THE self-styled ‘Greatest League in the World’ made a long awaited return on Friday night and it didn’t disappoint with lots of drama, goals and very healthy attendances at grounds around the country.
To mark the 10th anniversary of its sponsorship, SSE Airtricity has come up with the catchphrase ‘Light up Your Nights’ with the intention to celebrate everything that’s ‘brilliant and outstanding about the league’.
For many fans it’s been three long months of finding something to fill that void on a Friday night and the joy and frustrations the thousands of other supporters experience throughout the course of a season following their beloved clubs. That Friday night feeling is back with a bang!
And it was fantastic to see the terraces packed to capacity, particularly at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium as Declan Devine began his second stint as manager of Derry City in front of over 3,500 enthusiastic fans who have clearly bought into his promise to bring an identity and passion back to the club.
There’s been so much intrigue and uncertainty surrounding the 2019 League of Ireland campaign as champions, Dundalk begin the post-Stephen Kenny era and the so-called ‘sleeping giants’ like St Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City are rejuvenated by the arrival of new management and players.
The first round of fixtures have already thrown up some eyebrow-raising results with last season’s runners-up Cork City losing to St. Pat’s and Liam Buckley’s new-look Sligo Rovers holding Dundalk at Oriel Park.
You can’t take too much from opening day results though. Remember, Dundalk were held to a scoreless draw on the first night of the 2018 campaign at the hands of Bray Wanderers and we all know how their respective seasons ended up - the Lilywhites as ‘double’ winners and Bray, financially crippled and automatically relegated.
The standout result from the opening round of fixtures for me, however, was Shamrock Rovers’ comeback victory over Waterford at the RSC. By all accounts Rovers were unfortunate to go behind to debutante, Kevin Lynch’s beautifully struck free-kick and the manner in which they battled back to clinch a stoppage time winner will give them huge confidence going into Friday night’s visit of Derry City to Tallaght.
The Candy Stripes themselves will travel to the south Dublin venue having taken great heart from their opening day win over last year’s First Division champions, UCD. Just two players who had played in the 5-0 defeat to St Pat’s in the final league game of 2018 started Friday’s match, namely Eoin Toal and Darren Cole. It’s been an incredible turnaround of players but there were plenty of positives taken from the performance and much promise for the season ahead. There was huge pressure riding on the result, facing into games against Rovers, Waterford and Cork.
Josh Kerr made his first professional appearance playing in a right back position he’s never played before which shows the confidence Devine has in the ex-Celtic youngster who joined on loan from Brighton in the close season. He grew into the game. David Parkhouse looks a top player with pace and power and he finished expertly to get his first of the season.
But for many, Creggan man, Ciaron Harkin’s performance proved the talking point after the game. Devine called for heart and passion and Harkin had it all in abundance. His crunching tackle on UCD dangerman, Neil Farrugia right in front of the dugouts at the Mark Farren Stand set the tone and his dogged determination proved infectious as his teammates followed suit. Two assists capped what was a man of the match display which drew plaudits from both managers.
Another on loan signing, Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe also impressed on the left wing and his clever back-heel put the wheels in motion for City’s breakthrough goal while Eoghan Stokes played a significant part in the final two goals, adding the finishing touch to the last.
The players received a rousing reception at the final whistle from the appreciative Brandywell attendance and one gets the feeling that, with the crowd fully behind this young team, the venue could potentially return to the bygone days where teams hated to come to the Lone Moor Road venue. Remember Pat Fenlon claiming Richie Baker and Bobby Ryan wanted off the Shelbourne team bus at Strabane fearing the prospect of facing Sean Hargan?
Devine wants to recreate that Brandywell fear factor. He clearly loved every moment of his first return to the dugout since 2013 and his celebrations with assistant boss, Kevin Deery and first team coach, Marty McCann at the final whistle were refreshing to witness. Devine has breathed new life into the club and ignited fire in the bellies of his players and fans in the stands. He made the remark afterwards that there’s no place he’d rather be other than the stands with a red and white scarf draped around his neck. And there’s no doubt that love and passion for the club has infiltrated the home dressing room.
UCD heads dropped after conceding the second goal as they looked to limit the damage and while there will be much bigger challenges ahead, starting Friday night in Tallaght, Derry fans can look at the league table and see their team top of the pile for now and be hugely encouraged by an impressive start to the 2019 season.