The SSE Airtricity League returns tonight following the dramatic finale of last year’s season which saw Dundalk snatch the title from Cork City by defeating the Rebel Army in the final game of the season. Champions Dundalk will begin their defense against Longford Town at Oriel Park but the stand out tie of the opening round sees a Dublin derby as Shamrock Rovers play host to St. Pat’s at the Tallaght Stadium.
After a successful campaign last year that included a third place finish and a victorious run in the FAI Cup that saw them crowned champions in November, St. Pat’s have quietly positioned themselves for a run at the double this season. The win in the FAI Cup meant more to St. Pat’s than to most clubs. Since 1961, the team hailing from Inchicore, Dublin had been to seven different cup finals, losing each one. With the 53 year jinx now lifted, St. Pat’s find themselves as the team to beat this season. Following last week’s slender defeat to League Champions Dundalk in the President’s Cup, an annual start-of-season-game between the winners of the League and the Cup, Liam Buckley’s men will be focused on not allowing another piece of silverware to slip through their hands this year.
Following Buckley’s return to the club in 2012 where he had enjoyed both a successful playing and managerial career, St. Pat’s have solidified themselves as one of the best teams in the country. His first season back in the dugout at Richmond Park saw The Saints playing some of the best football since the clubs glory days back in the nineties and he led Pats to third in the table, six points shy of the League winners Sligo Rovers while also finishing runners-up to Derry City in the 2012 FAI Cup. The following season saw Buckley lead his men to the clubs first League title in 13 years, ensuring his place amongst the legends of the Dublin club such as Brian Kerr and Paul McGrath. This season Buckley has the chance to clinch the League and Cup double for the first time in the clubs history.
Speaking at the launch of the SSE Airtricity League last Friday in the Aviva Stadium, Buckley was optimistic about his team’s chances this year. “I think if you look at the group of players that we’ve had over the past three years we’ve finished third, first and third and been to two cup finals. I’d like to continue that success bearing in mind we have been competitive in both the League and the Cup and I don’t see that changing again this year. You need a bit of luck with your injuries and suspensions but in general I’m delighted with where we are at. There will be points dropped but I think we will be there or there about.”
While other teams have signed high profile players such as Cork City’s acquisition of Liam Miller, formerly of Manchester United, or Drogheda United’s signing of ex-Sunderland midfielder Sean Thornton, St. Pat’s have flown under the radar. While no new big-name signings have been brought in, it could be argued St. Pat’s have done the best bit of business in the off-season by re-signing 2014 top goal-scorer Christy Fagan. The former Manchester United trainee has been at Richmond Park since 2012, and earned recognition for his performances last season by being named PFAI Player of the Year by his fellow players. The striker netted 20 league goals for the club and a similar return this year will be crucial in Pat’s fight for the title.
While the services of Christy Fagan may have been retained, there is a notable departure from the Pat’s team in the shape of former Irish international Keith Fahey. Fahey has linked up with Pat Fenlon at Shamrock Rovers, which is sure to add an extra bit of incentive to tonight’s match. Fahey’s return in 2013 to Irish football from Birmingham City has been a success and his time with St. Pat’s coincided with victories in the President’s Cup, Leinster Senior Cup and, of course, last year’s FAI Cup, where the 16 capped Fahey played a crucial role in the final. But Buckley doesn’t harbour any resentment to his former player. “I wish him well, he did great for us last year in the cup final to win it, but we move on.” Although, he is undoubtedly aware that Rovers are a stronger proposition with Fahey now amongst their ranks. “He’s a quality player and I’ve no doubt he’ll strengthen them up from a playing perspective.”
While the departure of Fahey will be keenly felt by Pat’s fans, his absence from the starting XI offers chances to impress from a crop of young players making their way through the ranks at St. Pat’s. Jamie McGrath, fresh off scoring two goals for Ireland’s Under 19’s a fortnight ago against Azerbaijan, could offer a straight replacement for Fahey. McGrath made his debut for St. Pat’s in October 2014, playing the majority of the game in a 2-0 loss to Athlone Town and will be looking for more first-team opportunities over the coming months. Other youngsters looking to impress this season include Jack Bayly and Sam Verdon with Buckley keen to see if they can make the step up. “He [McGrath] is a very talented footballer. Himself, Jack Bayly and Sam Verdon have been put on professional contracts this year. They’re training with us now so I’m expecting them to step up to some degree this year and we will see how it goes but they are all very talented footballers.”
While the long term future appears promising with the healthy flow of young players into the first team, the present offers Pat’s fans just as much joy. After three seasons all ending in silverware, come November Liam Buckley and St. Patrick’s Athletic may just be celebrating the clubs first ever double, although Buckley is keen to play down any dreams his team may have before the season kicks off. “We have no divine right to think we are going to win anything but as long as we work hard and perform well we have a chance.”