said for their pursuers, for all of them have been busy in the transfer market, freshening up - and bulking up - their squads for the season, which starts on Friday.
So, who are the contenders for Dundalk's crown, and how realistic are their hopes of taking the title?
For the past two seasons, Cork City have been their closest pursuers, taking them to the last day in 2014, but fading badly last year and then losing to them in the FAI Cup final. It could be that 2014 was their best chance, and they are unlikely to get as close again, but don't tell manager John Caulfield.
He has done a major reshuffle, with regulars Dan Murray, Darren and Billy Dennehy, Liam Miller and Ross Gaynor replaced by the likes of St Pat's pair Greg Bolger and Kenny Browne, returning favourites Gearóid Morrissey and Ian Turner, former West Ham starlet Sean Maguire and Celtic loanee Eoghan O'Connell.
Wholesale changes don't always work, but Cork's pre-season results have been impressive, suggesting the Leesiders will be a top-four team, at least.
Shamrock Rovers looked the team most likely to put it up to Dundalk in the second half of last season, and they haven't made a lot of changes to their squad, which has had the advantage of a warm-weather pre-season in India. The return of Killian Brennan adds craft and excellent set-piece delivery to their armoury, but they need striker Danny North to avoid the injuries that plagued him last season, and Brandon Miele and Mikey Drennan to avoid second-season syndrome, if the Hoops are to build on last season's third-place finish.
Fourth place wasn't good enough for St Patrick's Athletic boss Liam Buckley, so he has been the busiest of the top-four managers, making 10 significant signings, all of them capable of being big players this season. Getting them to blend is the manager's problem, but he is confident they have adapted to his mantra of "passing by design, not chance."
The Pat's team which won the League (2013), FAI Cup (2014) and League Cup (2015) has been largely dismantled, and it's now up to the likes of former Bray duo Michael Barker and Graham Kelly, ex-Sligo pair David Cawley and Dinny Corcoran, the Dennehy brothers, Darren and Billy, and former Irish cap Keith Treacy to return the Inchicore club to winning ways.
It's hard to bet against Dundalk, Cork, Shamrock Rovers and St Pat's making up the top four, though not necessarily in that order.
A lot will depend on how far each club progresses in Europe. That's a distraction which can produce surprise results, plus an unwelcome pile-up of fixtures, when strength in depth is tested.
Another factor - and this is possibly Dundalk's secret weapon - is discipline. The holders' disciplinary record has been excellent, allowing Kenny to field at full strength when rivals were suffering from suspensions. A repeat of that best behaviour could see the Lilywhites remain top of the pile.
If there is to be a dark horse among the remainder, it possibly rests between Bohemians and Bray Wanderers. Keith Long has managed to keep most of his Bohs squad, while Mick Cooke has gone for radical surgery - 16 new signings - with Bray. The remainder, including promoted Wexford Youths and Finn Harps, have been active in the transfer market, but are unlikely to challenge for a top-four spot, and more likely to be reeled into a relegation dogfight. There will be no easy games so, with the added disadvantage of so much travel, Finn Harps seem likely to go down.
A surprising feature of the First Division is the number of players who have opted to play there when they could be in the Premier. Shane O'Connor has remained with Cobh despite offers from a number of Premier clubs, while Aaron Greene opted for Limerick and Kieran 'Marty' Waters for UCD when Premier football seemed a more likely destination.
Expect the promotion battle to be a dogfight, with last year's relegated duo, Limerick and Drogheda, featuring prominently.
Cork City v Bohemians (RTé2)
St Pat's v Galway
Finn Harps v Derry City
Wexford Youths v Longford Town
Bray Wanderers v Dundalk
Sligo Rovers v Shamrock Rovers
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