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Sligo still the team to beat

THE last time they were champions of Ireland, it wasn't long before the crown, which was so hard-earned by Sligo Rovers, slipped.

In the season after their title-winning success in 1977, Sligo had a miserable time and finished a disappointing sixth. A lesson, if needed, for Ian Baraclough and his players as they prepare to defend their league title, the season kicking off tonight when Sligo face a very testing occasion in Derry.

As experienced managers like Dermot Keely and Pat Fenlon often commented, winning a league was one thing but retaining the title was another matter, and something that's been done just four times in the last 26 seasons, and each time it was a Dublin club who pulled it off.

In all probability, some side called Rovers will finish the 2013 season as champions of Ireland, as it's hard to see anyone else making a real challenge to the Bit O'Red or 'Shams', as Sligo folk insist on calling the team in green and white hoops.

Trevor Croly and Baraclough have assembled the kind of squads which other managers can only envy in terms of quality. The Hoops managed to get an impressive 4-1 win over Linfield on Monday when players like Ken Oman, Stephen Rice, Gary McCabe, Billy Dennehy and Mark Quigley were, for varying reasons, not even in the starting XI. Some bench to have.

Sligo didn't have the same quality on their bench against Glentoran on the same night but still racked up a 5-0 win, and that was without the still-absent Danny North.

The bookies have already decided that the title is effectively a two-horse race between the two Rovers, and it's hard to disagree.

Drogheda United were the surprise package of last season, winning a major trophy and securing European qualification, but manager Mick Cooke will have to work hard to combat that second-season syndrome.

St Pat's have, frustratingly, been knocking on the door for the last few seasons, with four top-three finishes in the last seven years, but have repeatedly shown an inability to get over the finishing line and win a trophy.



And finishing is the big worry for Pat's in 2013 – with the addition of Stephen Maher, Shane McFaul and Killian Brennan to a squad already containing Jake Carroll, Christopher Forrester, John Russell and Greg Bolger, Pat's will probably have the best midfield in the league this season – but it's hard to see where the goals will come from.

If anyone is going to make a breakthrough it could be Derry City or Cork City, though the harsh travel involved in LOI life can take its toll (Derry will travel a gruelling 1,500km for two games in the space of a week later this month).

The signings of Daryl Kavanagh (to Cork) and Paddy Kavanagh (to Derry) will give the two clubs an attacking outlet and if either club can find a player capable of scoring 15-20 goals a season they could do well.

With Bohemians and Shelbourne both rated as rank outsiders (66/1), it's hard to imagine that the two Dublin teams divvied up the league between them only recently.

But austerity and penny-counting is now paramount for both teams as finding long-term homes outside of the rundown Dalymount Park and Tolka Park is of more importance.

Dundalk have made some nice signings and Limerick are an interesting prospct – but it's likely to be a title for Sligo Rovers once again.