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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Eoin Doyle (left) and Jack Byrne have been among the most high-profile off-season recruits in the League of Ireland.
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Marquee signings Byrne and Doyle aiming to elevate Dublin rivals to new heights
Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic are set to compete in the President’s Cup this evening.

THE TWO most impressive teams in the country last season will renew acquaintances tonight, with both aiming to make a statement ahead of the forthcoming Premier Division campaign.

More important challenges await, but Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic will still be eager to claim the bragging rights in this evening’s President’s Cup clash (8pm kick-off at Tallaght Stadium, available to watch for free on LOITV here).

With the Hoops having won the title by 11 and 16 points in the 2020 and 2021 campaigns respectively, they will be determined to show that there has been no let-up in their level of intensity since.

Similarly, victory would be a morale boost to the Saints, last year’s Premier Division runners-up and FAI Cup winners, in their quest to significantly close the gap on their Dublin rivals.

Particularly by League of Ireland standards, it’s been a relatively quiet off-season for Rovers, who lost out on penalties to Dundalk during last year’s equivalent fixture.

Aside from the notable acquisitions of Andy Lyons and the returning Jack Byrne, there have been no other major signings, while Joey O’Brien is the only first-team regular who has departed, having decided to take up a coaching position with Damien Duff’s Shelbourne.

“We felt that we didn’t want too much change in the group and the squad, and thankfully we haven’t lost many,” says Bradley.

“I’m delighted to have [Jack] back. He’s just looking forward to getting back on the pitch. He’s done his work. I think he’s fitter and stronger than he’s ever been. He’s focused and just looking forward to getting going.

“We know he had options elsewhere. But when I sat down with him, it was a pretty easy conversation to have. Jack knows how we work. He knows how we play.”

Pat’s, by contrast, have been busier in recent times.

In addition to the controversial exit of manager Tim Clancy’s predecessor, Stephen O’Donnell, to Dundalk, departures of important squad members, including Sam Bone (Dundalk), Robbie Benson (Dundalk), John Mountney (Dundalk), Lee Desmond (Sacramento Republic), Alfie Lewis (Plymouth Argyle) and Matty Smith (Derry City) will surely be keenly felt.

On the other hand, having scored over 100 goals during a 10-year stint across the water, Eoin Doyle is a marquee signing to rival that of Ireland international Byrne and comes up against his former club this evening, having made his Premier Division debut with Rovers and lined out for them between 2007 and 2009.

Both individuals possess the potential to have a big impact on the title race, as they aim to show the type of consistent brilliance they have proved capable of producing in the past.

Clancy calls the addition of the 33-year-old Dublin-born striker, who hit 19 goals for Bolton as recently as the 2020-21 campaign, a “huge signing”.

“I know there have been other good acquisitions as well, and you look at the Derry contingent leaving Dundalk and going back up to Derry is another really interesting one, but getting Eoin back was a massive one for us.

“I floated it to the chairman, I knew it was going to be a difficult one because he was scoring goals in League One this year and it’s a credit to the chairman to get that one done.

“But it’s now up to us to create chances for the likes of Eoin, Tunde [Owolabi], Mark Doyle, Darragh Burns, Ronan Coughlan, Billy King, Jay McClelland, we have a lot of players in the attacking end of the pitch that if we can create chances and give them the best possible chance, they will score goals.”

Another player that will attract plenty of interest is 18-year-old centre-back James Abankwah.

The teenager recently joined Italian outfit Udinese but is staying with St Pat’s on loan until July, as he prepares to complete his Leaving Cert.

Clancy insists no limitations have been imposed by the Serie A side on how Pat’s use the ex-Cherry Orchard youngster — who played 13 times last season including an appearance in the FAI Cup final triumph — during his remaining months at the club.

“I remember watching James in a 19s game at the start of last season and speaking to Stevie [O'Donnell] and Seán O’Connor and a few at the club at the time, and trying to nick him off Pat’s and get him on loan for Drogheda but they said ‘no’. He’s very well thought of and a few weeks before I worked with him before he got to Udinese, you could see there is a very high ceiling in where James can go.

“Athletically he’s very very good, and football-wise he’s only going to get better as well. It’s a really interesting one to see how his career develops. It’s going to be a pleasure for me to work with him for the next six months and see where he goes on after that.”

However, Pat’s will be able to call on the services of another promising youngster for the duration of the season.

21-year-old Ghana-born goalkeeper Joseph Anang has signed on loan from West Ham for the season and is expected to see plenty of game time in between the posts.

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The model of temporarily recruiting a youngster from the Premier League has worked well for Pat’s in the past.

Vítězslav Jaroš was many critics’ choice as goalkeeper of the season last year, having signed on loan from Liverpool, but will not be returning for this campaign, joining National League side Notts County back in January instead.

“It was Jaros or Joseph last year and it ended up coming around again this year,” Clancy explains. “Joseph was on loan at the start of the season at Stevenage, he’d just been called back by West Ham and they were looking for a second loan and that’s how that developed, he’s very good.

“I think Stevenage changed their manager and the new manager brought in an experienced goalkeeper he’d worked with previously and Joseph wasn’t playing then.

“The most important thing for West Ham was to give him an opportunity to go out and play games. That’s where we were able to come in.

“I think the League of Ireland, through no fault of our own, it’s probably the fact that the British with Brexit, that they’re out of the EU, it’s restricted the players they can recruit outside the UK and Ireland. With the free trade movement agreement we have with the UK, this market is more on the radar for clubs in the UK and it also shows in that they can come here and do well on loan to gain experience.”

Abankwah and Anang likely won’t be the only exciting young players on display at Richmond Park this season, with Clancy also citing Ben McCormack, Darragh Burns, Adam Murphy and Josh Keeley as being among the players who could have an impact as Pat’s aim to make life as comfortable as possible for their young players and create “an environment where they are not afraid to make mistakes and flourish”.

Burns, in particular, appears highly sought after, and Clancy adds: “The club received a couple of offers [recently] that were nowhere near the market for the type of player that Darragh is and what he is capable of doing. I think Darragh has a lot of improvement to come as well, which is really interesting for us because he was excellent last season.”

Bradley, meanwhile, mentions Conan Noonan and Aidomo Emakhu as two players to watch at Rovers in the coming months.

Consequently, with a good blend of seasoned pros and hot prospects, it is anticipated that both sides will be fighting it out at the top end of the table once more.

However, with the likes of Derry City and Dundalk expected to be stronger this year, it has the potential to be one of the most competitive leagues in recent memory.

“We know we’ve got to be better in every department than what we were last year to win the league,” says Bradley. “There are some very strong squads — St Pat’s and Derry are very strong. So we know we’ve got to be at our very best more than what we did last year to have a chance of winning the league. And we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to put in the work to do that.”

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