Dundalk started the season with the same starting XI that played in the final game of the 2018 campaign – a daunting prospect for their nearest challengers heading into the opening league matches of the new SSE Airtricity League
The reigning double champions have lost their manager with Stephen Kenny, departing for a role with the FAI, however, the baton has been passed on to trusty lieutenant Vinny Perth and the new man at the helm was quick to reference the importance of continuity going into the new season.
One match in, Perth has already landed his first piece of silverware by claiming the season-opening President’s Cup, following an impressive 2-1 victory down in Cork last weekend.
Kenny’s departure was certainly a major blow to the Oriel Park side, who won the league four times over the past five season’s under the new Republic of Ireland’s Under-21 manager’s tenure.
And the loss of such an influential figure, who masterminded Dundalk’s recent domination, was also seen as a confidence boost to the other Premier Division sides who will aspire to challenge this season.
Yet one quick look at that Dundalk starting XI is enough to remind the rest of the league what they will again face throughout 2019.
Gary Rogers, Brian Gartland, Chris Shields, Pat Hoban – the spine of the team that played against Cork City on Saturday – and the driving force that has seen Dundalk set the standard throughout the league over the past five years.
Hoban, of course, was away for a while, but returned in some style last season as his goals propelled the Lilywhites to the league and cup double.
Sean Gannon and Dane Massey have been their throughout, holding down the full-back positions, while Sean Hoare seemed a perfect fit in the heart of defence on arrival in 2017.
Robbie Benson, John Mountney, Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney working around the striker Hoban, shows the attacking quality and creativity that the club possesses.
There have been departures, however, with fringe players Dylan Connolly, Karolis Chvedukas and Ronan Murray leaving the club.
Yet the 2019 squad is arguably stronger following the recent addition of former Watford prospect and Ireland Under-21 international Sean Murray, as well as Jordan Flores from Wigan.
The highly rated and much sought after midfielder Daniel Kelly has also signed following an excellent season on the wing for Bohemians.
The only real unknown at Dundalk will be how quickly Perth settles into the job and it would appear that the club's owners listened to the will of the players when it came to selecting Kenny’s replacement.
Perth has named defensive stalwart Gartland as the club captain for the upcoming season and the new skipper is delighted with how things have progressed in pre-season.
"It is what we wanted as players, we wanted continuity," said Gartland, speaking at the launch of the 2019 SSE Airtricity League season at the Aviva Stadium.
"We wanted Vinny involved at the head of it and obviously we have John [Gill] there and Ruaidhrí Higgins in with him, so it is a great management set-up and it is a good dynamic between them all.
"There is a great atmosphere and a great buzz around the club and no complaints so far.
"His role changes a bit from what it was the last few years, but he knows all of us inside out, and we are familiar with him, but we are not familiar with him in this role so that is something that will change.
"But there is a respect there and a mutual respect."
Gartland knows that again his side will be the side to beat and while he accepts that teams will be looking to close the gap at the top of the table, the defender believes that the best way to counter such challenges is to raise their own game.
"You can see from the way Cork played against us on Saturday that will not be beaten easily. They have a good squad and they will be up challenging again.
"Shamrock Rovers have strengthened even further, especially their quality through midfield, they have an abundance of talent there. I suppose it is just keeping them all playing, but that is a good problem to have.
"And St Pat’s have made some great signings and Harry Kenny has put together a tremendous squad there.
"So teams will be trying to close the gap to us, so it is up to us to keep the gap there and put our standards higher."
Cork City, of course, have been the only team who have been able to match the high standards set by Kenny’s Dundalk in recent years, and John Caulfield’s side famously prevented Dundalk from matching Shamrock Rovers’ historic four in a row back in 2017 as they took the title.
Dundalk, of course, won it back in 2018 but Cork manager Caulfield expects his new-look side to be challenging again this season, despite the fact that nine of last year’s squad have left the club.
City have brought in new players throughout the pre-season and are still re-building the squad in the days ahead of their opening encounter against St Patrick’s Athletic on Friday night with the arrival of Liam Nash from Gillingham.
And one player who will really add a wealth of quality and experience to Caulfield’s side will be the return of Kevin O’Connor, who is on loan from Preston North End.
O’Connor made an immediate impact on his return to Turner’s Cross by scoring Cork’s goal in the President’s Cup defeat on Saturday with a delightful set-piece effort.
The Preston loanee played as a defender when last at the club but the experience he has gained cross-channel means that Caulfield is most likely to use him in the middle of the park as one of the main influencing players to start the season.
Gary Boyland, James Tilley, Dáire O’Connor, Garry Comerford and Darragh Rainsford are other new faces at the Cross this season.
"We have a new team and while there is always a nervousness at the start of the season, the lads have trained hard and we’re looking forward to it," Caulfield told RTE Sport.
"The supporters know that nine players have left since last season and the main thing is patience. But at the same time, I still think we will be competitive."
The City manager will be delighted with the manner of his side’s performance, especially in the second half, in the President’s Cup, despite the defeat, which shows that Cork will be well drilled and very tough to beat this season.
Yet you must wonder how they will cope with so many experienced players leaving the club at the end of the last campaign.
The squad have lost quality and creativity from the squad with the departures of players like Steven Beattie, John Dunleavy and Kieran Sadlier, and it remains to be seen how the new-look squad will cope in terms of competing at the top of the table.
Shamrock Rovers’ strong finish to the 2018 campaign has made the Hoops many pundits favourites to prove Dundalk’s main challengers for this year’s title.
Stephen Bradley side really looked a side that could challenge for top honours throughout the final third of last season, and like Dundalk, continuity should be key for the Dublin side.
Rovers have not been too active in the transfer market but have brought in real quality into the squad with the arrival of Aaron McEneff from Derry City and the ultra-talented Jack Byrne who is looking to kick-start his career having been considered a major prospect at Man City a few years back.
Bradley’s side have perhaps lacked an out-and-out goalscorer throughout the past two seasons but Rovers are also in the process of adding another forward, Orhan Vojic, who was on the books at Wolfsburg and has played international football at Under-19 level for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The imposing striker’s game is not too dissimilar from Pat Hoban at Dundalk and if the new arrival can provide similar service for the Hoops, expect Bradley’s side to be much more competitive this season.
"The lads were excellent over the back end of last season, and over the winter in previous seasons we have brought a lot of new players in and let some go," said Stephen McPhail, speaking to RTE Sport.
"This year we haven’t, we have only brought two in so far. And I think that consistency and continuity in the squad will hopefully make a difference come the start of the season.
"Obviously there has been a gap between ourselves and Dundalk and Cork over the past few years so our aim is to just bridge that gap."
We caught up with @ShamrockRovers Sporting Director, Stephen McPhail, at the League of Ireland launch. The former Leeds and Ireland midfielder believes Rovers' consistency and continuity should make a difference this year. pic.twitter.com/O4srIWW4oH— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) February 12, 2019
Waterford proved the surprise packet throughout the 2018 season and while they faltered a little throughout the final third, allowing Shamrock Rovers to push them into fourth place, Alan Reynolds’ side will take huge positives into this campaign.
The south coast side will again look to be challenging at the business end of the season and they will be buoyed by the fact that they have held on to some of their real talent, including the excellent Bastien Hery.
Reynold’s has also added quality to the side with the arrival of experienced campaigners Shane Duggan from Limerick as well as former Crystal Palace centre-half Damien Delaney.
Ireland underage international, Zack Elbouzedi, who was formerly with West Brom, is another of Waterford’s exciting signings and manager Alan Reynolds expects big things on the attacking front from the Dubliner.
"He’s a player who we think will really excite the fans, he’s quick and likes to attack and that’ll suit us. Zack has been over in England with West Brom and in Scotland too; even at 20 years of age, he brings experience to the club.
"He’s a quick, powerful midfielder who likes to get forward and he’ll be a great asset to us this season."
The one side hotly tipped to break into that top four this season, and potentially challenge for top honours is St Patrick’s Athletic, under new management, with former Shamrock Rovers defender Harry Kenny now in charge at the Inchicore club.
Kenny has put together a very attack-minded squad, which will suit his style and footballing philosophy, and they are really enhanced by the return of former Saints favourite Chris Forrester, who left Aberdeen during the off-season.
St Pat’s have one of the most impressive attacking line-ups in the league with Gary Shaw, Mikey Drennan, Brandon Miele and Dean Clarke all vying for starting positions, while an in-form Forrester should also add to the threat throughout.
But Pat’s are strong throughout and boast a very experienced squad with Barry Murphy and Brendan Clarke competing for the number one jersey, while Ian Bermingham, Simon Madden, David Webster and Kevin Toner will make them very strong defensively.
Rhys McCabe has also been brought to the Dublin club and the former Sligo Rovers man looks set to prove a very influential player in the middle of the park this year.
In this ten-team league, it will be very hard to see any other team break into that top five, which could see a real split in the division this season, with the other five evenly matched sides anxious to avoid the bottom two places.
The two new additions to the league this season, UCD and Finn Harps are arguably much stronger than the two sides who went down to the First Division, Bray and Limerick.
And as a result, the new arrivals will put immediate pressure on Bohemians, Derry City and Sligo Rovers.
UCD won the First Division in style last season, playing football the right way under the guidance of their very astute coach Collie O’Neill.
The Students had a good run in the Cup last season and showed that they could match the best the Premier Division had to offer.
College have also held onto the majority of their 2018 panel and with the experience of last year’s campaign under their belt, expect the young side to play with no fear upon their return to the top tier.
Finn Harps will be looking to bring their end-of-season form into the new campaign and the Donegal outfit have strengthened their squad coming back into the Premier Division.
Raff Cretaro may be in the final stages of his career, yet the former Sligo stalwart should add real quality and experience, while John Kavanagh arriving on loan from Cork again should also prove good business.
"John is a good addition and we’re pleased to get him on loan again from Cork City. He has the benefit of knowing our setup having played the second of last season with us," said manager Ollie Horgan.
"John did a good job for us and hopefully he can step up to the bigger challenge of playing in the Premier Division."
Sligo Rovers are still trying to return to the glory days of not so long ago when the north-west outfit were league champions in 2012 and FAI Cup winners three times in four years from 2010 to 2013.
Investment in the club’s infrastructure and facilities should hopefully start to bear fruit and Liam Buckley is the main charged with bringing the Bit O’Red back into the right half of the top flight and away from relegation woes.
Buckley’s style of play will not suit a relegation dogfight so Sligo will be looking for a quick start to move away from trouble in what should be an ultra competitive Premier Division.
While Sligo have opted for an experienced League of Ireland man to steer the ship in Buckley, they have again looked beyond traditional markets to bolster the squad, so keep an eye on Dante Leverock from Bermuda, Jamaica international Romeo Parkes and Nigerian striker Brendan Ogbu.
Buckley’s side have plenty of experienced League of Ireland men in the squad and the arrival of John Dunleavy from Cork should certainly strengthen the squad, while Ronan Murray and latest signing Daryl Fordyce will also add quality.
David Cawley will captain the side in 2019, however, the skipper looks set to miss the start of the season through injury.
Cawley’s form could prove key throughout the upcoming campaign.
Derry City had a very disappointing second half to the season and remarkably finished the league in eighth place, just one spot above the relegation play-off place.
A changing of the guard has also occurred at the Brandywell with the return of Declan Devine.
The new manager acknowledged that he has a real rebuilding job to do in Derry, not helped by the fact that the Irish League has proved a hindrance when it comes to attracting players to the club.
The Candystripes are, however, bolstered by the return of fan favourite, who will captain the side in 2019, while Patrick McClean, Darren Cole, Eoghan Stokes and Gerardo Bruna have also signed.
Finally to Bohemians.
The Dublin club went above and beyond all expectations last season proving pundits wrong throughout the season as they eventually finished sixth, very nearly finishing inside the top half.
The most impressive aspect of their 2018 campaign was the way that Keith Long’s side played the game, highlighted by the manner in which they dominated fierce rivals Shamrock Rovers over the course of the season.
Long brought the best out of his young inexperienced squad last year, but the Gypsies have to do it all again this year and with more players leaving the club during the off-season, this year’s task is perhaps tougher still.
Shane Supple’s retirement is a major set-back for Bohs, while it will be difficult for fans to see some of the unearthed talent in opposition jerseys this year.
Long still has plenty of good players to call upon with the likes of Keith Ward, Keith Buckley, Dinny Corcoran, Derek Pender and Rob Cornwall remaining at the club.
Darragh Leahy is one of the best defenders in the league and will be key to driving Bohs forward from his left-sided position, while a fit-again Ryan Swan may prove crucial for the Dublin side.
Danny Mandroiu, Robbie McCourt and Andy Lyons are three to watch in the season ahead.
Watch Dundalk v Sligo Rovers live on RTÉ2 and the RTÉ Player, Friday, from 7pm with goals from around the grounds on the opening night of the Airtricity League Premier Division