Well the wait is over and the 2018 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division kicks off this coming weekend. 4 more sleeps, as my children would say coming up to Christmas.
Bray are away to Dundalk; Wanderers couldn’t have asked for a more difficult start. Dundalk have prepared well for the new campaign, taking in games in Spain against China League One side Shanghai Shenxin [1-1] and South Korea K League 1’s FC Seoul [1-0 to Dundalk]. A run-out against Brentford from the English Championship also helped the Lilywhites limber up for the new term – it may not have been the full Brentford first team but the 2-1 win for Dundalk was impressive nonetheless.
No doubt Dundalk and Cork will be vying for top spot again in 2018. With the takeover by US investment firm Peak6 complete things are set up nicely for Dundalk to try to reclaim the title. Cork have a tricky opening day fixture away to a St Patrick’s Athletic side that will be hoping to get into winning mode right from the start and avoid being dragged into the relegation zone from early on, as happened last year. If they can take points off Cork and Dundalk beat Bray then it will be first blood to Stephen Kenny’s men.
Who will finish as Dublin’s top side this year? It has been Shamrock Rovers for the last few campaigns – the last time another Dublin club finished above Rovers in the League was St Patricks Athletic in 2014. I’ve a hunch it could be Bohemians this time. I was impressed with them last term and think they can be even better this time out. As if to get the battle for Dublin supremacy underway right from the get-go, the fixture machine has served up Bohemians hosting Rovers this Friday at Dalymount in what promises to be the match of the weekend.
In the other opening fixtures Sligo host Limerick and Derry City face the long trip to Waterford. These are exciting times for Waterford as they return to the top flight after dominating the First Division last year.
Getting back to Bray Wanderers, our pre-season took in games against UCD, Wexford FC and Drogheda United. Not quite at the level of Dundalk’s but important games for Dave Mackey and his players as the new-look squad get used to each other. There’s enough continuity there from last season’s top-six side to allow the new signings to bed in and to allow fans to hope that we can stay up this term. We’ve got our licence, we’ve been exonerated from the match-fixing probe that has been hanging over us since September and we’re ready to fight for our place in the top flight.
The match-fixing investigation was certainly something I’m glad is over. I don’t gamble at all myself and am amazed at how so much betting and gambling advertising and sponsorship is around soccer. We’ve moved on from allowing tobacco companies the same level of access to our jersey and pitch-side advertising spaces, and alcohol sponsorship is going the same way. I’m sure betting-company sponsorship will go eventually too, given the problems of gambling addiction and match-fixing all through the soccer world. For now though, invitation and temptation to bet is everywhere.
Bray certainly wouldn’t be expected to beat Dundalk this weekend, but I’ll be hoping for an upset anyway. Actually I’ll be hoping for two upsets; Bray against Dundalk on the Friday night and Rochdale against Tottenham Hotspur on the Sunday in the FA Cup 5th Round. This is the biggest game to be played in the Crown Oil Arena in many years. I don’t know if Kane will be playing, or Eriksen, but if the Dane is then I hope Dale set up better to counter his silky skills than Ireland did in the World Cup play-off, but enough about that, that ship has sailed now.
I was listening to a sports bulletin on a radio station last Thursday morning after Spurs had beaten Newport County 2-0 the night before in their FA Cup 4th Round replay to set up the above-mentioned 5th Round tie with Dale [who had beaten the 2004 finalists Millwall 24 hours earlier in their own replay]. The presenter had obviously never heard of Rochdale. After describing the Spurs victory, he said ‘’And Spurs now face … Rockdale in the next round’’.
Rather than getting offended at the mispronunciation of my team’s name, I smiled. The verbal slip instantly brought to mind memories of ‘’Roy of the Rovers’’, one my favourite comics growing up. Roy Race’s fictional team Melchester Rovers had to play other fictional teams. The names that the writers came up with often bore a strong resemblance to real teams. I kept the comics for my son. I’ve just had a look back through some. I spotted a ‘Rotherton’ [Rotherham], a ‘North Vale’ [Port Vale], a ‘Melborough’ [Middlesborough’] and a ‘Carford City’ [Cardiff City]. But I think ‘Rockdale’ surpasses anything they ever came up in the famous comic!
I was thinking of Tottenham and the 1981 FA Cup final during the week when I saw a post of a Dundalk fan on their pre-season tour of Spain showing a banner that read ‘’Football without cans is nothing!”. That made me laugh. I love the humour of the football banner. The ‘’Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work!” one was another classic, but my favourites of all time are from that 1981 final, which Spurs won [against Manchester City, after a replay]. I remember a shot of the Manchester City fans before the first game. Some of them were holding up homemade banners and the camera paused to allow the watching viewers to read them. A pair of banners held up by what looked like a father and his son were both themed around City’s left back Paul Power. They read ‘’City have the Power to arrest Crooks!’’ and ‘’City have the Power to make Glenn Hobble!”. Classics.
I’m sure many soccer fans here who also follow English teams will be keeping an eye on the FA Cup 5th Round this weekend, but the main business in hand this week is the return of our own League after the close season. Good luck to all the sides as they embark on their 2018 journey.