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All change on the Irish front

Even though it feels slightly odd to be welcoming the start of a new season in March, there is no shortage of excitement, or storylines, to get the Airtricity League kicked off.

Forget about trying to top last year's history-making season, when Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish club to reach the group stages of a major European competition. A lot has changed since then and expecting a similar breakthrough every season would be unrealistic.

The Dublin-based club did superbly well to overcome Partizan Belgrade and make it through to Group A of the Europa League. They failed to win a single game there, but did produce spirited performances away to PAOK and Tottenham Hotspur, which did the club, and the league, proud.

Rovers still possess the best squad in the country, although manager Michael O'Neill left to take over the Northern Ireland job and key players like Enda Stevens (Aston Villa), Pat Sullivan (emigrating) and Karl Sheppard (Reading) have moved on. The Premier Division champions remain the team to beat, but they will be a different outfit this term.

Stephen Kenny has stepped up to take the reins. The former Dunfermline boss is widely regarded as one of the most talented around following successful spells with Bohemians and Derry City, so the pressure will be on to see if he can maintain Rovers' status as the league's best team.

With the club's fans once again accustomed to silverware, expectations are high going into the new campaign, which gets going on Friday. But they have to acknowledge that it will take time for things to click following an off-season where so much has changed.

Apart from Rovers, the top five teams from last season all have new managers. Paul Cook joined Accrington Stanley from Sligo Rovers, Kenny left Derry for Shamrock Rovers, Liam Buckley replaced Pete Mahon at St Patrick's Athletic, and Pat Fenlon swapped Bohemians for Hibernian.

On top of that, the Premier Division has been expanded from ten to 12 teams - with Cork City, Shelbourne and Monaghan United being promoted from the First Division, which now only has eight.

On the pitch, there has been the usual turnaround of personnel, with players swapping clubs with such regularity one would swear that they get a bonus for hitting double figures. Some of the moves have been quite eye-catching, with Shamrock Rovers raiding rivals Sligo for Conor Powell and Aaron Greene, while St Pat's have snapped up almost all of Bohemians' best players.

The results of all the changes will be seen when the football gets going. And that is when managers will be judged, with Sligo - now managed by ex-Scunthorpe United boss Ian Baraclough - St Pat's, Shelbourne and Cork City all expected to challenge Shamrock Rovers for the title.

At the other end of the table, Monaghan face a tough task in trying to keep up with Bohemians, Dundalk, Drogheda United, Bray Wanderers and UCD, who have all strengthened over the winter. Some predict the league will be split in two - the top teams and the rest - but this is a league that never fails to deliver the unexpected.

In the First Division, big-spending Limerick should run away with things after bringing in former Republic of Ireland international Dominic Foley and midfielder Stephen Bradley. The Shannonside club have even been in talks with CSKA Moscow about taking various Poland and Czech Republic internationals on loan.

Longford Town look the best bet to be their nearest challengers, while Waterford United will have their own promotion ambitions. But the eight-team second tier lacks the allure and the competitive edge of the top flight, especially with Cork and Shelbourne now gone up.

After the success that James McClean has had at Sunderland following his switch from Derry City, the media have been speculating as to who might be the next great export. There are several contenders, from Dundalk's Stephen McDonnell to St Pat's Christopher Forrester and Derry's Ryan McBride, but it won't become clear until the games get going.

The focus on tomorrow's next star and European runs can wait until the summer. Now, it is all about this crazy, mixed up league returning and the standard of football proving that it deserves a better reputation.


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