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Eamonn Sweeney: 'Exciting times ahead as we wait to see if the dominance of big two can finally be broken'


Patrick Hoban. Photo: Sportsfile

Patrick Hoban. Photo: Sportsfile

Patrick Hoban. Photo: Sportsfile

The battle for League of Ireland supremacy between Dundalk and Cork City has been one of the great Irish sporting rivalries of our times. But after five seasons where Dundalk finished first four times and second once and Cork first once and second four times, there's a danger of monotony setting in.

It's time for the duopoly to be broken up. So what are the chances?

Not bad. Dundalk are hot favourites to win a fifth title in six seasons, but their rivals have been given a glimmer of hope by the departure of Stephen Kenny. The Lilywhites appear to have chosen wisely by appointing Kenny's long-time assistant Vinny Perth in his stead, yet the heir to the Republic of Ireland job is an exceptional manager who'd be a loss to any club.

Against that, the champions still retain the services of that old guard, Pat Hoban (pictured), Chris Shields, Dane Massey, Seán Gannon and Brian Gartland, who've ridden roughshod over the opposition for the past half decade. They've hung on to the League's best player in Michael Duffy and added midfielder Sean Murray, who five years ago was starring in the Championship with Watford and looked an Irish senior international in the making.

Murray's career has stalled somewhat since then, but he's still only 25 and has the ability, like Duffy, to catapult himself back into the international reckoning by shining domestically. The only thing likely to stop Dundalk is a loss of hunger.

Things seem a bit gloomier at Cork where budget cuts, the failure to add big names and the loss of Kieran Sadlier and Jimmy Keohane to English clubs cast question marks over their ability to continue leading the charge against Dundalk.

Graham Cummins was third top scorer in the league last season but it still felt like manager John Caulfield didn't get the best out of the former St Johnstone striker, whose 14 goals looked a paltry return next to Hoban's 29. Redressing this problem would go some way towards keeping City in contention.

It seems that every season begins with bold predictions of a Shamrock Rovers title tilt. This time there might be some truth to them. The Hoops' impressive finish to the season secured them third place and Europa League football and just as importantly suggested Stephen Bradley, previously the subject of savage criticism, had gotten to grips with the job.

In the close season Bradley added Derry City's Aaron McEneff, perhaps the league's best creative midfielder, and Jack Byrne, who has the potential to be even better. It's only three years since Byrne was a highly-rated Manchester City youth player called up to train with the Irish senior squad by Martin O'Neill.

The Dubliner appeared to have the world at his feet but a dire couple of years have culminated in this return home. Byrne is just 22 and can be a dominant figure in a league where he might be the most exciting addition in years.

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Excitement is also the word that comes to mind when you look at St Patrick's Athletic. The huge buzz around the club at the moment is illustrated by the 3,478 attendance at last week's Richmond Park opener against Cork, a huge achievement for a club who've always found it difficult to draw crowds regardless of results.

New manager Harry Kenny hasn't just signed good players, he's signed flair players. Mikey Drennan's late-season goal burst for Sligo Rovers showed the potential of a player battling back from the depression which briefly sidelined him. The goal Rhys McCabe scored from his own half for Sligo against Limerick last year illustrated the unique gifts of the former Scottish under 21 international. Brandon Miele is another player with a penchant for the spectacular and his arrival along with Gary Shaw from Shamrock Rovers suggested Pat's are thinking big this season.

That suggestion was confirmed by the return of Chris Forrester, who enjoyed folk hero status in his first stint at Pat's. He can only have been improved by three seasons in England where, if things did not work out in the end, he did win Player of the Year with Peterborough United. Having previously achieved the miraculous feat of conjuring attractive football out of Bray Wanderers, Kenny seems the ideal manager to get the most out of the attacking talent at his disposal.

Will that be enough to unseat Dundalk? Who knows?

Every League of Ireland season represents a journey into the unknown. How will former Wolfsburg reserve striker Orhan Vojic go for Shams? Can one-time non-league goal machine Liam Nash do the business alongside Cummins for Cork? Will there be a Joseph Ndo or a Gary Twigg among the horde of overseas signings?

It'll be fun finding out.

The Last Word: England rejects should not shape our future

It's becoming clear that Mick McCarthy's big idea for the Irish football team is to recruit as many mediocre English players as possible. Last week began with news of a move for Will Keane, a striker who in the last three seasons has accumulated a grand total of 34 first team appearances and three goals for Hull City and Ipswich Town.

Keane made 33 underage appearances for England before deciding to settle for second best. At least he has an Irish father, unlike Daniel Crowley, who has to go back another generation to qualify. Crowley has 22 English underage caps and is currently with Willem II, who lie 12th in the Dutch top flight and would probably struggle to beat Dundalk.

This latest arrival tells us that he once cried when watching Ireland losing a match, never owned an England shirt and has been on holiday to Tramore. Begorrah your honour, sure 'tis nearly more Irish than us you are.

You'd wonder what Stephen Kenny thinks of this policy. You'd also wonder if Mick McCarthy cares what he thinks.

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The Olympics reached new levels of absurdity last week with the news that Breakdancing may be added to the games in 2024. The fact that Breakdancing isn't actually a sport didn't seem to bother the organising committee of the Paris games.

Suggestions that this is some kind of blow in favour of 'diversity' seem wide of the mark given that the committee turned down squash's claims for inclusion. Squash's world top 50 rankings contain men from 19 different countries and women from 16. At the last World Championships Egypt did the double with England, Australia and Hong Kong also medalling.

In reality, the inclusion of Breakdancing is merely the latest attempt by the Olympics to maximise TV and sponsorship money by kowtowing to American popular culture. Hence the fact that the next games will contain skateboarding, surfing and climbing up a wall in a gym. With the 2028 games in Los Angeles, video games should be next to make the step up.

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The transfer ban imposed on Chelsea on Friday could hardly have come at a worse time for a floundering club.

A great start to the season encouraged hopes that the London side might challenge Liverpool and Manchester City for the title. Instead it looks increasingly likely that they'll finish behind not just Spurs but also Manchester United and Arsenal.

Arsenal are a long way off the finished article but they do have the unmistakable look of a team travelling in the right direction. Chelsea, by contrast, give an impression of drift. If UEFA really want to punish them they should make them hang on to Maurizio Sarri. The bitter irony for Blues fans is that for all the pre-season reservations about Sarri as a manager whose teams were a little too adventurous, this term Chelsea have been by some distance the dullest performers in the top six.

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