High-profile midfield stars set to light up Tallaght clash
IT'S rare for the build-up to a League of Ireland fixture to start two months in advance of kick-off.
But the minute Liam Miller put pen to paper with Cork City in January, tonight's encounter at Tallaght Stadium immediately stood out as a fixture with intriguing novelty value.
Miller's decision to link up with his good pal Colin Healy at Cork combined with Keith Fahey's switch to a Shamrock Rovers midfield that already included Stephen McPhail means we could have four midfielders on the pitch with 60 Ireland caps between them.
This should offer an excuse for the casual fan to make their way to Dublin 24.
Rovers winger Sean O'Connor has spent the entire week telling people that the script will veer off course.
"It'll probably be some unknown 19-year-old kid that grabs the headlines," he laughs.
Still, as a long-serving member of the league, he doesn't resent the fact that the returning stars are hogging the limelight.
He welcomes the attention and is excited by the reports that Damien Duff is ready to swell the contingent.
Dermot Keely, a lifetime League of Ireland man, has put forward the view that the Airtricity League is in danger of turning into a retirement home, but O'Connor says that current players are enthused by the presence of individuals who have mixed it at elite level - especially as they can shine a light on the talent of those who have primarily made their living at home.
"It can only be a good thing that these boys are coming back," says the 31-year-old. "I don't think it's a bad thing that lads want to come back to their own country at the end of their career when they've still got a lot to offer.
"I know that from training with Fats (Fahey) and McPhail, they're still at the top of their game and they can help the younger lads.
"Obviously, those players will get a lot more hype because they've played international.
"But other players who've played with them have stood out too. Fats had a good season last year but Christy Fagan got PFAI Player of the Year - the standard in the league gets knocked a little bit but I think it's as good as it ever was."
O'Connor has spoken to his friend Willo Flood, now at Aberdeen, about Miller's ability and relishes the opportunity to challenge himself against a new face with a good pedigree; it freshens things up when seasoned performers in this league tend to know each other inside out.
"You want to test yourself against these players that have played at the highest level," he asserts. "You can see them up close to see what they can do."
Rovers have an abundance of options in their ranks and there is a possibility that Fenlon could alter the narrative and bring Patrick Cregg into his engine room ahead of McPhail, with big games against Sligo Rovers on Tuesday and Bohemians next Friday meaning that some rotation will be essential.
"The two boys people speak about (Fahey and McPhail) are good players, but Patrick (a former Arsenal trainee with extensive SPL experience) and Ryan Brennan are two good players as well and when we play two of that four we're happy with what we have on the pitch," says the Hoops boss.
Still, he acknowledges the presence that the ex-Premier League pair have around the camp, stressing that their attitude is a good example for their younger team-mates even if the cubs find it frustrating when the technically accomplished pair are on the same five-a-side team in training.
"They're good on the pitch, but they're good off it too," stresses Fenlon. "Over the years, people have looked and thought people have come here for the ride and have it handy, but the good thing about them boys is they want to come here and win things which is brilliant."
Critics of Cork have described them as a direct side, yet Fenlon feels that could be a slightly unfair assessment.
"I think it is probably a little bit harsh on them to say they play direct. When you've got Miller and Healy in midfield then you've got fellas who want to get on the ball," he says.
"Against certain oppositions we'll adapt the way we want to play. We feel we have got a squad capable of doing that now that we can change it around a little bit without weakening our hand."
His opposite number John Caulfield thinks it will be an entertaining clash provided the elements are kinder than the opening weekend when high winds plagued Tallaght and destroyed the Hoops' win over St Patrick's Athletic.
"For us it will be a good test," he muses. "I think it will be a good quality game; they like to play, we like to play and I just hope the conditions are better than on the opening weekend of the season!
"We are working hard and we certainly think we can get a result."
It promises to be an informative night, with the two other members of last year's top four, champions Dundalk and third-placed St Pat's, meeting in Oriel Park.
Ronan Finn left Rovers over the winter to link up again with Stephen Kenny in Louth and the attacking midfielder isn't particularly bothered if the night's other big clash has top billing. He feels he is in the right place.
"Let people say what they want. I think we know we're a good side," says Finn.
"We joke about it. We've beaten Pat's already in the President's Cup. When we come to play Rovers, Sligo, Cork, we'll play them. We'll be fully confident.
"I'm joining a team that won the league and other than Pat (Hoban), the manager has kept all the players. I'd say 90pc of the players he really wanted to keep. That says a lot that everybody wanted to stay and play for Stephen.
"It is traditionally more difficult to defend the league but we're confident, you know. We've got a really good group up there.
"We've got a good bond amongst the players. We're very, very close. Playing against Dundalk last year, you realise that and it's strange.
"They'd die for each other on the pitch, they've got that bond. That is the emphasis of the team, that's what the team is about."
Kenny was enthused by his team's display when they brought home three points from Derry seven days ago.
"We have had a great start," he says. "Two wins and two clean sheets so far is exactly what we would have wanted. We want to build on that now.
"We have to earn the right to win every match. Each game is difficult and we will go out to try and win every game."
Three games into a new season, some big questions could be answered.