Shamrock Rovers manager Pat Fenlon feels that the usual suspects at the top of the SSE Airtricity Premier Division may not have everything their own way this year.
Speaking at Tallaght Stadium ahead of his side’s first home game of the season against newly-promoted Wexford Youths this Friday, the 46-year-old Dubliner predicted a highly-competitive campaign, something that is sure to whet the appetites of League of Ireland enthusiasts up and down the land.
“Obviously Dundalk and Cork City have been the best two for the past couple of seasons,” said Fenlon to a small gathering of reporters in the Rovers boardroom.
“Ourselves and Pat’s have probably split that in the next positions and Bohs were very strong last year. Sligo were good on Saturday against us so I see them being a decent side. Then you’ve got other strong teams.”
“It’s a tough league to get points in. Over the course of the season, playing so many games close together it can maybe have an effect on the smaller teams in relation to the squad size. But every game is competitive.”
Rovers prepared for the new campaign by taking a pre-season trip to India where they recorded impressive wins over 1860 Munich reserves and the Argentina under-23 side. Fenlon feels it was a great experience for his squad as he reflected: “It was a great trip. The players were brilliant. The games were really tough, especially with the conditions over there.”
“The experience of playing and the place itself was a great experience for everyone, myself included. It was an eye-opener. You see everything we have here and they don’t have a lot but they were willing to help all the time. I think all the players enjoyed it, the football and seeing how other people live on the other side of the world.”
Getting a taste of a new culture is all well and good but the main purpose of the trip was for the Rovers squad to prepare for the new season which started with a 2-0 victory away at Sligo Rovers on Friday night. Speaking about the performance, Fenlon was full of praise for his side, in particular goalscorers Brandon Miele and Danny North.
“Brandon had such a good season last year that people will expect that from him again but I think he has the ability to step up. He got a fantastic goal at the weekend and he’s a talent. He’s physically in good condition and I don’t see any reason why he can’t keep improving.”
“Danny is one that we probably didn’t get on the pitch enough last year. It’s important to keep him fit and we saw that at the weekend. He had one disallowed and had a couple of other chances before taking his goal well.”
While preparing his squad for a testing new season is rigorous enough, Fenlon has also been keeping tabs on players loaned out by Rovers during the off-season, particularly Cian and Dylan Kavanagh at Shelbourne.
“We hope they gain the experience, a bit like Evan Osam and Sean Heaney who went to Shels last year and got loads of game time,” he said. “Sean has obviously come back in and Evan unfortunately got a bad injury but he’s making good progress.
“We think Dylan and Cian have got potential but they need to go out and find their way and play in games that matter and playing for Shelbourne matters. They’re a big club in their own right and if you’re not winning games you come under a bit of pressure and they need to be able to cope with that to be able to play here as well.”
Back to matters at hand and Wexford Youths are somewhat of an unknown quantity in the Premier Division this season. That doesn’t mean that Fenlon is taking anything for granted against the newly-promoted side who lost their opening game 2-0 at home to Longford Town.
“Wexford will be a tough game. They’ll enjoy coming here, like most teams do, but we’ve made this place difficult to play at. They were a little bit unlucky in the game against Longford and had a lot of possession. They had a great season last year and will want to enjoy it this year but they’ll want to make sure that they’re picking up points.”
The season may be young but Fenlon knows that picking up points is crucial at this early stage if Shamrock Rovers want to add to a record 17 League of Ireland titles, the last of which was won in 2011.