'Perfect' - Tonight's Dublin Derby summed up in one word as Shamrock Rovers seek positive start
Sold-out Dalymount derby puts Hoops' ambitions under spotlight
There will be no soft landing into the new season for the players of Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers tonight. From the first minute at Dalymount Park, competitive football will be back.
"Perfect," was the one-word response of Rovers skipper Ronan Finn when asked about the prospect of a Dublin derby premiere. He qualified the response by stressing it was just what the Hoops need to gather steam.
A poor start to last year simply left Stephen Bradley's side with too much ground to make up and the relentless run of league matches in the opening months of the campaign means a repeat would have fatal consequences for any title hopes.
While the switch to a 10-team league extends the campaign to 36 games, the reality is Rovers will have played 23 of those matches by the mid-season break in June.
Indeed, with midweek rounds dotted into the spring calendar, a quarter of the league season will be completed by the end of March.
"It was quite obvious we were off the pace early last year," said Finn. "This season we can't be because there's so many games in the first 10 weeks. You need to be right there by that mid-season break."
With Dundalk in Tallaght next week, their credentials will be placed under the spotlight early on. Bohemians will relish the opportunity to apply the pressure and make their own statement.
There were mixed feelings behind the scenes at Dalymount about the marquee fixture because a home match with Rovers would be a draw at any point of the year.
The antiquated state of the old ground has created a situation where only two stands are now fit for use by supporters, and they were sold out a fortnight ago. A final figure of 3,640 is extremely restrictive.
It has taken some regular attendees by surprise with the volume of calls and mails to club offices this week leaving the hierarchy with the conclusion they could have sold many, many more tickets for this game if they had the facilities.
The buzz created by Keith Long's side's fifth-placed finish last term is likely to have guaranteed a bumper turnout for the opening night regardless of the opposition, but any match against Rovers is special.
Their dressing-room shares the same enthusiasm as the Rovers camp and the versatile Ian Morris, who also works as a youth development officer, has tapped into the positivity around the area.
"The closer you get, the more excited you are about it," said the 30-year-old. "It just seems that this season, especially on social media, things are starting to pick up a bit around the league.
"I'd be surprised if crowd numbers weren't up this year across the league and the fact this game has been sold out two weeks beforehand, it's exceptional."
The origins of this rivalry date back to a time when Rovers snared players from their cross-city rivals and, while those roles have reversed over the years, we are now in a situation where the hosts are a part-time outfit whereas the Tallaght side are a full-time football operation.
Long has stressed that they train just as hard and just have to squeeze in other commitments, but Bradley's charges did get to enjoy a pre-season break in the Algarve which featured three games against Scandinavian opposition.
They picked up two red cards along the way, a slightly troubling return seeing as they picked up 10 across 2017.
Bradley and Finn acknowledge poor discipline cost them and say it has been addressed. This sparky affair will test that theory.
Elsewhere tonight, champions Cork City are also in the capital for a showdown with St Patrick's Athletic in Inchicore.
The Saints scored a valuable win over Cork at the tail end of last term and it ultimately proved crucial in their attempts to escape the drop.
But Cork already had the title in the bag, which impacted on their choice of personnel and overall intensity levels.
Kieran Sadlier did star in that game, at a time when he was struggling to become a first-choice option for his new employers.
That should all change in 2018, with the ex-Sligo Rovers winger the star in their President's Cup comeback against Dundalk last Sunday.
He was a team-mate of Sean Maguire at West Ham and is hoping to emulate his good friend by becoming a star with the Leesiders.
Veteran centre-half Alan Bennett feels Sadlier has got the attributes that mark him out from the pack.
"He's just got to round out his game now as best as he can," said Bennett. "He's got the going forward part which is the hardest bit, so if he can just round out his game, he can be a serious talent."
Dundalk's preparations for their opener with Bray have been complicated by illness in the camp with their new foreign legion in poor health.
Lithuanian Karolis Chvedukas missed the Cork game because he was confined to bed and Hungarian Krisztian Adorjan could not see it out because he was toiling.
Bray's mission this year is to prove they are not the sick child of the Premier Division in a slightly different way.
Meanwhile, Waterford's return to the top flight should draw a crowd to compete favourably with anything in Dublin with Derry City the visitors to the RSC.
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