By Anthony Pyne
And we’re back. Four months after Dundalk confirmed their status as the best team in the land, the slate is wiped clean. Another SSE Airtricity League campaign is upon us; another season of blood and thunder, twists and turns.
The Lilywhites, despite the loss of the talismanic Richie Towell to Brighton, are clearly the team to beat. Stephen Kenny has softened Towell’s departure with some big additions – Patrick McEleney and Robbie Benson in particular – but the chasing pack have flexed their muscles in the off-season too.
Cork City – bridesmaids to the Lilywhites as league runners-up and beaten FAI Cup finalists last year – have been busy, with the likes of Shamrock Rovers and St Pat's also shaking things up in pursuit of major honours.
At the other end of the spectrum new boys Wexford Youths make their first ever appearance in the top flight, and they'll be desperate to prove they belong at this level. An intriguing first weekend of action awaits.
FRIDAY 5 MARCH
Cork City v Bohemians, Turner's Cross, 19:45 [Live on RTÉ2]
Referee: Neil Doyle
Position last season: Cork City 2nd, Bohemians 5th
John Caulfield dusted himself down from Cork's FAI Cup final defeat to Dundalk and surveyed the landscape. Beaten by Stephen Kenny's superb side in the Aviva showpiece and a distant second to them in the league, ground had to be made up. He immediately went to work.
“I think it’s quite obvious that we need to bring more pace and energy into our team,” he told RTÉ Sport in the wake of the cup final loss.
“Not much, obviously the bulk of the lads will be there but some guys are going to move on and we need to shuffle the pack a bit."
Ian Turner, Stephen Dooley, Greg Bolger [a league winner with St Pat's in 2013], Kenny Browne and Sean Maguire have, he'll hope, strengthened his hand enough to bridge the gap and give Cork the extra edge they need to claim silver.
John Kavanagh is expected to be sidelined until the mid-season break, as he makes his way back from surgery, while Garry Buckley is ruled out with a knee injury but Caulfield hopes to have him back in the squad in the near future. Kevin O’Connor returns after missing the win over Dundalk.
Keith Long's Bohs will give them a stiff first test of the campaign. Kurtis Byrne has made the switch from Dundalk and Ismahil Akinade's power, pace and directness always gives opposition defences food for thought - particularly away from home, when Bohs can soak up pressure and counter-attack with pace.
"The players need no motivation going into this," said Long.
"It's been a long off-season, so we're really looking forward to it now.
"There will be a big, partisan crowd. But that's what you want. Players want to play in front of full stadiums, in front of a vocal and intimidating atmosphere."
Two good sides with ambitions of improving on their showings last term, it's an intriguing opener at Turner's Cross.
St Patrick's Athletic v Galway United, Richmond Park, 19:45
Referee: Robert Harvey
Position last season: St Pat's 4th; Galway United 10th
St Pat's manager Stephen Buckley has lost Greg Bolger, Killian Brennan and James Chambers and the success of new faces of Graham Kelly, Mark Timlin, David Cawley and Darren Dennehy will make or break their season.
"Liam has signed a lot of players that are going to play key roles this year," Ger O'Brien told RTÉ Sport. "Realistically, there has to be a challenge from us this year."
Buckley expects an immediate test of his side's credentials against Galway and believes his side will have to work hard against Tommy Dunne's men.
"I know Tommy well so I'd be expecting Galway to be very fit at the start of the season and to be ready for the season ahead. They've made a couple of signings themselves and retained a lot of key players from last year so they will make it tough for us."
On the injury front, Buckley is without young midfielder Jack Bayly, who has a thigh strain, while Republic of Ireland Under-21 international Lee Desmond faces a late fitness test.
Galway United boss Dunne made 11 pre-season signings, with 19-year-old goalkeeper Aaron Dillon his final addition.
They flirted with the dreaded promotion/relegation play-off last season and will be looking for a decent start to lay a platform for the campaign. Dunne is under no illusions of how difficult a trip to Inchicore will be first day out however.
"I'm happy with the new players I've brought in and also too, the players that we've retained which is very important. It's a good group of players," he said.
"St Patrick's Athletic away is a tough opening game. They've made a lot of changes in the off-season but Liam Buckley has signed well and they'll be regarded as one of the favourites. We want to start the season with purpose."
Finn Harps v Derry City, Finn Park, 20:00
Referee: Tomas Connolly
Position last season: Finn Harps 2nd [First Division]; Derry City 7th
Seventeen-year-old BJ Banda ensured he'll never have to buy a pint in Donegal again [once he turns 18 of course] when he headed Finn Harps Premier Division at Limerick FC’s expense in the promotion/relegation play-off.
The challenge for Ollie Horgan's men now is to stay there.
“I said it at the time and I’ll say it again - staying up this season would be an even bigger achievement than the success of last season,” the manager told Finn Harp's official website.
"Yes, it was great and what we achieved was a tremendous feat – but last year is well and truly over now and everyone needs to concentrate on the huge task ahead."
Goalkeeper Richard Brush and Liam Flatley have been signed from Sligo Rovers to bolster the ranks, along with veteran Dave Scully and Derry pair Paul Curran and Michael Rafter.
Horgan is without the services of the injured Josh Mailey for the visit of Derry, while there are question marks over Packie Mailey, Damien McNulty and Ciaran Coll.
New Derry boss Kenny Shiels has lost some big players - Patrick McEleney, Mark Timlin and Stephen Dooley - and will want to build early momentum.
Candystripes fans will be banking on Scottish duo Jordan Allen and Harry Monaghan to hit the ground running.
Allen, a 20-year-old striker, was at Montrose FC, and 22-year-old midfielder Monaghan arrives from Stenhousemuir.
New manager Kenny Shiels has a bit of a baptism of fire in this derby and he is expecting a heated affair.
Speaking to Derry City's official website, he said: "It's a local derby, it will bring lots of intensity and a derby brings a frenetic game – players deal with the ball like a hot potato. There will be a bit of a battle, its not about desire though it is about quality. Every player should have desire and commitment.
"Tomorrow night might be a bit reduced because of the atmosphere and the environment."
Wexford Youths v Longford Town, Ferrycarrig Park, 20:00
Referee: Robert Rogers
Position last season: Wexford Youths 1st (First Division); Longford Town 6th
It's a historic night for Wexford Youths. A 3-0 victory over Athlone Town last September secured the First Division title and a place at the top table of Irish football for the first time in the club's history.
They've snapped Aidan Friel, Danny Ledwith, Paul Murphy and Matt Connor and have enjoyed a strong pre-season, with ex-Wexford and Kildare GAA football manager Jason Ryan putting them through their paces as the club's strength and conditioning coach.
Added to that is the prolific Danny Furlong, whose 30 goals fired Wexford to the league last year. How he fares in the top tier will be critical to their hopes but boss Shane Keegan is confident they've prepared well.
"We've tried to take everything up a few notches to get ourselves physically prepared for the challenge ahead and the players have responded terrifically to all that's been asked of them," said the boss.
"We've got a couple of injuries that inevitably come at this time of the year but the strength of depth that we've managed to assemble means I'll still be choosing from a really strong squad."
Longford will give them a tough introduction to life in the Premier Division.A mid-table finish in their first season back in the top flight last year was commendable, although the loss of Gary Shaw will be keenly felt. It's a potential banana skin to start off for Tony Cousins's men, as a bouncing Ferrycarrig Park awaits.
SATURDAY 6 MARCH
Bray Wanderers v Dundalk, Carlisle Grounds, 19:30
Referee: Padraigh Sutton
Position last season: Bray Wanderers 8th; Dundalk 1st
All eyes will be on how Stephen Kenny's outfit adjust to the loss of Richie Towell as the champions begin the defence of their title.
The capture of Patrick McEleney from Derry and UCD playmaker Robbie Benson injects craft and creativity into last year's double winners, but Kenny is well aware of how tough it will be for the Lilywhites to retain their crown.
"Every single year you have to improve yourself again. No one is under any illusions," he told RTÉ Sport.
"There’s been an incredible level of commitment and level of consistency from the players over the last couple of seasons.
"But there’s no let-up. We know we’re going to play close to 50 games this year in a 36-week period and every single game we’re going to have to be absolutely focused and ready to go."
Mick Cooke has brought in Ryan Brennan and Dean Kelly and promoted a raft of Under-19 talents to the senior ranks. They'll look to make things awkward for the visitors on a night when they'll be hungry to prove that it's business as usual.
Sligo Rovers v Shamrock Rovers, The Showgrounds, 19:45
Referee: Paul McLaughlin
Position last season: Sligo Rovers 9th; Shamrock Rovers 3rd
New Sligo Rovers manager Dave Robertson brought 12 fresh faces to the Showgrounds, as they look to drastically improve on a disappointing campaign last term.
Goalkeeper Micheal Schlingermann brings proven class at this level from Drogheda United, with exciting young talents like Republic of Ireland Under-21 midfielder Kieran Sadlier, former Liverpool academy player Craig Roddan and on-loan West Ham striker Jaanai Gordon entrusted with giving Robertson the slick, attractive football he desires.
Sadlier in particular is feeling confident ahead of the new season but is expecting a big test in his home debut: "I have heard a few things about what it should be like against Shamrock Rovers. I know a few players on their team and they are all good players so it should be good coming up against them.
"I have heard from the fans about the rivalry that there is between the two clubs so there should be a really good atmosphere at the game."
Killian Brennan is back with Shamrock Rovers as Pat Fenlon looks to build a genuine title challenge. Brandon Miele was superb last year and he's coming off the back of an impressive pre-season.
Gary Shaw and Dean Clarke have also been added to the squad, and Fenlon will hope for a continuation of the good displays Rovers produced in the recent trip to India, where they beat 1860 Munich Under-21 team and the Argentina U-23 national squad en route to the semi-finals of the Nagjee Cup.
Fenlon is content with the strength of his squad ahead of the new season and said: "We’re happy with the squad. We don’t have any more money to do anything else.
"We're looking forward to the season with the players we have in the club at the moment."
Watch Cork City v Bohemians live on RTÉ2 from 7:30pm.