Ger O’Brien, left, St Patrick’s Athletic, and Conor Powell, Longford Town, at the launch of the 2016 SSE Airtricity League. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile

THE 2016 League of Ireland campaign gets underway this Friday with both divisions offering intricate narratives on top of the thrilling prospects of champions, promotions, European adventures as well as harrowing relegation battles.
Last season saw Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk retain their Premier Division title with relative ease to add to their FAI Cup and Leinster Senior Cup wins in a season that saw the Lilywhites reign home four domestic titles from five.
Challengers this term will come in the shape of a Cork City side that have played second fiddle to Dundalk over the last two seasons – finishing runners-up in both 2014 and 2015 – as well as Dublin hopefuls Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic.
St Pats endured an up and down 2015 campaign which saw a disappointing fourth place league finish compensated by their EA Sports Cup title as well as confirmation of their spot in the first round of this summer’s Europa League qualifiers.
Many suggested the Saints would challenge Dundalk for the Premier Division title last season but, in spite of a nine-game winning streak from June 5 until August, they could not get within reach of the eventual champions.
Ahead of the season, captain Ger O’Brien stressed the importance of competing consistently with the league’s top clubs.
“You are always thinking at the start of the season that there are three teams that can realistically win the title – I think we were one of them last year and we fell short”, he said speaking at the 2016 SSE Airtricity League.
“This is the time for everyone to be as optimistic as possible before a ball is kicked. As soon as that whistle goes on the first night, the pressure starts from then until the end of October.
“But we’re really looking forward to it; we have a lot of new players and I think there’s a lot of excitement in the group that we can push on and have a competitive season.”
Also looking to improve on last season’s successful league campaign will be Shamrock Rovers. Now entering his third season in charge of the Hoops, manager Pat Fenlon will be looking to follow through on his intentions to leave a legacy at Rovers and bring home some silverware.
His side finished in third place last season, providing the only regular challenger to Dundalk and Cork City in the top two spots. However, they still finished 13 points off the champions.
“We slowly improved last year, we moved one place higher but we’ve got to keep challenging and competing for trophies because that’s what the club is about.”
His side experienced the opportunity of a lifetime during pre-season when they competed in the Sait Nagjee Trophy held in India, where they beat least of all 1860 Munich as well as Argentina’s Under-23s before bowing out at the semi-finals.
Closer to home and down a division, Shelbourne will be looking to regain their place in the Premier Division as they once again vie to gain promotion under Kevin Doherty.
A former Shels favourite as a player, Doherty said that both his managerial staff and players were a year wiser and more experienced to challenge heavyweights UCD and favourites Limerick FC.
“I feel we weren’t quite ready for promotion last year; we had a very young side”, he said. “I think we have improved in the last year. We’ve brought in Dylan and Cian Kavanagh, Jamie Doyle from UCD, and Robert O’Reilly who was at Drogheda United in the Premier Division.
“We’ve brought a lot of experience in with Aidan Collins who was very good in the First Division last year, in my opinion he is one of the best centre backs in the league, so hopefully that bit of experience will add to the youth and talent of the other lads which will make the difference.
“We’ve learned from things we did well, things we didn’t do so well and hopefully that will make the difference. We’re looking to improve on last year and if we can do that it would be great.”