The President's Cup clash between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers signalled the start of the new season, while it was a timely reminder that the SSE Airtricity League and FAI Cup winners are likely to lead the charge, once again, for this year’s title.
Shamrock Rovers remained unbeaten throughout their invincible 2020 campaign to secure their 18th league title, and first since the Michael O’Neill era ended in 2011.
For Dundalk, despite the inexplicable dip in league form as football returned from it’s Covid-enforced break, they more-than salvaged their season by qualifying for the Europa League group stages, eventually finding their stride in the league to secure Europe, before looking back to their best in the FAI Cup final.
And it was a combination of those things that allowed Dundalk to finally show their best form just as the domestic season came to a close - in extra time at the Aviva - as they powered past a jaded-looking Hoops side to secure the FAI Cup victory.
Strength of squad was perhaps the main factor that brought about those Dundalk change of fortunes, because off the pitch, things proved quite distracting for the Oriel Park outfit.
And the five-time winners from the last seven seasons, appear to be picking up where they left off last year with all sorts of questions as to who is really in charge of first team affairs.
Time will tell whether Shane Keegan and Filippo Giovagnoli can maintain an amicable and consistent relationship throughout the early stages of the season.
UEFA regulations may be the main reason to have Keegan as the man at front of house, however, you must imagine that the genial Italian will expect recognition for the job done last season going into the new campaign.
There’s certainly a new-look team on offer for the Lilywhites with wholesale changes coming in their squad. Stalwarts like Dane Massey may have been logical departures from the club, however, Sean Hoare and Sean Gannon leaving put a big dent in their defence.
It really is hard to imagine two key players going to your main rivals in any other league in Europe, but it is a common enough occurrence in the League of Ireland.
Gary Rogers has also departed, and while big signing have been made to cover these defensive gaps, it remains to be seen how the new-look defence copes at the start of the season.
Raivis Jurkovskis and Sonni Nattestad bring an international feel to the side and will also add a threat in attack, while new man between the sticks, Alessio Abibi will need to show composure and confidence to help the team gel.
The Albanian shot-stopper (below) made an immediate impression in the President’s Cup penalty shoot-out, however, Peter Cherrie has been brought back to the club and could be called on if early league form is suspect.
On a positive note for the Lilywhites, they look to have added real quality with the arrival of Sam Stanton, who is a Scottish Under-21 international and played last season in the USA, and Junior Ogedi Uzokwe, who has already proved his worth in the Premier Division from his time with Derry and Sligo.
For Shamrock Rovers, the big question is who will replace Jack Byrne in the side after the Ireland international headed off to sunnier climes after winning the league last season.
Byrne was recognised as the best player in the league for the past two years and will be sorely missed, while Aaron McEneff will also prove hard to replace having headed off to Hearts.
As it happens, both players missed a chunk of last season and the team managed just fine without them, such is the quality running through this Rovers squad, combined with the arrival of Danny Mandroiu and Chris McCann, not to mention the aforementioned Dundalk duo.
Mandroiu may be expected to rediscover his form that strangely went AWOL at Bohemians last season, however, two current players are likely to be the ones asked by manager Stephen Bradley to fill the Byrne void.
Graham Burke’s future is sorted ahead of the new season, having signed a new three-year deal, and the Ireland international will be eager to make a real name for himself at the club this year after a mixed bag last season.
Likewise, Dylan Watts will also be asked to step up and should be given ample opportunity this season to live up to the potential that brought him to the club in the first place.
Bradley’s side will be eager to pick up where they left off last year, and if the Cup final defeat in December didn’t focus their mind for the new campaign, then Friday’s loss, albeit on penalties, to Dundalk will be a timely reminder that defending the title should prove more difficult than winning it last season.
Bohemians may feel hard done by getting squeezed out of the top two in terms of favourites for the season ahead after finishing second last season.
Keith Long’s side gave Rovers their biggest challenge last year, and but for their head-to-heads with the Hoops, the title race may have been a lot closer in the end.
Bohemians, of course, have already secured their first piece of "silverware" this season by securing the signing of Grammy-nominees, Fontaines D.C., on their away jersey, to add to their Bob Marley limited edition, the poet laurate residency and the Dalymount Gin offering.
To their credit, the club has been involved in some excellent community initiatives and deserve the column inches, while they have been reborn in recent years, coming out of that all-too-familiar financial conundrum.
However, the Phibsboro faithful will demand that the focus should now turn to competing for trophies.
Based on the comings and goings so far this season, it is hard to see the Gypsies staying in the top two throughout the campaign as a result of Dundalk’s strength, Rovers’ reliability and the expected improvement of some of last season’s mid-table outfits.
The arrival of Bastien Héry, however, will hand the fans hope that the team is looking to bring real experience into the team to complement their renowned work-rate and youthful exuberance, and should Long get the stylish midfielder firing, coupled with the fact that new signing Georgie Kelly has the potential to add vital goals, they could yet again prove the doubters wrong.
A bit unfair to be labelled a mid-table outfit, yet Sligo Rovers would have gladly settled for that moniker when football resumed last summer with Liam Buckley’s side rock-bottom of the Premier Division table.
The Bit O’Red not only dug themselves out of that particular hole, but managed to maintain their form through to the end of the season to secure fourth place and bring European football back to the Showgrounds this season.
Sligo somehow dropped out of the spotlight following great campaigns under Paul Cook and Ian Barraclough at the start of the last decade, however, their investment in the club is perhaps starting to pay dividends and they will look to make this campaign a positive one from the opening day.
Ronan Coughlan’s departure will be a big loss, however, their pre-season form has shown that they can compete again this season.
Romeo Parkes is back at the Showgrounds having impressed in 2019, while Greg Bolger will bring a wealth of experience and has already enjoyed a great relationship with manager Buckley.
The former Hoops midfielder will prove a real asset this year, provided fitness does not become an issue, while it will be worth watching the progress of young Johnny Kenny who has come through the academy and looks a real prospect.
All eyes will be on Waterford again this year to see what sort of challenge they bring to the 2021 campaign.
The Blues have been able to beat anyone on their day over the past few seasons, however, the lack of a settled side has shown their equal ability to lose as many as they will win.
Kevin Sheedy is a legend in the game having won everything available at Everton as a player and will be forever remembered as the man who scored Ireland’s first ever World Cup goal, against England at Italia '90.
The gifted left-footer was involved for years coaching at Everton but it remains to be seen if he possesses head coach credentials.
Brian Murphy will be key between the sticks for the Blues, while a lot is expected of new arrivals Cameron Evans, Oscar Brennan and Kyle Ferguson.
Daryl Murphy’s form should also prove a key factor for the RSC outfit, although the concept of quality internationals coming back to the league to improve teams has not really proved to be the case among others who have travelled the same path in recent seasons.
St Patrick’s Athletic have never been relegated, as any Saints fan will be happy to point out from the banks of the Camac in Inchicore.
However, since winning the league in 2013, the Dublin club have perennially disappointed and have come a bit too close for comfort in recent seasons of holding on to that much-treasured top-flight feather in the cap.
The club are looking to give youth a chance since the appointment of Stephen O’Donnell, however, the former stylish midfielder has yet to work his magic from the dug-out.
O'Donnell is trying to get the old band back together bit by by, with the arrival of former team-mate John Mountney, who should slot in with Robbie Benson this season.
The arrival of Ronan Coughlan is also a signing that will improve the team and overall, you must imagine that Saints are stronger this year than they were last season with Jamie Lennon also remaining at the club.
Brendan Clarke’s departure will upset many Pat’s fans as they watch one of their own move to Shelbourne, and the goalkeeping department will be an interesting watch this season with loan arrivals from West Ham and Liverpool. If in doubt, Barry Murphy has returned for another spell at the club.
Saints were the only side not to lose to Shamrock Rovers last season, and will get a chance to maintain that record in Friday night’s opener.
Derry City have become a bit of an anomaly in recent years, and we await the day that the Brandywell outfit will really compete again in the league.
Manager Declan Devine will know that much will be expected from his side throughout the new campaign, and there are signs that the Candystripes will prove more of a threat this year.
Will Patching has moved from Dundalk, and will look to kick-start his career in Derry, while Danny Lafferty and young prospects Will Fitzgerald and Marc Walsh should also benefit the side.
There was a lot of excitement about the league with the announcement that Irish underage star, Joe Hodge, was coming on loan from Manchester City, however, injury has forced the midfielder to return to his parent club temporarily.
City boss Devine is expecting Hodge to return over the course of the next few weeks.
Finn Harps, of course, will be immediately hit with the relegation-candidate tag ahead of the new campaign, however, the Donegal outfit will look to their end-of-season form to help them to a bit of a more comfortable campaign.
Harps avoided the Premier Division relegation play-off as a result of a final-day victory over Waterford, and will take heart from that hectic final stretch, which saw their form akin to a side challenging at the top.
Manager Ollie Horgan has opted to strengthen his attack with the arrival of Ryan Shanley and Tunde Owolabi, while as always, the Finn Park pitch may again prove his side’s greatest asset as it can prove a true leveller in the right, or perhaps wrong, conditions.
Drogheda United and Longford Town are the two new arrivals to this year’s Premier Division set-up and the First Division champions are looking to make a statement with some of their new arrivals.
Dane Massey is a real coup for manager Tim Clancy, while Gary Deegan and Dinny Corcoran will also give the United Park side the look of a Premier Division outfit before a ball has been kicked.
Yet experience in the ranks has not always proved the right road to survival as Shelbourne found out last season, as they went straight back down after just one campaign back in the top flight.
Longford on the other hand appear to trust in the model that has brought them back to the top flight, after a few seasons building a team and an attractive style in the First Division.
Manager Daire Doyle was instrumental in the team’s rebuild under former boss Neale Fenn and was rightly rewarded with the top job upon Fenn’s departure.
Paddy Kirk, Aaron Dobbs and Conor Davis are all new additions who can prove themselves as Premier Division players in the coming season.
The arrival of Aaron Bolger on loan from Cardiff could prove a real coup for Longford’s hopes of survival. The former Shamrock Rovers midfielder has huge potential and Doyle will surely look to build a team around him should he hit form.
Watch Shamrock Rovers v St Pat's live on RTÉ2 and the RTÉ Player on Friday from 7.30pm
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