Waterford aim to be treated seriously in top-four battle
Munster derby set to rival Oriel showdown on big night at the top of Premier Division
The scheduling of League of Ireland fixtures leaves one with the impression that the list falls together partially by accident and partially by design.
There is always a marquee game or two on the opening night that points to clever tactical planning.
On the flip side of that, there have been instances in recent years where major showdowns between title rivals have unfortunately clashed with major Irish international weekends. One can only hope they were randomly generated errors.
Back in December, when the 2018 calendar was released, it would have been hard for any authority figure to claim that tonight's round of fixtures was part of a plan to bring the league's top four together.
But that is how it has panned out. The Oriel Park meeting of Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers was always going to be a significant encounter, and it was flagged for live TV coverage well in advance.
However, it has a major rival in terms of intrigue due to the emergence of third-placed Waterford who play host to league leaders Cork City in the most eagerly anticipated Munster derby in some time with all due respect to Limerick.
They were due to play a warm-up in the EA Sports Cup on Monday and the weather put paid to that. The Blues hierarchy are hoping the forecast heavy rain stays away today. Waterford have made quite a splash on their return to the top flight with a full-time professional squad and clever recruitment allowing Alan Reynolds' side to make a serious impression. They have won six out of eight matches to date with the only reverses coming away to the top two Cork and Dundalk.
Reynolds' men are ahead of Rovers because of the 2-1 victory they registered over the Hoops a fortnight ago, a match that brought 3,000 fans to the RSC. With a substantial travelling support and work on increasing standing capacity, they could add another 1,000 to the gate tonight.
It's an exciting time, although Reynolds has quashed any talk of a title tilt, insisting that staying up remains the initial priority. Considering they're already 17 points clear of the only automatic relegation spot, it's safe to assume the internal goals are different.
It would be a major surprise if Cork, Dundalk and Rovers weren't in the top four come the end of the campaign. Waterford's early form suggests they could take Derry's place in the leading quartet.
Reynolds acknowledged on this week's LOI Weekly podcast that he has assembled a squad with an excellent work ethic.
"You might not have the best team in the league or the best players in the league but there's nothing to stop you having the best team spirit," he said.
Skipper Paul Keegan has been influential in that regard along with winter recruit Dave Webster. Reynolds also added midfield flair with the additions of Bastian Hery, Stanley Aborah and Gavan Holahan, while loanee Courtney Duffus has delivered goals. Nevertheless, Reynolds has pointed out that Cork remain further ahead in their evolution and they showed it during a dominant patch in their first meeting at Turner's Cross. He should know as he was on John Caulfield's coaching staff two years ago.
"It's taken them time to get to where they are and they are well ahead of us, there's no point in saying any different," he said. "But will we give it a right go? Of course we will."
Meanwhile, Rovers manager Stephen Bradley has promised a positive approach from his side as they seek to become the first team to score against Dundalk this season.
"We just have to play to our levels. If we do that we're good enough to create chances against any team in the league," said Bradley, whose side have suffered three defeats in their four away games to date.
Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers,
Live, RTé 2, 7.30
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