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Dublin: -2 °C Thursday 27 November, 2014

Column: For League of Ireland fans, opening weekend is the most wonderful time of the year

Niall Kelly gets us in the mood for a brand new season of Airtricity League football.

This year's Airtricity League captains at the launch of the 2012 season last Friday.
This year's Airtricity League captains at the launch of the 2012 season last Friday.
Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

“There ain’t no lover like the one I’ve got / Ain’t no lover like the one I’ve got / She and I have a brand new start / I gotta give all my love.”

THE FOUR MONTHS between the end of one season and the beginning of the next are a rough time to be a League of Ireland fan — long winter evenings, freezing cold weather, and not a terrace to stand on or a dodgy offside call to get animated about.

But as November becomes December becomes January, radio silence is gradually broken, the first whispers of managerial moves and surprise signings begin to do the rounds and the whole machine slowly creaks back into life.

Until we finally, after what seems like an eternity, come to today. Day zero. A brand new start.

There’s something special about opening day, whether it’s Shamrock Rovers, SD Galway, or one of the league’s 18 other clubs that hold the keys to your heart. Today is a day for the dreamers: for those who believe that anything is possible, that they might challenge for the title or stave off relegation; for those who believe that this might be finally their year, whatever that means.

A few weeks down the line, reality will bite. It always does. But opening day is all about romance.

There’s no shortage of that this year. Take Cork City for example. Three years ago, it was a club on the brink, in dire need of life support after it had been run into the ground by financial mismanagement. Tonight, City return to the Premier Division, the promised land for those fans who made sure their club would never die.

Last season’s poster boy Graham Cummins may have flown the nest, taking his 24 goals with him to Preston North End, but Tommy Dunne and the Rebel Army travel to UCD knowing that they have a squad and set-up capable of making a big splash on their first season back in the top flight.

Hopes and fears

There’ll be a hint of the good old days around Tolka Park as well when Shelbourne host Sligo Rovers, a rematch of last year’s FAI Cup Final. Numbers have noticeably dwindled in Drumcondra over the last few seasons, but tonight’s game is as big as they come.

Sligo have strengthened a lot in the off-season, particularly by bringing in Mark Quigley from Dundalk and Danny North from Pat’s. But new man Ian Baraclough is only in the job four days, and Alan Matthews will surely let his charges off the leash in the hope of catching Sligo cold and landing the first shock of the season.

South of the Liffey, the romance is all about the return of the prodigal son. Thirteen years ago, Liam Buckley led St Pat’s to the Premier Division title, the club’s last major piece of silverware. Tonight, after a couple of seasons out of the game, he steps back into the Inchicore dugout for his first league match when Pat’s host Bray Wanderers.

Pat Devlin is a shrewd operator, but Bray suffered the inevitable fate of all smaller clubs in the off-season and said goodbye to their best talent. One of them, 21-year-old Jake Kelly, wears the red and white of the Saints this evening.

Up north, it’s the battle of the new bosses as Declan Devine’s Derry City host Aaron Callaghan’s Bohemians, while over in Kingspan Century Park, Monaghan United play their first top-flight fixture in 10 years against Dundalk.

And then there’s the champions. It’s been a shorter off-season for Shamrock Rovers fans, thanks to the Hoops’ Europa League exploits, but the prospect of taking that first step on the road to a third successive league title will have those in green and white as hungry as anyone else, eager to get going on that mini-pilgrimage up the M1 to Hunky Dory Park.

By 9.30pm, it may be the same old story for a lot of these clubs. But for now, if not for much longer, everybody’s looking forward to a brand new start.

Interview: A quick Q&A session with Sligo Rovers striker Mark Quigley

Airtricity League 2012: Five transfers which will make big impacts this season

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

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