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Rovers return: Hoops head to Drogheda with their sights on three-in-a-row

We caught up with manager Stephen Kenny and chairman Jonathan Roche as the champions prepare to defend their title.

The Premier Division trophy: will it be heading back to Tallaght for a third successive season?
The Premier Division trophy: will it be heading back to Tallaght for a third successive season?
Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

IF SHAMROCK ROVERS are feeling the pressure of being runaway favourites to win the Premier Division for a third successive season, they’re certainly not showing it.

Pre-season preparations have gone off without a hitch, culminating in the 8-1 thumping of Waterford last Friday night; Stephen Kenny has made the transition back to his native Tallaght quickly and quietly; and Rovers have freshened up their squad and plugged the gaps with a few new faces.

As far as the Hoops are concerned, it’s all systems go for three-in-a-row.

“It’s nice pressure,” club chairman Jonathan Roche tells TheScore.ie. “Reading all the papers, looking at the squads other people are putting together — it’s been hard work, but that competitive edge is what keeps things ticking over.”

New man

It’s hard to imagine that it’s difficult for Rovers to keep things ticking over at the moment. After all, this is the club which is coming off the back of a year which may be its most memorable ever. Winning a second successive Premier Division title was a big deal, but in the grand narrative and in the eyes of the casual observer, the Hoops’ Europa League exploits will take some matching.

The biggest change between then and now has come in the dugout. While everything was going swimmingly on the pitch last season, manager Michael O’Neill and the Rovers board were locked in a game of backroom poker over a new contract. O’Neill left and Rovers immediately turned their attention to Kenny, their number one target.

The new man in the dugout knows what it takes to win a league — after all, he did it with Rovers’ bitter rivals Bohemians in 2002/2003 — but in recent years, his projects have focused on trying to rebuild Dunfermline in the SPL and the reborn Derry City in the First Division. He’s the first to admit that this is a slightly different scenario.

It’s a different type of challenge, I’m used to taking over teams at the bottom of the league and trying to transform them. This is different, it’s unique. You don’t normally get an opportunity like this. We’ll work hard and you have to earn everything you get.

Like Roche, he doesn’t seem too bothered about the favourites’ tag either.

“C’est la vie, that’s it. There is pressure, but we’re not bothered about that. We’re just concerned about winning matches.”

Ever ready

The other Rovers, Sligo, are the team tipped by many to push the Hoops again this season. They have their own new manager, ex-Scunthorpe United boss Ian Baraclough, although the circumstances of Paul Cook’s departure to Accrington Stanley meant that his appointment was not finalised until earlier this week.

It gives Baraclough precious little lead-in time ahead of Sligo’s trip to Tolka Park tonight. It was a scenario that Rovers were desperate to avoid, Roche says.

It’s massive to have the time to prepare to change the manager. It’s very difficult when you’re rushing to change things between seasons.

It’s a massive boost to the manager and the players that they can get to know each other over six or seven weeks before the season starts. That was a big factor.

We weren’t going to be rushed into anything when Michael left but we were definitely going to have someone in place for coming back for pre-season.

If there was one major criticism levelled at Rovers last year, it was that they were too direct in their approach, often playing Gary Twigg as a solo target man and expecting him to make long balls stick and bring others into the game.

At Derry City, Kenny had his team play in a style that was easy on the eye, despite the obvious physical strength of Eamon Zayed up front. It’s something which he will bring with him to Tallaght, but Roche still isn’t expecting to see any great sea change.

“Good football’s important. Stephen did play a nice brand with Derry, Sporting Fingal played a nice brand [under Liam Buckley]. I thought we played good football ourselves last year and the year before.

Obviously we changed things to win matches but I thought we passed the ball a lot of the time. I know people were on Michael’s back for the last few years because we didn’t play football. I thought we did to be honest with you — and he’s gone now, so I don’t have to say that — but I thought we did to be honest.

Kenny and Rovers begin their title defence tonight in Hunky Dory Park, not always the most accommodating fixture for a side looking to knock the ball about.

As champions, Rovers have a target on their back. There’ll be no complacency, airs or graces. Tonight, Kenny’s taking nothing for granted.

“Hunky Dory Park is a very tight venue and it’s always a battle. We’re going to have to battle up there, and we know that.”

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Niall Kelly

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