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Kenny can help Hoops stay on domestic glory trail

A NEW League of Ireland season begins tonight with all the protagonists dreaming about where this year may take them.

Domestic football is in a perpetual battle to make itself sustainable, but it has certainly proved that it is capable of producing people that can succeed on a higher plain.

Just 12 months ago, James McClean was a Derry City player and relatively untested at the top level in this country. Now, he is a Premier League regular who the nation wants to go to the European Championships.

For managers, it is also a gateway league. The top five clubs in the 2011 table have changed gaffer over the winter. Michael O'Neill left Shamrock Rovers to manage Northern Ireland, while Pat Fenlon was plucked from Bohemians by SPL side Hibernian.

departure

Paul Cook's departure from Sligo to Accrington was more about acrimony than ambition, but the underlying point is that the League can open doors for people, even if large swathes of the general public are sadly reluctant to leave their houses to go and watch it.

Still, the exploits of Shamrock Rovers last year demonstrated that Irish football lovers can also see dreams realised in their own country.

The achievement of reaching the Europa League group stages brought the Hoops to a new level. For O'Neill's replacement, Stephen Kenny, it sets an incredibly high bar. He has brought in some of his own men over the winter months as Rovers start as favourites for a third successive title.

In a normal league, a change of management would prompt fears that Rovers could be left in the blocks as they adjust to a fresh face. But with all the other likely contenders going through a similar process, there can be no excuses on that front. Their lead-in to the new season has been positively tranquil compared to the messing at Sligo, who only confirmed Ian Baracalough as Cook's replacement earlier this week.

Cook had assembled a strong squad, but St Patrick's Athletic could emerge as a bigger threat to the champions over the course of the campaign. Liam Buckley wants his team to play attractive football, and they also have a depth of squad that will significantly aid their cause. The slight concern is the absence of a real goalscorer.

Derry City, now managed by Kenny's former assistant Declan Devine, have recruited Northern Ireland international Rory Patterson to replace the prolific Eamon Zayed, who is now big in Iran.

McClean was the pick of a generation, and Daniel Lafferty also secured a switch to Burnley over the winter, but that's not the end of the Foyleside supply line. This could be a big year for Patrick McEleney and Stephen McLaughlin.

Derry hit the ground running in the top flight last year and Cork City could have a similar impact this time around. They have a degree of stability, in the sense that Thomas Dunne has retained a large number of the squad that escaped from the First Division. Dan Murray and Colin Healy have returned to add experience.

Murray, who was released by Rovers in December, knows that the Leeside public will have high standards.

"People in Cork are interested in winning and nothing else," he said. "They'll be expecting us to be right up there challenging, and three games into the season we'll be expected to beat Shamrock Rovers. But that pressure will drive us on."

Certainly, at a price of 16/1, they should appeal to value punters.

Shelbourne also make a welcome return to the top division, and they could sneak into the top half if they can build some momentum.

A stripped down Bohs side may find themselves down in the nether regions, although they should have the knowhow to steer clear of relegation trouble. Drogheda, who host Shamrock Rovers in tonight's TV game, should also be safe.

New Dundalk boss Sean McCaffrey has placed his faith in a group that are largely untried in this sphere, a plan that could really go either way. UCD are used to that and both will be grateful for the winter struggles at Bray that leave them with a weakened hand, despite the capture of Jason Byrne.

It could be a dogfight at the bottom, but the promotion race from a downsized First Division should be straightforward. The financial backing of Pat O'Sullivan has allowed Pat Scully to construct a Limerick squad that is priced at 1/6 to top the table. A dressing-room containing Stephen Bradley, Joe Gamble, Denis Behan and Dominic Foley would fancy its chances in the upper tier, so they should justify those odds.

"Pat gives his word that he'll pay -- and he'll pay," said Scully. "That's why players are impressed when they meet him. He's very honest, and he's very straight."

Limerick are planning a return to the Markets Field to mark the beginning of the 2013 Premier Division season. If all goes to form in both divisions this year, they could conceivably end up as the biggest obstacle to another Shamrock Rovers four-in-a-row.

Predictions

Champions: Shamrock Rovers

Europe: St Patrick's Athletic, Cork City

FAI Cup: Derry City

Relegated: Bray. Promoted: Limerick

Irish Independent