League will be a war of attrition
'Rovers will be stronger'
Dundalk captain Stephen O'Donnell expects his former club, Shamrock Rovers, to make a real challenge for the league title this season.
Last term the Hoops were 22 points behind title winners Cork City, and 15 points off Dundalk in second place, and the Rovers camp maintain that it will take time to catch up with the double act of Cork and Dundalk which has dominated the scene for the last four seasons.
The bookmakers are already predicting a two-horse race for the 2018 season, which was launched at Lansdowne Road yesterday and kicks off next Friday night.
O'Donnell won league titles with Bohemians (2008) and Rovers (2011) before his successful move to Dundalk, and the Galway native says it will be more of a contest this season, with Rovers poised to challenge.
"It will be more like a war of attrition this year with a 10-team league but I think the league will be more open this year and you won't have two teams pulling away from the rest," O'Donnell told The Herald.
"I think Rovers will be a lot stronger than they were last year. They kept all the players they wanted to keep, added in a few more.
"There are a few factors about Rovers this year that make them interesting. They haven't won a trophy for a while so they will have a real hunger about them, lads like Graham Burke now have another year and more experience under their belts.
"They have made some signings that will really improve them, Lee Grace only had half a season with them last year but he could be a strong figure for them," added O'Donnell.
"But I think there will be points dropped all over the place, with teams playing each other four times and I think there will be more quality than you'd get in a 10-team league.
"Waterford could be a dark horse, they signed some good players and Sligo could really improve on last season, you don't know how Bohs or St Pat's will shape up."
While Rovers are looking to improve on that third-place finish, Dundalk are also looking up, desperate to wrestle the league crown back from Cork City.
Changes have been made in the background at Oriel Park, with that new ownership structure but the squad has also been revamped, and O'Donnell, who won three of his five league medals while on the books of Dundalk, is upbeat.
"I think we had a longer break over the off season so we are more energised coming back," he says.
"We have a better squad, everyone is injury-free, more or less, and our bench will be strong as well as our team."
Finding goals will be an issue for Dundalk in 2018 as their two leading scorers (Dave McMillan and Patrick McEleney, who netted 26 league goal between them) have both left the club.
As a solution, Dundalk have re-signed former striker Pat Hoban, following a spell in England, and also drafted in Ronan Murray from Galway United.
"I think Ronan will do really well for us, I think he scored 17 goals overall for Galway last season, not bad for a team that were relegated," he says.
"And if Pat can replicate the form he had the first year we won the league, when he scored 20 goals, he will do well, and that's a lot of goals to add to any team.
"Jamie McGrath could have a really big year, we will have a lot of options going forward and I'm not too worried."
O'Donnell will miss the start of the new season on Friday with a calf injury.