|League of Ireland Premier Division|
|Venue: Regional Sports Centre Date: Friday, 16 February Kick-off: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Foyle 93.1 FM and the BBC Sport website|
With plenty of comings and goings in the transfer market, an imminent return to their Brandywell home and a new league structure in place, it’s anything but ‘as you were’ for Derry City as they approach a new season.
The introduction of a 10-team Premier Division means an increase in the number of matches each team will play – up to 36 – so the opening group of fixtures has been brought forward by a week for the second year running.
For Derry City, and the newly refurbished Brandywell Stadium in particular, it has come around a little too early.
While the Candystripes kick off their campaign this Friday night with a long trek to face newly promoted Waterford United – where former Linfield midfielder Pat Fenlon now acts as Director of Football – it is their return to the Lone Moor Road that is most keenly anticipated.
However, a delay means their scheduled first home fixture against Sligo Rovers on February 23 has been reversed so Kenny Shiels’ men will be on the road for their opening three games.
Indeed, should the Brandywell not be ready to host Dundalk on 2 March, it would leave the Candystripes in the unusual situation of playing their first five league games away. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.
Will the fans flock back to the Brandywell?
After a turbulent season at their temporary home in Buncrana, County Donegal, fans are understandably craving a return to home comforts.
Whether they come out in big numbers or not remains to be seen.
Despite two successful campaigns under the highly experienced Shiels – which have both yielded European qualification and the €200,000 prize fund – attendances have been an ongoing concern for the club’s board.
Those who do remain loyal to the cause should be pleased with the new facilities.
While there will no longer be the smell of freshly cut grass emanating from the ground – and the famous slope is gone – the project includes a synthetic turf pitch, a new 955 seater stand incorporating new changing rooms along with standing accommodation for 270 spectators that will bring the capacity of the ground to approximately 3,700.
In addition to the Mark Farren Stand, the refurbishment of the Southend Park stand and additional car parking as well as the replacement of the boundary walls to the wider Brandywell site has made it much more appealing on the eye.
The club will welcome the fresh start after the trauma of last season and the sudden death of their skipper Ryan McBride at the age of 27 which stunned the local community and the league as a whole.
Departures and arrivals
Of course, transfer activity has been notable too during the close season with no shortage of changes among the playing personnel.
It must be a source of frustration to the City boss that his attempts to build a team around promising local talent that he has nurtured through so well have again been scuppered.
The close season has seen key departures to Cork City and Dundalk who – with a larger investment pool – continue to cherry pick Derry’s best players.
The influential Barry McNamee and Aaron Barry have both moved to Leeside while Dean Jarvis has linked up with Stephen Kenny at Oriel Park – the county Louth club are now under new owners having been taken over by US investment firm Peak6.
In total, there have been nine new arrivals including the Hale brothers, Ronan and Rory, from Galway United and Birmingham City (loan) respectively while Nicky Low has returned on a loan deal from Dundee.
John Cofie, signed as a teenager for Manchester United for £1 million, finds himself on Foyleside in the latest attempt to rejuvenate his career.
Gavin Peers comes in from St. Patrick’s Athletic bringing much needed experience at centre-half while midfielder David Hopkirk was most recently with Dunfermline in Scotland.
Former Glenavon and Sligo Rovers midfielder Chris Turner joined last week.
Just how well – and how quickly – all these new signings gel is the key to their fortunes.
Cork and Dundalk look ‘untouchable’
The FAI have grappled in recent years with finding the best structure and who actually runs the league in future is also up for debate with clubs wanting a greater say.
The new 10-team format will mean each team plays each other four times. It’s been tried before and shelved.
The top two look uncatchable with league and cup double winners Cork City and Dundalk again expected to be the main protagonists to battle it out for honours for the fifth season in a row.
Interestingly, the league champions came from 2-0 down to beat Dundalk 4-2 at Oriel Park in last Sunday’s President’s Cup.
For Derry, it’s been 21 years since Felix Healy guided his hometown club to their last title and while the wait to be crowned champions is likely to extend for another year at least, there are grounds for optimism for another steady campaign – providing they get back home soon.