The fans must continue to stay away but as Irish football returns this weekend, Ryan Kilbane previews the comings and going at each top flight club.

On Friday evening Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk faced off in the President’s Cup, the annual curtain-raiser for the new League of Ireland season. 

The Lilywhites won on penalties after a scrappy 1-1 draw at Tallaght Stadium. While the game itself was no classic, a wonder goal from Liam Scales and the not-so-friendly rivalry between the sides on show, gave us a glimpse of what to expect when the league season kicks off this weekend.  

The lead up to the match was partly overshadowed by some back and forth in the papers. Hoops boss Stephen Bradley hit back at Dundalk striker Pat Hoban, calling Hoban “insecure” after the Galway man questioned the validity of Rovers 18 game title-winning campaign last season, cut short due to the pandemic.

Some healthy competition seems to be building and the pair, along with Bohemians should be contesting at the top again, but the order they end up in is certainly up for debate. 

There are no timelines as yet for when fans might return to League of Ireland grounds

Club by club preview

Rovers will be desperate to retain their crown but they have suffered two of the most high profile departures during the off-season. It was well documented and expected that PFAI player of the year Jack Byrne would leave for Cypriot side APOEL. Less expected was the departure of Aaron McEneff to Hearts.

To counter the losses, Sean Hoare and Sean Gannon were signed from Dundalk, Daniel Mandroiu joined from bitter rivals Bohemians and midfielder Chris McCann linked up after a long career in the UK and US. 

Bohemians have once again gone about their business quietly but effectively. They have undoubtedly lost some firepower with their two top scorers Danny Grant and Andre Wright leaving for the UK. The out-of-favour Mandroiu also departed. Keith Long has developed a reputation for replacing talent and there’s no reason why this year should be any different. 

Some notable arrivals at Dalymount Park come in the shape of Liam Burt from Celtic, Rory Feely from St Patrick’s Athletic and ex-Waterford star Bastien Hery from Linfield. Burt in particular has impressed in pre-season scoring a wondergoal in the win over Galway United and an assured opener against Dundalk. 

The Gypsies kick off their season with a tough away trip to Ballybofey to play Finn Harps. They will be looking to go one better this year and claim their first league title since 2009. 

Fresh from their President’s Cup victory, Dundalk will also be eager to claim back their title. The most successful club of the 2010s, they could only manage a disappointing 3rd place last year. Clinching the FAI Cup and qualifying for the Europa League group stages glossed over a poor league campaign. 

An eventful close season saw fan-favourites Sean Gannon, John Mountney and Dane Massey all sign for rivals and goalkeeping mainstay Gary Rodgers retired. 

When looking for replacements The Lilywhites cast their net far and wide. Latvian international fullback Raivis Jurkovskis, Italian born keeper Alessio Abibi, Scottish U21 international Sam Stanton and Faroese international Sonni Ragnar Nattestad were all signed.

Add to that Ole Erik Midtskogen who scored against Dundalk in the Europa League for KI Klaksvik last year and 2019 League of Ireland top scorer Junior Ogedi Uzokwe from Sligo Rovers. 

First up for Dundalk they face Sligo Rovers in a battle of last year’s 3rd vs 4th. Liam Buckley’s men will be looking for a better start than they had in 2020.

Three points from their first 5 games saw them languishing at the bottom of the league, only for a late surge to nick a European place. 

Sligo lost top scorer Ronan Coughlan to St Patrick’s Athletic but acted fast to replace him by re-signing their 2019 top scorer Romeo Parkes. The change in personnel could see The Bit O’Red alter how they attack. Jamaican international Parkes tends to want to run in behind while Coughlan was more of a link player. 

Midfielder Greg Bolger has signed for Buckley for the third time in his career.  Now 32, Bolger said in a recent interview that his manager wants him to be more of a leader: “I don’t want to be talking myself up or anything, but I just have that hunger and desire to keep doing well, and Liam wants to drive the lads on with my experiences.”

The two promoted sides have had varied approaches so far in the transfer market. First Division champions Drogheda United were able to poach experienced campaigners Dane Massey, Dinny Corcoran, Gary Deegan and Ronan Murray from Premier Division clubs.

Meanwhile Longford Town have gone for a younger profile. Callum Thompson from Bray Wanderers and Aaron Bolger from Cardiff City could prove to be shrewd signings but manager Daire Doyle will be relying on the nucleus of the team that got him promoted via the playoffs.

Drog’s manager Tim Clancy has seen his reputation grow in recent years and will have grand plans for his future, but ask him or Doyle and both would tell you that survival is the main objective this season. 

Longford start their campaign at home to Derry City on Saturday. 

If Drogheda have one of the best up-and-coming managers in the league, their opponents on the opening night certainly have the most famous one. Former Irish international Kevin Sheedy was appointed First Team Manager of Waterford during the break. He will be assisted by Mike Newell. 

The pair will need all their experience if they are to improve on last year’s 5th place finish. The Blues had another – now almost annual – overhaul of players at The RSC. They’ve lost Sam Bone & Matty Smith (St Patrick’s Athletic) Tyreke Wilson (Bohemians) Robbie McCourt (Sligo Rovers) and Ali Coote (Bohemians) who were all mainstays.

If they are to have a good season Sheedy will be relying on the experience of Brian and Daryl Murphy, and the impressive Tumnise Sobowale.

Cameron Evans (Swansea City) James Waite (Cardiff) and Jamie Mascoll (Bolton) could be interesting signings but there is an air of uncertainty in the south-east. 

St Patricks Athletic will be looking to improve on last season’s 6th place and push on into the European places. In a recent interview with The Irish Mirror Saints boss  Stephen O’Donnell said bluntly: “I wouldn’t associate St Patrick’s Athletic with coming sixth in a ten-team league, you wouldn’t be happy with that,”

O’Donnell has again used his contacts at Dundalk to his advantage. John Mountney has joined from Oriel Park along with Paddy Barrett – a teammate of O’Donnell in 2018 from Preah Khan Svay Rieng in Cambodia. 

Matty Smith and Ronan Coughlan joined from rivals Waterford and Sligo Rovers respectfully and Czech goalkeeper Vitezlav Jaros has arrived on loan from Liverpool. 

One disappointment for the Inchicore club was the loss of promising defender Luke McNally to League One outfit Oxford United for an undisclosed fee. 

Pats make the short trip to Tallaght to take on champions Shamrock Rovers on Friday evening, the first of many Dublin Derbies in the calendar. 

Similar to St Pat’s, Derry City will be hoping to make inroads towards 4th and European football. A disappointing 7th-place-finish in 2020 would not have gone down well on Foyleside.

The Candystripes are boosted by what looks like the most exciting signing of the offseason. Midfielder Joe Hodge arrives from Manchester City on a six-month loan deal. 

The Irish underage international was recently named City’s ‘scholar of the year’ and is highly regarded at the club. 

David Parkhouse returns to the club from Sheffield United, the striker bagged 11 goals while on loan in 2019 and Declan Devine will be hoping he can repeat that haul. 

A big season is also expected of Eoin Toal, the defender has taken over the captaincy and is steadily becoming one of the league’s top centre backs. Devine said of the appointment “I’ve had some good captains here in my time, as a manager, assistant manager and a coach, some fantastic captains at the club.

“He’s a proper man, he’s 21, you go in for a challenge with Eoin Toal, you go in for a header and you know all about it.

Finn Harps start the season with a tough home fixture against Bohemians on Friday. Manager Ollie Horgan will no doubt give his standard realistic opinion that avoiding relegation will be a success, but there are reasons for optimism. 

Harps managed to hold onto the bulk of their squad from last year, including goalkeeper Mark McGinley who was integral, playing every minute. 

The arrivals of Will Seymore from Sligo Rovers and Tunde Owalabi from Hamilton may add some variety to a squad that flirted with relegation the last two years. Owalabi, in particular, could be interesting, although he failed to hit the net in 12 games for Hamilton he impressed during his time with FC United ofManchester netting 35 times in 41 games. 

Unfortunately, fans won’t be able to darken the turnstiles for the foreseeable future due to COVID restrictions but streaming service WatchLOI is back after last year’s moderate success. RTE cameras will also be in Tallaght to see Shamrock Rovers face St Patrick’s Athletic; kick-off is at 7:45 on Friday. 

Opening weekend fixtures

Fri. 19 March 19:45 Drogheda United vs Waterford – Head in the Game Park

Fri. 19 March 20:00 Shamrock Rovers vs St. Patrick’s Athletic – Tallaght Stadium

Sat. 20 March 18:00 Finn Harps vs Bohemians – Finn Park

Sat. 20 March 19:30 Longford Town vs Derry City – Bishopsgate

Sat. 20 March 19:45 Sligo Rovers vs Dundalk – The Showgrounds