SHAMROCK ROVERS will face a significant title challenge from Dalymount Park this year, but it looks set to come from tenants Sporting Fingal rather than landlords Bohemians.
The well-being of both north Dublin clubs was a cause for considerable concern as the League of Ireland entered its winter break, with Fingal losing the support of main benefactor Gerry Gannon and Bohs millions of euro in debt and engaged in dispute with contracted players they need to get off the wage bill to meet licensing requirements.
There has been no discernible progress at Bohs, with the two anonymous players who threatened the club with a winding-up order understood to be preparing to push on with that action. Now owed six weeks' wages, they had offered the Gypsies a 21-day deadline to come up with some cash. That deadline expires today, with no money forthcoming.
Eight other contracted players have taken a less militant stance and are waiting for the outcome on further talks between the players' union and Bohemians this Sunday. PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness is optimistic that those discussions might produce an outcome that is satisfactory to the two individuals who have taken the hard-line approach.
Their former team-mate Mark Rossiter, who parted company with Bohs at the end of the season and is currently out of work, appreciates the pain of the unhappy players yet hopes the worst-case scenario can be avoided.
"If it was any other jobs, they'd be gone on strike," he said. "But with it being the off-season, they can't go on strike or boycott matches or anything like that. I think everybody is anxiously waiting to find out what the story is with the winding-up order because I don't think anybody wants the club to go out of business."
So, while the situation remains worrying for Bohs, Fingal now have the spring back in their step, with manager Liam Buckley understood to have made considerable progress with respect to attracting new investment.
Fingal officials met with the FAI yesterday for a routine licensing meeting and a club spokesman would only confirm that: "Discussions are ongoing with potential investors and, while the economic climate is extremely difficult, we are still optimistic about achieving an outcome to these talks in the near future.
"Consequently, the club are in the process of devising a reduced budget from last season for manager Liam Buckley to work with."
The club's actions would appear to be speaking louder than those words, though, with Gary O'Neill signing a new two-year deal. Significantly, it is a 52-week-a-year contract, something which McGuinness and the PFAI believed was a thing of the past. "They look like being the only professional club this year," he said.
Greg Bolger and Jason McGuinness are in advanced negotiations with Fingal and pulled out of this week's trip to Norway for a trials tournament as a consequence. They are discussing one-year deals.
UCD will be due compensation for Bolger, a highly rated midfielder who attracted interest from Blackpool before Christmas. Still, Fingal did lose in-demand striker Karl Sheppard to Shamrock Rovers, with the Hoops making a statement of intent by capturing the ex-Everton youth from Galway along with Stephen O'Donnell. The re-signing of Enda Stevens and the swoop for Sligo's Gary McCabe made it a good weekend for Shamrock Rovers fans.
Manager Michael O'Neill, currently laid low with a virus, is hopeful there will be further positive news about signings in the next week, with pre-season training set to get under way on Saturday.
He is speaking to targets both inside and outside the league with a view to adding three or four names to his current panel. One outstanding issue is the identity of his goalkeeper for 2011. O'Neill remains in negotiations with Alan Mannus, but the Northern Irishman is trying to secure a club in England if possible, and the club respects his position.
Jamaican netminder Ryan Thompson will officially put pen to paper once his work visa is processed. He comes highly recommended after four years with the University of Tampa and a stint with Portland Phoenix.
Nevertheless, O'Neill is keen to have an experienced option between the sticks, and Mannus is the preference, but time is running out to reach agreement.