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Finn's Rovers return to resurfaced Oriel Park as Dundalk go in search of 4-in-a-row

The Premier Division is back and last year’s champions could face a tough test against the new-look Hoops this evening.

Ronan Finn and Stephen O'Donnell at last week's league launch.
Ronan Finn and Stephen O'Donnell at last week's league launch.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

THE ORIEL PARK ground staff have been working frantically in recent weeks to ensure the home of the champions is ready for this evening’s League of Ireland curtain-raiser.

Dundalk announced at the end of last year that they were replacing the much-maligned artificial pitch with a new state-of-the-art surface, which would be installed in time for the 2017 campaign by the same company that fitted out the FAI’s National Training Centre.

Manager Stephen Kenny has stated in the past that his preference would be natural grass and while the club agreed, they “didn’t believe it was the right time” to make that change.

Nevertheless, the Lilywhites host an ambitious Shamrock Rovers side in what is the pick of the opening Friday night fixtures and captain Dundalk Stephen O’Donnell for one is glad of the upgrade.

“The new surface is huge and everyone is delighted with that,” O’Donnell told The42. “We tried not to make a big deal out of it but it wasn’t that enjoyable to play on last year. I think it was more of a hindrance to us than anybody else.

“Judging by the new surface, it’s going to be a massive improvement and it will be more enjoyable to play on. It will make for a better game for the viewing public as well. There will be a far better pattern to play and hopefully that will make it more attractive.”

Oriel Park pitch Work being done on the Oriel Park pitch this week. Source: Twitter/DundalkFC

It’s unlikely to be the only Dundalk debut tonight and Stephen Kenny has several new faces to call upon as they go in search of a record-equalling fourth title in-a-row –currently held by Rovers.

Recent arrivals Michael Duffy (Celtic), Steven Kinsella (Everton – on loan), Conor Clifford (Boreham Wood), Niclas Vemmelund (Derry City), Sean Hoare (St Patrick’s Athletic) and Jamie McGrath (St Patrick’s Athletic) are all young players hungry to prove themselves at the top level by continuing Dundalk’s recent success domestically and in Europe.

30-year-old striker Thomas Stewart, meanwhile, signed last week from Ottawa Fury and should provide additional experience having won the Premier Division title during his first of two stints at Shamrock Rovers.

They’re all in contention to play with the exception of Hoare, who joins Gary Rogers (calf), Chris Shields (groin), David McMillan (kneecap) and Shane Grimes (hamstring) on the injury list due to a groin problem.

“There’s a lot to be said for new faces coming in and freshening everything up,” added O’Donnell. “It has changed the whole dynamic.

I’m excited by it and intrigued to see how we will all gel together.

“We’ve a lot of young players and it has brought the average age down a good bit. Lads are trying to get on in their careers and do very well. They will have seen what has happened at Dundalk with a few players getting moves and they want to be part of that and play in Europe.

“Hopefully they can all hit the ground running and there will be an onus on us to help them settle in as quickly as possible.”

Stephen Bradley Hoops head coach Stephen Bradley. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle have moved on to pastures new, Ronan Finn — another one of Dundalk’s most influential players over the last two years — returns to Oriel as captain of this evening’s opponents.

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The 29-year-old midfielder’s move back to Tallaght surprised a few, including Stephen Kenny, but he has taken up Stephen Bradley’s offer to play a leading role in the latest Rovers project.

There is tremendous work going on behind the scenes from schoolboy level right up the senior team at the Hoops with head coach Bradley, director of football Stephen McPhail, academy director Shane Robinson and coach Damien Duff all central figures.

The player turnover has been enormous too. Gone are experienced names like Gary McCabe (Bray Wanderers), Killian Brennan (Drogheda United), Barry Murphy and Patrick Cregg (both St Patrick’s Athletic).

In their place, there have been no less than 12 acquisitions — Finn (Dundalk), Darren Meenan (Dundalk), Kevin Horgan (Galway United), Tomer Chencinski (Helsingborgs), Ryan Connolly (Galway United), Paul Corry (Northampton Town), Daniel Devine (Firhouse Clover), Roberto Lopes (Bohemians), David McAllister (Stevenage), Michael O’Connor (Dundalk), Graham Burke (Northampton Town) and Samuel Bone (Charlton Athletic).

It would be crazy to think that they will knit together as a well-drilled unit immediately, but Bradley, in his first full season at the helm, knows as a former Rovers player that their fans demand success.

It’s Rovers, isn’t it,” Bradley said earlier this month. “If you are not winning 3-0 at half-time you are going to get booed! I’ve played there, we’ve won leagues, I know what it takes and I know what you get when you are doing well and when you are not doing well. That won’t change.

“The fans are the fans and as a group we have got to be strong. We have got to stay together and show them that we are progressing. I think they will accept that, that we are serious again about winning titles and winning cups. If we show that progression on the pitch they will stay with us.”

It’s a daunting prospect but Bradley insists he is happy to be facing last year’s champions so early, as the outcome will give him an opportunity to see where his team are in terms of progress against “the benchmark”.

“We have to put in a good performance on the pitch for the fans and there are still some places up for grabs which is good,” he added.

“The competition within the squad is excellent and that is really what you want at Rovers. We’re a different side to what we were the last time we played Dundalk in Oriel Park, we’re going up there looking to get the win.

“We know it’ll be a tough game as they are the champions and they are at home, but we want to win this game. A win will be massively important to us and will help us gauge where we are in comparison to Dundalk.”

Predictions

Every week, we’re giving readers the chance to take us on in predicting the Premier Division results. First up is Cork City fan Wayne Mullins… 

The Reader (Wayne Mullins) 

  • Bohemians v Derry City – Draw
  • Galway United v Drogheda United – Galway win
  • St Patrick’s Athletic v Bray Wanderers – Bray win
  • Limerick v Sligo Rovers – Limerick win
  • Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers – Draw
  • Finn Harps v Cork City – Cork win

The42 (Ben Blake) 

  • Bohemians v Derry City – Derry win
  • Galway United v Drogheda United – Draw
  • St Patrick’s Athletic v Bray Wanderers – Draw
  • Limerick v Sligo Rovers – Limerick win
  • Finn Harps v Cork City – Cork win
  • Dundalk v Rovers – Dundalk win

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Ben Blake

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