Refreshed Rovers return to Friday night action ready for the drive for five

Derry City are the only squad with enough depth to hold pace, while St Pat’s are an outside shot

Mercifully, the football is back. Following three long, dark months of FAI board meetings, Oireachtas hearings and swirls of rumour, the game takes centre stage again.

It’s not all Dublin derbies under Tallaght, Drumcondra, Phibsboro and Inchicore lights. No siree. Cork City may have been relegated, along with UCD, but the arrival of Galway United and Waterford spreads Friday night action beyond the Pale.

Derry City remain the primary challengers to unseat Stephen Bradley’s five-in-a-row chasing Shamrock Rovers.

St Patrick’s Athletic should, and Shelbourne could, keep the title race interesting into November. Ruairi Keating’s switch from Cork City to Richmond Park might spark a goal rush. Damien Duff is radio silent, for now.


Stay tuned.

A tight tussle at the top is essential because the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland has a growing audience. Between Virgin, RTÉ and TG4, 48 men’s and women’s matches will be televised.

Demand has outstripped supply. Bohemians are turning fans away from Dalymount Park due to their 4,500 capacity. The same goes for heady nights at Tolka and Richmond Park.

Tallaght stadium has no such problem. South Dublin County Council completed the fourth stand for under €12 million to expand capacity to 10,000 and the place was humming last Friday for the President’s Cup when a record 8,053 saw the champions pick St Pat’s apart.

The league returns without its joint-top scorers; Bohs striker Jon Afolabi is away to Belgium and Jack Moylan graduated from the Duff project at Shelbourne to join Lincoln City.

Young talent like Moylan might double back in quick time. Darragh Burns’s sharpish reappearance from MK Dons enhances Rovers’ healthier-looking-squad where Conan Noonan and Aaron McEneff offer foils to Jack Byrne’s sporadic brilliance.

It’s The Hoops’ title to win or lose. Bradley, sensing a malaise last season, recruited sports psychologist Mary Larkin and expanded the players’ off season by four weeks.

“We made a mistake the year before getting them back too early,” he said. “You could see midway through the season we really slumped mentally. They were making silly mistakes and silly decisions. I think that’s going to be really important over the season that that mental fatigue is gone.”

A consistent challenge from Derry or the other Dublin sides would have reeled Rovers in, as their 72-point finish was six and seven points shy of 2021 and 2022 totals.

If Stephen Kenny’s three years as Republic of Ireland manager had not gone so awry, Bradley could be a strong candidate to fill the international vacancy. At 39, he’s already entering a ninth season in charge. For now, he sees all the angles.

With Naj Razi signing for Como in Serie B, Bradley will provide scope for Johnny Kenny and possibly Gideon Tetteh to continue their development.

Ruaidhrí Higgins has zero excuses if Derry fail to keep Rovers honest after the Candystripes’ 2023 campaign was interrupted by a curious glut of hamstrung professionals.

“I genuinely believe we possibly didn’t get enough credit for last year,” said Higgins. “Our injury record was disastrous. We finished second in the league and we lost on a penalty shootout to get to a play-off for the group stages in Europe.

“We dominated the game in Tallaght [against FC Tobol] and deserved to go through. Fine margins between it being a decent season and an absolutely fantastic season. That’s another example of a game where it shouldn’t have gone to penalties, we weren’t clinical and should have finished the game off. Those are things we need to rectify.”

Pat Hoban or Colm Whelan goals to the rescue?

Stay tuned.

Higgins rejects the widespread narrative that Derry rises up or a refreshed Rovers will sweep home.

“I hear that all the time, but Pat’s were three points behind us last year and won the Cup. They were still in it with two weeks to go in the season.

“They might not say it publicly, but there will be a lot of teams with similar aspirations to ourselves.

“People throw it at us that we’re Rovers’ biggest challengers, but I know what goes on in the league from a transfer end, and stuff like that. I know the resources people have, and people will tell you we are Rovers’ biggest challengers, but there are four or five in the same bracket as us, who think they can challenge Shamrock Rovers.”

Four or five serious contenders? That would be something. Realistically, Rovers to win the league with plenty to spare. Their squad depth demands as much.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here
Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent