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2024 LOI should see Rovers make history but Derry & St Pat’s will dispute that

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ALMOST every league title in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s came with the prediction that the champions could dominate for years.

They were so wide of the mark you could set your watch by them, with success not just followed by under-achievement but often a crisis in which the club’s existence was under threat.

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Johnny Kenny, Liam Burt, Markus Poom, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace and Leon Pohls celebrate with the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division trophy

Whatever else the League of Ireland lacked, there was no shortage of hubris.

Shamrock Rovers have been the exception, with the current crop matching the feats of the exalted heroes of the 1980s by winning four league titles in a row and are now aiming to surpass them with a fifth.

The Hoops’ resurgence as the leading force can be traced to their long overdue move into Tallaght Stadium, 15 years ago next month.

The timing was impeccable.

In chronological order, Dublin rivals Shelbourne, St Pat’s and Bohemians had gone through, or were going through, the sharp end of the boom-bust cycle.

Derry City had been relegated after the dual-contract controversy.

And with an astute manager in Michael O’Neill, the Hoops were champions in their second and third seasons in Dublin 24 — as well as reaching the group stages of the Europa League — with a comparatively modest budget.

The assumption within the club that Rovers would not only survive, but thrive, without O’Neill was misplaced, initially at least, with the reigns of Stephen Kenny, Trevor Croly and Pat Fenlon not going according to plan.

But the investment in its academy and training ground at Roadstone has proven wise.

Perhaps there are not many graduates becoming established players in the first team.

Watch as St Patrick’s Athletic return home to crazy scenes in Inchicore as fans celebrate FAI Cup triumph

But it is a source of revenue when they are sold abroad, with Gavin Bazunu the most obvious example.

That income, coupled with the growing attendances in Tallaght and the patience shown to Stephen Bradley during a difficult first two years, got them to where they are now.

They are, quite rightly, bookies’ favourites to finish top of the pile once again, although there are a couple of issues which the chasing pack will hope to exploit.

The retirement of ex-Linfield keeper Alan Mannus and return of Ronan Finn to UCD means they have lost the remaining veterans from O’Neill’s reign.

Between them, they won 17 league titles across their careers.

And it is worth remembering how difficulties in the goalkeeping department were such an issue for Bradley until the summer of 2018 when he, first, threw Bazunu in as a 16-year-old and then welcomed back Mannus from St Johnstone ahead of the teenager’s move to Manchester City.

A finger injury to Mannus meant Leon Pohls got an extended run in the team with the 24 points accrued from the 13 games in which he started only marginally lower than the 48 collected in the 23 matches when the ex-Northern Ireland international started between the posts, which included their six-game winless start to last season.

There will be considerable focus on the German to justify the confidence that Bradley and others have shown when speaking about his ability to be the club’s long-term No  1.

OLD RELIABLES

The Hoops’ recruitment has largely relied on a tried-and-trusted formula with Aaron McEneff, Johnny Kenny and Markus Poom returning for a second or, in Trevor Clarke’s case, a third spell.

But the same could be said of their challengers Derry City.

The close-season arrival of Pat Hoban and Daniel Kelly brings the number of players in the squad who played for Ruaidhrí Higgins’ former club Dundalk to seven.

The artificial pitch at The Ryan McBride Brandywell may be a cut above the one at Oriel Park.

But Higgins will hope his new signings will have better joy than other former Lilywhites Cameron Dummigan, Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney, all of whom spent significant spells on the sidelines last season.

Not as long, mind, as the luckless Colm Whelan who managed just 87 minutes — during which time he scored twice — of action in between two cruciate tears.

In his continued absence, Hoban will help provide a focal point for their attack but only if Derry are prepared to play to his strengths which, presumably, they are after an unconvincing title challenge last season.

SAINT SUCCESS?

If Jon Daly’s return of 45 points from 23 games after succeeding Tim Clancy was replicated over an entire season, St Pat’s would have finished within two points of the Hoops instead of being ten adrift.

Their controlled performance in winning the FAI Cup final was a further sign of their progression.

The losses of Sam Curtis and Adam Murphy are significant but they have been busy in the transfer market and it will be intriguing to see if the captures of Brandon Kavanagh and Cian Kavanagh can help them finish above the Candystripes.

Damien Duff’s Shelbourne — as the club is officially known — are on a crest of a wave as much from Duff staying on as manager, something which required a change in ownership, as qualifying for Europe.

But Shels will be as much reliant on his talents as a manager as those of their new arrivals to improve on last season’s performance.

All but one of Dundalk’s eight signings have come from outside the League of Ireland, with Stephen O’Donnell’s challenge to ensure they get to grips with it as quickly as possible if the negativity which he said surrounded the club last year is not to increase.

The same could be said of Bohemians.

Four of their six recruits have no previous experience here and, although further arrivals are expected, it is unlikely they will either.

After a first full season which promised much but delivered nothing, Declan Devine knows his side needs to hit the ground running.

Ideally, he would have completed his squad by now.

TIGHTER BUDGETS

Drogheda United boss Kevin Doherty must be enjoying the novelty of seeing off competition from other clubs to bring in players such as UCD defender Jack Keaney and Athlone Town striker Frantz Pierrot.

But, although he has gone full-time following the club’s takeover, the playing squad remains part-time which means, again, survival will represent success.

Sligo Rovers, who finished one place above the relegation play-off spot last season, would surely say the same with John Russell operating off a reduced budget this year.

The return of keeper Ed McGinty on loan until at least the summer will help but they will have their work cut out to increase their average of just a goal per game in 2023.

The promotion of both Galway United and Waterford will raise the stakes at the bottom.

No team will end up with as few points as the 11 UCD collected on their way to the First Division and all could surpass the 31 second-from-bottom Cork City garnered en route to relegation.

Read more on the Irish Sun

There were 35 points between Galway and Waterford in the promotion race last year but, if anything, business over the close-season makes the Blues look stronger although, clearly, the departure of top scorer Ronan Coughlan to sister club Fleetwood Town is a loss.

It should all make for a competitive league with a further jump in attendances, accompanied by an increase in TV coverage, with only the grounds — for the most part not fit for purpose — holding it back from realising its potential.

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