The men to beat
Published 04/03/2010 | 05:00
Pat Fenlon has added quality to an already star-studded Bohs squad
WHAT to do when the 'big club' keeps getting bigger?
As managers across the spectrum of the newly named Airtricity League felt the pinch of tightening belts pre-season, they must feel an extra little sting every time they bring themselves to look at the list of players at Pat Fenlon's disposal this year.
By the end of last season, the departure of star players Brian Murphy, now an Irish international goalkeeper, and Coventry midfielder Gary Deegan must have had their rivals licking their lips. But Fenlon, as only he can do, has compensated and then some.
Raffaele Cretaro, Stephen Gray, Ruaidhri Higgins, Gareth McGlynn, Barry Murphy and Chris O'Connor will all add experience to an already decorated Bohemians squad.
And Mark Quigley, widely regarded as one of the league's most gifted players just two seasons ago and after a tough slog with injuries last term, has found the perfect surroundings to rediscover his touch and confidence.
Last but not least, promising young striker Aaron Greene joins the Phibsborough outfit after a busy winter which saw him receive offers from Championship side Peterborough United and SPL outfit Dundee United -- both of which fell apart at the 11th hour.
Add those to the plethora of proven winners already at Dalymount Park -- Brian Shelley, Owen Heary, Paul Keegan, Killian Brennan and Jason Byrne -- to name but a few, and it's a formidable squad.
"It's going to be hard to improve on what we've achieved over two seasons. But the new lads have been brought in to up the ante again," said Fenlon of his additions, as the Gypsies search for their third consecutive title.
"I think what we've done right across the board, from the two goalkeepers through to the other lads, is added quality.
"A little more quantity than we had last year, too, and probably with a little better cover in relation to areas where we struggled a bit last year through injuries and suspensions.
"It's probably going to present a bit of a headache for me picking a team."
It will be a rare form of headache in a league smarting from the numerous financial catastrophes of recent years, with the majority of teams adding local youngsters to make up their benches on paltry budgets.
And, having been subject to a transfer embargo for half of last season due to the FAI's financial restrictions, Fenlon knows all too well of the scepticism that will inevitably rear its head in light of Bohs' expanded squad.
"Hopefully, we can do things properly (off the field) and maintain what we have now.
"There's a long road ahead and we are going to have to work hard to make sure that happens.
"I'll concentrate on what we do as a club and, hopefully, we can do our business right."
After a calamitous pre-season which saw two of the league's best-supported clubs collapse and re-form, there is renewed optimism that Irish domestic football has 'learnt its lesson.' But we've heard that one before.
There is, however, little doubt that, in the grand scheme of things, budgets have been reduced drastically in the wake of the Cork City and Derry City sagas.
The story of a high-profile player who departed his club at the end of last season having rejected a contract worth 60pc less than his previous one, only to return weeks later after failing to find any better alternatives, has become a regular anecdote.
However, one thing which the new-found prudence has provided is a much more balanced spread of quality players through the 10 top-flight teams.
The likely result is a much tighter battle for the European places and another enthralling relegation battle, with little in terms of quality separating the likes of Dundalk, Drogheda United, Galway United, Sligo Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic.
But, barring a major shock, the 2010 title race looks set to once again be a two-horse race.
Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O'Neill has made a number of shrewd signings, while also keeping the bulk of his squad together, and the Hoops will more than fancy their chances of overhauling their most bitter rivals.
With money and, consequently, quality in abundance, Sporting Fingal will also be quietly confident of a push, but considerable doubts remain over whether they have the experience and nerve to go all the way in their first season in the top tier.
In the end, though, all eyes are once again firmly set on the league's most successful manager, Fenlon, and a squad that may yet be regarded as his best ever.