The opening week of any league can be quite difficult to call, new signings have to settle in as teams form new partnerships in various areas of the field. This is even more prevalent in the League of Ireland in recent seasons as the financial troubles that have been widespread throughout the league have meant that clubs began to err on the side of caution when offering/renewing contracts, which saw a huge increase in the amount of players out of contact at the end of the past couple of seasons- a staggering 90%+ players were out of contract at the end of last season. Although many players ended up remaining at the clubs they were with last season, there has still been an increase in the amount of transfer activity in the league this off-season. Despite all this, however, there are still games which represent value in the opening set of fixtures.
Bray Wanderers only found out last Monday that they would have a place in the Premier Division for the forthcoming season after the decision to deny Cork City FC a license of any sort for the 2010 season. Up until that point, Bray (whilst privy to the fact that they could be playing in the Premier Division) had been preparing their squad with the First Division in mind. As a result, they have lost many of their key players from last season- Derek Foran and Derek Pender will be big losses to their defence, while they have lost the attacking talents of Gary McCabe and Gareth Coughlan. Bray will be heavily reliant on many of their A Championship players from last season, the vast majority of these who are vastly inexperienced players. The signings of Robbie Doyle and Dessie Baker will add some much needed experience to bolster their attack so it’s not all doom and gloom for The Wanderers but on paper their squad is significantly weaker than last season.
Their opponents in the opening round are Dundalk, and while their season has also been changed by the demise of Cork City, the county Louth club have been effected for the better with the club now all but set to be taking part in the Europa League next season. For the second off-season in a row there has been a change of manager at Oriel Park, with former Galway United manager Ian Foster swapping the west coast for the east. He didn’t take long to put his own stamp on the squad, and although the changes are not as widespread as Séan Connor’s mass upheaval this time last year, there have still been quite a few changes for The Lilywhites. Chris Bennion, Thomas Heary, Chris Turner, Michael Daly and Alex Williams have all left the club and although all were significant players in Dundalk’s 5th place finish last season they have all been adequately replaced. Matt Gregg, nominated for the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland Goalkeeper of the Year in 2008 is an astute acquisition, Garry Breen (not to be confused with his infamous namesake) is a solid signing to partner Liam Burns at the back, while JJ Melligan, Neale Fenn and Ross Gaynor are more than capable of filling the void left by Turner, Daly and Williams. Foster has assembled a squad capable of challenging for a third place finish and, even though they are away from home, they should comfortably dispose of Bray in the opening round.
My attentions now turn to the First Division and firstly to the game between Mervue United and Limerick FC. Mervue were one of the whipping boys last year in their first season in the First Division, having failed to adapt to the higher level of League of Ireland football. There has not been many changes to their squad for the upcoming season so there are still huge question marks over their ability to be competitive this season. Limerick, their opponents in the first game of the season, also have not made many changes to their squad, with the loss of top scorer Stephen O’Flynn to Northampton the only notable loss. Pat Scully has proven himself over the past few years to be one of the best managers in the League of Ireland and Limerick should get off to a stronger start than they did last season as he was only appointed a month into the season last year. With a full pre-season of Scully in charge Limerick should be more than prepared to put succeed against Mervue to get their season off to a positive start.
Longford Town are another side who appointed a new manager in the off-season, with Tony Cousins taking over the hot-seat at Flancare Park. It’s been almost two years since he has been in management after been sacked as Galway United manager, and although he flattered to deceive towards the end of his spell as manager there he impressed after taking over when Galway were in the First Division, narrowly missing out on leading them to winning the division in 2006. Longford have had the most changes to their squad than any other team in the First Division but have been fortunate to hang on to their better players from last season and have added players who should be more than capable at this level- John Lester, Peter Hynes and Chris Deans are very good signings for a First Division team. Last weekend, they held a strong Sporting Fingal lineup to a draw in the Leinster Senior Cup which bodes well for the season ahead.
Finn Harps are their opponents in the opening round, a team who had similar fortunes to the midlands side last season. Both were evenly matched last season, with the difference between the sides over the course of the season was Harps getting the better of Longford in the meetings between the two sides. Harps, however, have made very few significants changes to their squad- at least compared to the positive developments that Longford have made in pre-season. The only changes of note have been the re-signings of Johnathan Minnock and Kevin McHugh and the loss of Conor Gethins, who has been their main goal threat over the past few seasons. Harps fans know all about the merits of Minnock and McHugh, with both having established themselves as Harps legends in their previous spells with the club. However, it remains to be seen what sort of an impact the two will have at their respective ages (33 and 30) and whilst neither are over the hill both are severely lacking match practice. Minnock spent last season playing non-league football with local side Kildrum Tigers and McHugh barely featured for his former club Linfield recently. I think Longford’s latest signings and home advantage should give them the edge in this one.
Dundalk to win both halves: 1pt@11/2
Dundalk victory: 3pts@11/10
Limerick victory: 2.5pts@10/11
Longford victory: 2pts@7/5