Will anyone step up to beat powerful Rovers?
SUNDAY NEXT will give an indication of the potential of new title challengers for the Premier Division title emerging as Shamrock Rovers set out their stall for a fourth crown in a row.
When the reigning champions look back on last season, while they emerged as top dog with six points to spare, they will realise the destination of the title came down to the final game of the season and their clash with long-term challengers, North End United. A victory for the home side would have led to a play-off but there was to be no change as Rovers provided the stability to emerge with a handsome 2-0 victory.
It was a fascinating season in many ways but what was clear from a very early stage was that Shamrock Rovers had their sights set on retaining the title, while North End became caught in domestic cup competitions along with the L.F.A. Cup and F.A.I. Junior Cup, a challenge that proved too much in their quest for league honours. However, they still managed to end the season on a high with Wexford Cup final success over Moyne Rangers.
It will be interesting to see the starting line-ups of the respective sides. Shamrock Rovers will possess the squad which has served them so well over recent seasons, while North End will be hoping to bolster their first team as they seek to regain that long-awaited Premier title.
Many might think that the title race will once again come down to the 'big two' but one should not rule out some of the remaining sides. When the league started off many of them showed promise but they lacked the strength in depth to maintain a title challenge right to the end, fading away in the final quarter of the campaign.
Moyne Rangers showed plenty of potential in reaching the cup final, but when it came to the league, it will not go unnoticed that they were still 20 points adrift of champions Shamrock Rovers, completing the campaign with 38 points, leaving them also 14 points behind second-placed North End who completed the campaign with 52 points, six behind Rovers.
New Ross Celtic, after an indifferent campaign, moved up the table in the closing weeks to take fourth spot, but they are nowhere near the force they once were, and with the loss of some of their young players to pastures new, they will not be expected to mount a serious title challenge.
Both Courtown Hibs and Campile United have the talent to become a force but for some reason are unable to maintain the consistency which is needed in such a competitive league environment. Still, one would not be surprised should Campile United emerge from the chasing pack as a serious challenge to the top sides.
Newcomers to the top flight include Ferns United, Curracloe United and Ajax Athletic. Ajax have been promoted on the strength of Shamrock Rovers having taken one of the Divison 1 promotion spots, but with a side already in the Premier flight they were prevented from having two teams. As a result, the club's second string must remain in the lower division, while Park Hotspur have surprisingly withdrawn from the league, having finished mid-table last season.
It should make for another fascinating season with the sides looking forward to their opening games this weekend.
Another long journey begins for reigning champions, Shamrock Rovers, with a home fixture against newly-promoted Curracloe United.
Rovers are once again good odds to successfully defend their title and make it four-in-a-row, but they are always a side determined to provide an early platform, which makes this a difficult Premier debut for the seasiders.
However, Curracloe United will depend very much on their surprise factor in earlier round games, but it will take much more if they are to come away with any points from this initial outing.
Rovers' dominance has turned the league right on its head over the past three seasons, leaving clubs, with the exception of North End, playing catch-up, and there is little to suggest much change this season.
Early season it's all about collecting points, so Shamrock Rovers should start where they left off last season, with a victory.
Last season's runners-up, North End, start off with a home game against once arch-rivals, Ajax Athletic.
Ajax, who gained Premier Division status for the new season through the back door, replacing Shamrock Rovers' second string, could not have asked for a more daunting opening round game.
The prospects of North End regaining the league after a lengthy absence have gained momentum given the strength of their squad. The vibes coming from the club are quite positive so it would be surprising should they fail to take the three points.
Moyne Rangers welcome newly-promoted Ferns United which is quite an attractive fixture. Given Ferns players' other sporting commitments over the coming weeks it's difficult to gauge their early-season impact, so Moyne look good for a victory.
Wexford Bohs are at home to Campile United, a side that has the potential to pose problems for any side. Bohs will be without Lee Chin who is concentrating on G.A.A. duties over the coming week which is a huge blow. In the other Premier Division clash, Gorey Rangers are at home to New Ross Celtic, while Courtown Hibs have a free weekend.