All eyes are trained on Dalymount Park on Saturday afternoon as the 2020 League of Ireland season kicks off in earnest with a televised Dublin Derby between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers.
Friday night sees St Patrick’s Athletic host Waterford, while newly-promoted Shelbourne travel to Cork City, but it’s Irish football’s greatest rivalry that will set pulses racing for the new season.
The first of four league derbies between the sides has been moved to Saturday (kick-off 2pm) on Garda advice but sold out within seconds of general release tickets going on sale.
There’s little love lost between the sides – perhaps one reason why the Valentine’s Day kick-off has been avoided – and Bohs will be looking to avenge last year’s FAI Cup semi-final defeat at the venue.
The Gypsies have had the upper hand in the tie in recent years – winning six of seven meetings before Rovers finally eked out a league win in September – and both made steps forward in 2019.
While Rovers finally ended their 32-cup drought by lifting their 25th FAI Cup in November, Bohs too have progressed significantly, securing European football for the first time since 2012.
All of which leaves the dial delicately-poised ahead of a game both sides would have preferred to have left later in the season when the ground beneath them is firmer – metaphorically and literally.
Rovers come into the game with a remarkable amount of continuity after several off-seasons of change under manager Stephen Bradley.
The Hoops have recruited just two players, but they’ve added real quality in the form of Ireland under-21 defender Liam Scales and Northern Irish full-back Rhys Marshall.
Ireland under-21 winger Neil Farrugia will be like a new player after injury interrupted his first six months in Tallaght, while cup final hero Gary O’Neill continues to settle in.
“I think [the squad] have grown every year,” said Bradley.
“It’s plain to see that they have grown every year and this year we will be looking to grow again. I think they have improved every year.
“The squad is the strongest that we have had in terms of it being settled, there hasn’t been change and they are ready to go.
“I think you can see it in preseason that they are ready to go. We have definitely improved each year and hopefully this year will be the same.”
There has been more change across the city in Phibsboro, where Keith Long has made seven judicious additions to his squad ahead of the new season.
While Ireland under-21 left-back Darragh Leahy has departed for Dundalk, and captain Derek Pender on the opposite flank retired, the squad has been strengthened on paper.
International experience has arrived in the form of Canadian senior cap Kris Twardek, while Irish underage star Callum Thompson has arrived from Wolves on loan.
Defenders Dan Casey and Ciaran Kelly have arrived from Cork and Pats respectively, while ex-Wolves man Anto Breslin will look to kick on after making the First Division team of the season with Longford Town.
“Continuity in the squad, and familiarity with the boys coming back, sees us in reasonably good shape going into the season,” said Long.
“But it’s a big ask in terms of bridging the gap with the teams that were above us last year.
“There’s no doubt we have punched above our weight in previous seasons – last year nobody would have expected us to finish third.
“It’s important to try and get your season off to a good start – we were able to do that last year and we need to do that again to hit the ground running.
“We’ve a tough opening game against Rovers here. The season will throw up many challenges and hopefully we’ll have the squad that can cater for that.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on the players, but we are ambitious and we do want to repeat last year and get Europe again.”