SIX GAMES INTO the new Airtricity League season is a perilous time to start making predictions.
Sweeping statements like “Rovers are past it”, “Bohs are going down”, “Cork simply can’t hack it in the top flight” look ill-judged and reactionary in the short-term, and more than likely, will look downright stupid in the medium- to long-term.
Hopes that Drogheda United might somehow reel in the league’s big boys and sneak into the title race shake-up fall into the same wishful category, but at least in this case it’s a noble aspiration. Mick Cooke’s men have without doubt been the surprise package of the opening weeks, a breath of fresh air in a Premier Division which was in danger of becoming all too predictable.
Four wins and a draw from their opening six games have seen the Drogs surge above St Pat’s into third place level on points with Shamrock Rovers, the only team to beat them so far this season.
It’s success that few League of Ireland fans would resent them for, unlike the unsustainable boom years which yielded four trophies in three seasons only to leave the club bankrupt and on the verge of extinction. That rags to riches to rags trajectory has ushered in a much more humble era in Hunky Dory Park, though there is a sense that good times might not be so far away again.
There is every chance that Drogheda’s bright start will fade sooner rather than later, but it’s hard to see them returning to the dark days of last season when they floundered above Galway at the wrong end of the table. Of all the Premier Division sides, Cooke has most reason to be pleased with his summer recruitment even if Roddy Collins and Monaghan won’t be happy with the manner in which returned to plunder his former club of their rough diamonds.
In picking up the Brennan brothers, Ryan and Sean, and tempting local hero Declan “Fabio” O’Brien into a return, Cooke immediately added 34 goals worth of talent to his squad. Premier Division defences might be a bit meaner than those in the First but it’s considerable strikepower no matter which way you choose to look at it. All three have had a clear impact in the opening weeks as has another former Mons man, keeper Gabriel Sava, whose saves were worth all three points on his return to Gortakeegan last Friday night.
Most encouraging is the confidence sweeping through the men from the banks of the Boyne. Cooke said last week that his side are playing attacking football, complete with high-energy pressing, because they know no different. When they don’t have the ball, they want it back; when they do have it, they want to score.
The exception that general rule was the first half against Shamrock Rovers on opening weekend when Peter Hynes was cut adrift as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 system which showed far too much deference to the champions, even after Dean Marshall had put them one up against the run of play.
There is a sense that lessons have been learned from that day so it will be intriguing to see how Drogheda fare when faced another side trying to put the “beautiful” back into the beautiful game, St Patrick’s Athletic. Last Friday’s thrashing of Shamrock Rovers was a masterclass but it’s the first time that Pat’s have really lived up to their billing this season, though they can point with pride to their unbeaten record nonetheless.
When two sides with similar styles collide, the outcome is a footballing famine is often as it is a feast. Let’s hope for the latter in Hunky Dory Park tonight.
Airtricity League fixtures (Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)
- Sligo Rovers v Derry City (Friday, 7.05pm)
- Cork City v Monaghan United
- Drogheda United v St Patrick’s Athletic
- UCD v Bohemian FC
- Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk (Friday, 8pm)
- Shelbourne v Bray Wanderers (Friday, 8pm)
- Waterford United v Athlone Town
- SD Galway v Mervue United
- Wexford Youths v Limerick (Friday, 8pm)
- Longford Town v Finn Harps (Saturday, 7.30pm)