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LOI title race may be far more open than before as the big two clash at Tallaght

Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk meet at Tallaght Stadium tonight.

Tempers flare between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk during the President's Cup meeting last month.
Tempers flare between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk during the President's Cup meeting last month.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE LEAGUE OF Ireland table still wears the democratic sheen of the early season.

Finn Harps lead the way with six points from six, two points ahead of Longford, Sligo Rovers and Pat’s. Last year’s top three are all in the bottom half: Shamrock Rovers sixth, Bohs seventh, and Dundalk eighth. 

Even allowing for his magnificent realism, that Ollie Horgan’s reaction to beating Dundalk last week was “six points won’t keep you in the division” is a sign that things will, of course, change. 

But to what extent?

Will the ‘Big Two’ of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk really dominate the season as predicted ahead of the season? That’s not to suggest either will crumble away from the top, but may the gap to the rest of the league narrow this season? 

“The league is going to be between a number of teams this year,” Rovers manger Stephen Bradley told RTÉ Sport

“I don’t think it’s going to be just us and [Dundalk]. It’s quite competitive and there’s going to be a few results along the way that will show that.” 

Between them, Dundalk and Rovers have won seven of the last eight domestic trophies available, met in the FAI Cup final in consecutive years – winning one each – and were the top two in 2019 until Bohs split them last year. 

There are a couple of question marks over the big two this season, however, as they meet in the league at Tallaght this evening just three weeks on from their President’s Cup final clash at the same venue. 

Rovers obvious pre-season discussion point was how they would cope with the losses of Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff. Stephen Bradley has been clear their new signings are not direct replacements for either, but have been signed for their own qualities along with their ability to fit into Rovers system, probably best described as a 3-4-2-1.

Chris McCann has arrived from MLS and slotted neatly into midfield, with Ronan Finn returning to the centre of the park after spending almost two seasons at right wing-back. Daniel Mandroiu, meanwhile, has arrived from Bohs and has been playing alongside Graham Burke in the position vacated by Jack Byrne. 

It is an extremely well-drilled system, though it has lost, in Bradley’s words, one Irish international and one soon-to-be Irish international. These doubts over Rovers are still largely grounded in speculation, though, given they have hardly played a game yet. They dominated large swathes of the President’s Cup – even before the red card for Dundalk’s Sonni Nattestad – but were beaten on penalties, while they rescued a late point against Pat’s having fallen behind moments earlier. 

Unlike Rovers, Dundalk arrive into this game with the advantage of playing last week, albeit made dubious by the fact they lost to Harps. 

Understanding why Rovers didn’t have a game while Dundalk did requires a bit of explanation.

Rovers’ scheduled game with Derry was called off because of the international call up of Derry ‘keeper Nathan Gartside to the Northern Ireland squad, but an administrative error – a failure to note a pre-existing medical condition on a clearance form – meant he had to withdraw from the squad and the game was ultimately cancelled for no reason. 

Dundalk, meanwhile, played against Harps in spite of the fact Nattestad (Faroe Islands) and Raivis Jurkovskis (Latvia) were away on international duty. The FAI rules only allow for games to be postponed if teams have two or more players called up to the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland squads only. Other nations don’t apply. 

However….Nattestad misses this game through suspension because of his red card against Rovers in the President’s Cup, because the Harps game that was not called off despite his unavailability did not count toward his suspension because of his unavailability.

Figure that one out. 

A single point from two games is a stodgy start for Dundalk, following a season build-up obscured by the confusion over the respective roles of Shane Keegan and Filippo Giovagnoli. Some issues from last year have already reared their heads this year, including a susceptibility on set pieces. They have much more to offer, of course, and are still missing players through injury and others who are getting back to match fitness. 

There is spice to this rivalry: Pat Hoban said the shortened 18-game season meant Rovers’ title triumph wasn’t a true achievement, with Bradley responding by saying that it showed some insecurity on Hoban’s part. “We’re probably in their heads more than we know.” 

Until we see what these two sides are really capable of this year, tonight’s meeting might be in the heads of a few teams who been off the title pace over the last few years, and they might be hoping both sides drop points in a draw. Though for the moment, it sounds like Ollie Horgan and Finn Harps won’t be among them. 

Premier Division Fixtures 

Friday 

Longford Town vs Sligo Rovers (5.45pm)

Shamrock Rovers vs Dundalk (7.45pm) 

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Saturday 

Drogheda United vs Finn Harps (6pm)

Derry City vs Waterford (6pm) 

Bohemians vs Saint Patrick’s Athletic (6pm)

First Division Fixtures 

Friday 

Cabinteely vs Cork City (7.45pm) 

Treaty United vs Wexford FC (7.45pm) 

Athlone Town vs Galway United (7.45pm) 

Shelbourne vs Bray Wanderers (7.45pm) 

Saturday 

Cobh Ramblers vs UCD (7pm) 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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