Wexford step into uncharted territory with renewed hope
The combination of the ridiculously long winter break and the early-season belief that anything is possible always ensures that the opening night of the Airtricity League draws in punters.
This is the Friday where optimism reigns around the country. Cork City's players know what is expected of them as they start their attempt to make it third time lucky under John Caulfield by welcoming Bohemians to Turner's Cross.
In Donegal, the North-West derby meeting between Finn Harps and Derry City will renew a fierce rivalry and remind the natives what Premier Division is about. A full house is expected.
Dublin's only top-flight fixture sees a much-changed St Patrick's Athletic side welcome Galway United, a young team looking to build on the achievement of surviving last year's relegation fight.
For the players and officials of Wexford Youths, however, this evening represents a step into the unknown. Longford Town are the guests at Ferrycarrig Park for the first ever Premier Division game at the venue.
"Excitement is probably the right world alright," says their young boss Shane Keegan, who assumed a full-time position over the winter which includes general manager duties. For a club with a squad on amateur terms - with expenses covering their commitment - it was a big step.
Keegan quit his day job as an advertising manager with the 'Leinster Leader' to throw himself into his new role and one of the 33-year-old's big close-season achievements was tying up a shirt sponsorship deal with SBOBET.
Once that was completed, he told his employers that he needed a bit of time to get the head down and concentrate on getting the football strategy right. Still, more than any other manager in the league, he is now conscious of the impact that results can have on promoting the overall operation.
"It's the same with any team," he says with a grin. "There's no doubt that the first day of the season, there will be a big crowd. It's whether you can keep them coming back with decent football and primarily results I suppose.
"We were getting crowds of 1,600-1,800 in the last series of games in the First Division last year, which is amazing as there was only 50 or 60 people there when I walked in four years ago," continues the Laois native.
The signing of local favourite Paul 'Spot' Murphy - who went to Ipswich as a teenager but struggled with homesickness - has piqued interest.
"I think a lot of people who might not have taken a lot of interest in Wexford Youths even though they'd be interested in soccer in Wexford, you might find a lot of them coming through the turnstiles for the first time just to see how Spot gets on," he says.
"He is popular, a bit of a rogue, a character, who routinely scores 30 goals a year in the Wexford League. He's got a talent, without a doubt, although I don't want to big him up too much because it's a massive jump from junior football to League of Ireland. But anyone I'm talking to down there, inevitably one of the first questions is,'How is Spot shaping up?'"
Keegan accepts that the pink-shirted Youths will be the favourites for the drop because of their inexperience in this sphere. "Like in most aspects of life, you can flip a negative on its head and turn it into a positive," he enthuses.
"The freshness of it all for our lads, they're going to love it. They've been licking their lips and bouncing around training and that's natural enough - why wouldn't they be? Nobody has been dropped yet."
Despite their status, the Youths kicked pre-season off in early January with the help of a well-known face from the GAA world.
Former Wexford and Kildare manager Jason Ryan was brought in to oversee the strength and conditioning angle. "An infectious bubbly sort of character," says Keegan. "I'd have done one or two courses under him and he's big into coach education. He knows his stuff. I think Jason would see himself as a coach first, as opposed to a GAA coach."
Longford intend to be the party poopers with manager Tony Cousins speaking honestly about how both teams will view this occasion.
"I think when the fixture came out, Wexford probably looked at it and said, 'We fancy that one' and we're looking at that and probably saying the same."
For now, hope springs eternal.