The 2020 League of Ireland seasons kicks off tonight with fans hoping the drama stays on the pitch after a winter full of scandal. Dodgy dealings of the FAI were well documented over the last few months but it’s finally the football that will be centre stage again this weekend.
Last year produced a familiar theme with Dundalk dominance the main talking point for most of the season. Vinny Perth’s men were a penalty shoot- out away from a historic treble only for Shamrock Rovers to claim their first FAI Cup in thirty-two years. It was Rovers who pushed Dundalk at certain stages over the season and it’s expected to be those two teams who will steer clear of the rest of the pack again.
Friday night will see the defending champions host Derry City, a much changed St.Pats take on Waterford in Inchicore, a clash in Cork that has City welcoming back Shelbourne to the top division, a west coast meeting of Finn Harps and Sligo with Saturday serving up the first Dublin derby of the season as Bohs take on Shamrock Rovers in Dalymount.
Dundalk v Derry Friday 7.45PM
After a warm weather training camp in Spain, Oriel Park will be a different setting for Dundalk as they begin their title defence against Declan Devine’s Derry City. Impressive displays against CSKA Moscow and FC Cluj are possibly a sign of how far ahead they may be when it comes to on and off the field matters.
Some key arrivals in the shape of Greg Sloggett, who takes on his former team, Darragh Leahy from Bohs, and highly rated Serbian midfielder Stefan Colovic have added to a squad already packed full of talent. However, the best bit of business they done in the off season was holding onto star striker Pat Hoban after some talk of unrest at the end of last year.
Derry City haven’t had the same luck as their two top marksmen returned to their parent clubs. David Parkhouse and Junior, who finished as the league’s top scorer in 2019, were key figures as the Candystripes pushed for Europe.
New signing Tim Nielsen will be the man tasked with finding the net this year after the Norwegian striker bagged 28 in 48 for Fredrikstad FK. In midfield, two Conor’s will be battling it out as Clifford and McCormack joined up from St.Pats and Cork City respectively with the latter making his return to Derry and being named as Captain straight away.
Match prediction: Dundalk 2-0 Derry City
ST. PAT’S v Waterford Friday 7.45pm
An off season of change was on the menu at Richmond Park as Stephen O’ Donnell and a couple of bulldozers cleared the house in Inchicore. The iconic shed end was torn down due to health and safety reasons as O’ Donnell was busy putting his mark on the club for his first full season in charge.
A statement of intent was certainly put out by Pats in the early stages of the transfer market as Robbie Benson joined his former midfield partner turned manager. Martin Rennie joins from Montrose looking to fill goal shaped holes which were sorely missing from St.Pats during large parts of last season.
Survival will be the aim for Waterford this season especially after losing one of the star performers in the league and Irish u-21 international, Zack Elbouzedi to Lincoln City. A marquee signing in former Bohs keeper Brian Murphy from Cardiff and a more recent Bohs recruit, Scott Alardice will certainly help but a struggle is probably on the cards for the Blues.
Match prediction: St Pat’s 1- 0 Waterford
Cork City v Shels Friday 7.45pm
A tale of two very different seasons for these clubs last year as Cork surprisingly struggled in the Premier Division as Shels finally flourished in the First. Turners Cross will be packed tonight as both managers look to get off to the best possible start in their first full (Neale Fenn) and first ever (Ian Morris) seasons in the top league.
Neale Fenn has invested a lot in youth this season with a couple of standout retentions and signings. After a successful spell with Longford and Fenn in 2018, Dylan McGlade has once again linked up with the manager who oversaw the wingers 16 goals and 7 assists in the First Division. The resigning of Gearoid Morrissey who has been named as captain is vital if the Rebels are to make any sort of mark on the league in 2020.
After a seven year absence, Shels will be hoping to bring their first division form to the top flight. Ian Morris will know this is no easy task in what will be only his second year as a manager. Former Bohs defender, Morris, has brought in some talent to help him including Karl Sheppard who will be taking on his most recent team.
Keeping hold of key players such as Ciaran Kilduff, who has almost 200 Premier Division appearances to his nam,e was very important if the Tolka Park side are to do anything this season. A big step up is predicted and needed so a positive result here will do wonders for the confidence going into the year including the first home game against Dundalk next week.
Match Prediction: Cork 1-1 Shels
Finn Haprs v Sligo Rovers Friday 8pm
Pre-season table predictions have these two teams set to struggle as departures majorly effected the west coast. Dante Leverock, Kris Twardek and Romeo Parkes leave a big hole in the Sligo Rovers squad while Keith Cowan and Daniel O’Reilly will be huge losses for Harps.
However, it’s the side from Ballybofey who will be feeling more positive going into this game with the news that LOI legend Raf Cretaro has put his retirement on hold while Barry McNamee has signed from rivals Derry in what is seen as a brilliant move by the wily Ollie Horgan.
Match prediction: Finn Harps 1-1 Sligo Rovers
Bohs v Shamrock Rovers Sat 2pm, Live on RTE2
Saturday after lunch is the unusual day and time that sees the first Dublin derby and televised game of 2020 take place in Phibsborough. The biggest fixture in Irish football has been dominated by the home side in recent years with Rovers finally ending a hoodoo in the FAI Cup semi-final last September.
After being thirteen points clear in April last year, Rovers were tipped by many to wrap up the league only to be pegged back by the relentless Dundalk. A disappointing conclusion and feeling about their league collapse was a lot different to how Bohs felt about their outcome.
Keith Long has done wonders at Dalymount and was awarded for his hard work with European qualification which will give the Gypsies a major financial boost going into 2020. Bohs have added to their tight knit squad with the likes of Kris Trawdek, Ciaran Kelly, Anto Breslin and the returning JJ Lunney.
The return of Countdown legend, Dinny Corcoran will be a very welcome site for The Jodi Stand with the hope that Danny Mandroiu continues where he left off last season. His goal of the year strike against Rovers last year is still fresh in the memories of every fan with the Hoops positive they can get some more revenge starting tomorrow.
Keeping hold of Jack Byne and Graham Burke was huge business for Stephen Bradley’s men. The two midfielders are arguably the most talented players in the league and that was obvious for the majority of last season. Another promising attacking threat is Neil Farrugia who will be entering his first full season in Tallaght. Dean Williams also looks set to light the league on fire with another UCD recruit, Liam Scales adding to an already solid defence.
These games are usually fairly cagey affairs and with this being the season opener, it might not be any different. Bohs and Rovers both have game changing players and they will be looking to them to start the year off right. A negative result in a derby always effects teams and this game has even more elements than usual.
Match prediction: Bohs 2-2 Rovers