DUNDALK have been the dominant force in the League of Ireland over the past several years, winning five of the last six league titles.
The Lilywhites are proven winners and always find a way of winning when tested.
In recent years, Cork City were the club to provide that challenge to Dundalk, but last season, Shamrock Rovers emerged as the Louth’s side biggest threat and I believe Stephen Bradley’s men will go one step better this season and win the title.
For several years, Rovers would have been many people’s favourites to win the league, only for their title challenge to fall flat before it had even begun. Rovers always had the talent but sometimes lacked the heart.
Having been part of the Rovers dressing room last season, I believe that the players they have in their squad have the talent and motivation to win a title.
I think previous Rovers teams failed because they believed all of the hype about them in the press and thought they could just turn up to games and teams would roll over.
This current group of Rovers players are extremely focussed and won’t let egos interfere with them winning the title.
There were two pivotal moments last season that will make the Rovers players believe they can win the league — Rovers ending Bohemians’ hoodoo by beating the Gypsies 1-0 in their last league meeting in Tallaght Stadium, and defeating Dundalk in the FAI Cup final.
Rovers had a terrible record against Bohemians, losing three out of their four league meetings last season. I could tell leading up to that victory over Bohs at Tallaght, how much it played on the minds of the Rovers’ players, those previous defeats to the Gypsies.
The Rovers players believed they would never beat Bohs. That victory made the players believe that they could dominate the Dublin derby in the future, the way Bohemians had in the past.
Rovers were never going to win a title as long as they kept dropping so many points to Bohs, but I expect them to pick up a lot more than three points against Keith Long’s side this season.
The FAI Cup victory over Dundalk feels like it could be déjà vu.
City beat Dundalk in the final in 2016 and went on to win the double the following season.
By beating Dundalk in that final, it gave City the belief that they were better than the Lilywhites and the confidence that they could become league champions the next season.
I think the Rovers players will feel the same now.
They will believe that they are a better side than Dundalk. Leading up to the final, the belief the players had that they were going to win was so strong.
Not once did I think any player doubted that Rovers weren’t going to win the cup, and I think they deserved to win it.
They will have the same belief heading into this season, only stronger because of that cup final victory over the Lilywhites.
Writing off Dundalk completely would be foolish of me.
Vinny Perth’s men have shown time and time again that they should never be doubted.
I was one of those people who believed the league was over last season when the Hoops went 10 points clear at the top, only for Dundalk to end up winning the title by an impressive 11 points.
Dundalk are like a machine that just keep winning and never know when they are beaten.
What is impressive about Dundalk and has made them the most successful team in Ireland in recent years, is that they don’t just have one way of winning matches.
They can win games by keeping possession and wearing teams down but they also can grind games out when they haven’t played well.
Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath will be big losses for the champions. Benson missed a lot of game time through injury last season but when he was fit, he made a difference to Dundalk and is one of the best midfielders in the league.
McGrath was an unappreciated player and supporters of the league didn’t realise just how good he was.
He was improving all the time as a player and Dundalk will be sorry to see both players vacate Oriel Park.
However, Dundalk have dealt with the departures of players such as Richie Towel and Daryl Horgan in the past, so I’m sure they will be able to cope again.
I’m a bit surprised by the Lilywhites’ recruitment — opting to sign players from outside of the league.
It can be risky signing players who haven’t played in the league before and more often than not, players end up failing and teams revert back to their tried and trusted players who know exactly what it takes to be successful in the league.
Some players come over to Ireland and believe it’s going to be easy because they think the standard of the league is poor, and then get a rude awakening in their first few games.
Dundalk do want to progress in Europe and maybe they believe the quality of players in the league is not good enough to help them do so.
I don’t see any other team getting close to Rovers and Dundalk with the strength of both team’s squads.
It will be close but I do expect the Hoops to come out on top.