On the latest instalment of ‘the Big Kick Off League of Ireland podcast’, we waxed lyrical about the highly anticipated return of our domestic game.

The SSE Airtricity League Premier and First Divisions commence action this weekend, and you can find our initial thoughts on the upcoming campaigns on our YouTube channel, and all good podcast providers. However, we’ll keep this content train chugging along by checking out the fixtures for the opening round, and assess each clubs’ chances for the 2022 season.    

Friday, 18th of February 2022

Shelbourne vs St. Patrick’s Athletic

Venue – Tolka Park

Kick Off – 7.45 pm

Odds – Home 23/10 Draw 21/10 Away 11/10

Watch On – RTE 2/RTE Player

Stuart Byrne column: Tolka Park well worth preserving in my eyes - Irish  Mirror Online

Newly promoted Shelbourne are set for another crack at Premier Division football, following their First Division triumph last year.

They’ve had an extremely hectic off-season, most notably, by appointing Damien Duff as their new manager, following the surprise dismissal of Ian Morris.

As bona fide Irish footballing royalty, Duff is a fantastic ambassador for the league, and will command respect due to his success throughout his illustrious playing career.

However, his lack of experience, and longevity in previous roles cannot be ignored, even if he did depart other employers for personal reasons. Duff has also been particularly cantankerous in interviews leading up to his managerial debut, as he fully immerses himself into the role.

The former Republic of Ireland international hasn’t wasted anytime putting his stamp on his new team.

75 percent of their title winning squad has been gutted, leaving only a handful of familiar faces at Tolka Park.

They’ve added strong names to the group like Aaron O’Driscoll, Conor Kane, Aodh Dervin, Sean McSweeney and Dan Carr, who’ll look to slot in seamlessly.

St. Pats are another side that made wholesale changes over the Christmas period.

Tim Clancy was quickly drafted in, to replace the out-going Stephen O’Donnell, and has added nine new recruits since taking up his new position.

The Saints have some seriously strong attacking options. Doyle’s Eoin and Mark, Tunde Owolabi and Adam O’Reilly will hope to continue the free scoring nature at Richmond Park.

Similar to previous seasons, squad depth in certain areas may hinder them further into the season when European games become a factor. But saying that, there’s no reason why they can’t build on their excellent 2021.

Prediction – Tight Pats win.

Dundalk vs Derry City

Venue – Oriel Park

Kick Off – 7.45 pm

Odds – Home 21/20 Draw 11/5 Away 23/10

Watch On – LOITV

Club will need help to redevelop Oriel - Independent.ie

One of the biggest stories during the off-season was the saga involving Stephen O’Donnell, and his departure from Inchicore.

While a return to his sentimental home of Dundalk was arguably inevitable at some stage, the timing seemed outright bizarre.

2021 was a catastrophic season for the Lilywhites, which seen the Louth outfit as realistic relegation candidates for a good portion of the campaign.

Thankfully, they’ve seemingly turned a corner off the field, with the announcement of new ownership that will be desperate to positively integrate the club back into the local community.

But for O’Donnell, this is still a massive re-build, arguably a bigger one that faced him when he took the wheel at Pats.

While he’ll be delighted to retain the services of Pat Hoban, Darragh Leahy and Andy Boyle, the recruitment needed to be on point, as there were plentiful departures ahead of the 2022 league resumption.

The trio of Robbie Benson, Sam Bone and John Mountney made the journey back to Dundalk with O’Donnell. While Mark Connolly arrives on loan from Dundee to patch a hole in the heart of the Dundalk defence, with fellow loanee Nathan Sheppard arriving between the sticks.

Derry City are another side that has seen an influx of talent arrive through the door, many of whom donned a Dundalk shirt last year.

Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney and Will Patching will all return to a frosty Oriel Park reception this Friday. While Matty Smith, Brian Mahar and Brandon Kavanagh round out the marquee signings for the big spenders.

Manager Ruaidhri Higgins has assembled a fantastic squad, due to the financial backing of chairman, Phillip O’Doherty.

While this could be a work in process with the long-term contracts being handed out at the Brandywell, a third Premier Division title seems to be in the pipeline, sooner rather than later.

Prediction – Honours even.

Shamrock Rovers vs UCD

Venue – Tallaght Stadium

Kick Off – 8.00 pm

Odds – Home 1/5 Draw 15/4 Away 11/1

Watch On – LOITV

New stand for Tallaght Stadium announced alongside 20,000 capacity event  venue plans

The reigning champions kick off their quest for a third consecutive title, and they’ll be glad to have fans present after only receiving a fine for the firework incident away to Waterford late last season.

Stephen Bradley kept his talent rich squad ticking over nicely, with high profiled signings of Andy Lyons, and a returning Jack Byrne.

The strength in depth at their disposal is frightening. Perhaps the tough job will be keeping egos in check, and ensuring everyone is happy with their playing time.

While Rovers are rightfully the bookmakers’ favourites to retain their title, Stephen Bradley’s men are surely eyeing up a lengthy European run, following their disappointing exit at the hands of Flora Tallinn during their last adventure.

UCD couldn’t have asked for an easier return to the top-tier.

Andy Myler’s students gained passage back to the Premier Division via the 2021 play-offs.

While they were a pleasure to watch last season, finding the net the most in the First Division, they also leaked goals at an alarming rate.

They managed to keep hold of Sam Todd, Liam Kerrigan and Colm Whelan, with the latter two looking poised for big futures. It will be vital to keep hold of them when the summer window rolls around, if they have any chance of survival.

Prediction – Shamrock Rovers, put the wife and kids on it.

Finn Harps vs Drogheda United

Venue – Finn Park

Kick Off – 8.00 pm

Odds – Home 6/5 Draw 2/1 Away 21/10

Watch On – LOITV

Debutant Armando ends Waterford's woes against Finn Harps

Is it too early to call this a relegation clash? Perhaps.

But, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Finn Harps look set to be fighting for their lives once again.

Ollie Horgan has built up so much good will with the Ballybofey faithful. But for our money, there isn’t a side that looks noticeably weaker compared to last season.

The Donegal outfit were completely decimated, with Tunde Owolabi, Mark Coyle, Karl O’Sullivan, Will Seymore, Sean Boyd and Adam Foley all moving on to pastures new.

Yoyo Mahdy arriving after a frustrating lack of opportunities at Shelbourne could be an inspired signing. But, Bastien Hery is in desperate need of a consistent run of form, after failing to capture the imagination over the past several years.

In fairness, Drogheda can sympathise with Harps, as they’ve also lost key players from last season.

James Brown, Dan O’Reilly and Killian Phillips have all made respective moves to the UK, with goalkeeper David Odumosu rumoured to be following suit. All irreplaceable talent for new manager, Kevin Doherty.

Saying that, on paper, they have a stable squad with Gary Deegan, Chris Lyons, Dane Massey and Darragh Markey all staying put.

Dean Williams and Adam Foley will be hoping to plug the Mark Doyle shaped gap in terms of goals, along with Ryan Brennan returning to his hometown club, following a stellar season at Shels in 2021.

Prediction – Drogheda win.

Saturday, 19th of February 2022

Sligo Rovers vs Bohemians

Venue – The Showgrounds

Kick Off – 7.45 pm

Odds – Home 23/10 Draw 21/10 Away 21/20

Watch On – LOITV

Sligo Showgrounds redevelopment moves a step closer

Sligo are coming off two consecutive seasons where they earned themselves European football. However, it’ll be a tall task to reach those heights again this time around.

They lost their general consensus two best players last season to the Scottish Premiership, with prospect Johnny Kenny going to Celtic, and the brilliant John Mahon heading to St. Johnstone.

This has left their squad looking deteriorated compared to last season. Liam Buckley has brought in unknowns from abroad, so the jury is out on them.

While Paddy Kirk, Karl O’Sullivan and Will Fitzgerald are solid League of Ireland competitors, the arrival of Aidan Keena will struggle to provide the goals Sligo will need to be in the upper echelons of the table.

Buckley will be happy that Ed McGinty, Greg Bolger, Lewis Banks and Niall Morahan are remaining out West, but Sligo haven’t been able to improve their squad with others that have more financial backing.

Another season, another re-build for Keith Long.

The Bohs manager was always going to struggle to keep hold of duo Ross Tierney and Georgie Kelly who’ve moved to Motherwell, and Rotherham.

Resident jersey model Rob Cornwall has gone to America. While captain Keith Buckley, Keith Ward and full backs Andy Lyons and Anto Breslin have also departed.

James Talbot, Dawson Devoy, Promise Omochere and Liam Burt are more than capable to fill the void. Plus, they’ve added the likes of Ryan Cassidy on loan from Watford, and Kris Twardek, who makes his return to the Gypsies.

Could they push for a return to European football? Absolutely.

Prediction – Tough call, play it safe with a draw.

SSE Airtricity League results and reports

TBKO Premier Division Predictions

* Don’t @ us…

1. Shamrock Rovers

2. Derry City

3. St. Patrick’s Athletic

4. Dundalk

5. Bohemians

6. Shelbourne

7. Drogheda United

8. Sligo Rovers

9. UCD

10. Finn Harps

Roy Shanahan Predictions:

ChampionsDerry City

FAI Cup WinnersShamrock Rovers

Automatic RelegationUCD

Top Scorer – Graham Burke

Nathan Doyle Predictions:

ChampionsShamrock Rovers

FAI Cup WinnersSt. Patrick’s Athletic

Automatic RelegationFinn Harps

Top ScorerPat Hoban

Surprise PackageSean Roughan