For the first time in 45 years, Dundalk will open their league campaign with a trip to The Showgrounds to face Sligo Rovers when the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division gets underway next month.
Fixtures for the 2021 campaign were released last Monday evening with Filippo Giovagnoli’s side pencilled in to face a side who beat them home and away last season in the first match on Saturday March 20th.
While Dundalk and the Bit O Red have met four times on the opening day more recently, you have to go back to October 1976 to find the last time it occurred in Sligo.
The most recent opening day meeting between the pair was in 2019 in what was Vinny Perth’s first league match in charge. On that occasion Sean Murray marked his debut with a 49th minute goal that cancelled out Jack Keaney’s opener two minutes before the break as the sides settled for a 1-1 draw. That game was perhaps best remembered, however, for leg breaks sustained by Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney.
Prior to that Dundalk had last met Sligo on the opening day under Trevor Anderson on March 18th 2004 when Stephen Geoghegan marked his debut with the only goal as the Lilywhites won 1-0 at Oriel Park.
Sligo had the better of things on the opening day of the 1998/99 campaign when two goals inside four minutes from Marcus Hallows and Conor O’Grady earned them a 2-0 victory over Jim McLaughlin’s side at Oriel Park. Prior to that Dundalk had won 2-0, also at Oriel Park, on the opening day of the 1986/87 campaign courtesy of a Martin Murray penalty and a Dessie Gorman strike.
Liam Buckley’s side will hope the visit of Dundalk to The Showgrounds on the opening day is an omen as they went on to win what was just their second league title and first in 40 years when the Lilywhites last visited Sligo on the opening night in 1976/77.
On that occasion, the home side ran out 4-2 winners with the big news beforehand from the perspective of Jim McLaughlin’s side being that regular goalkeeper Richie Blackmore missed out having been injured in the 6-0 European Cup defeat away to PSV Eindhoven a few days earlier with Eddie Mahon taking his place between the sticks.
Despite that, Mick Lawlor gave Dundalk the lead in the game on 5 minutes but Paul ‘Ski’ McGee equalised with the aid of a deflection 20 minutes later before turning provider for Mike Betts on 43 minutes who left it 2-1 at the break.
Sligo added a third on the hour mark through a header from Gary Hulmes but Jimmy Dainty pulled a goal back two minutes later to leave it 3-2. Betts, who had just signed from Rochdale, secured the points for Sligo 13 minutes from time however with a fourth.
The Dundalk side that day was: Mahon, McManus, Brian McConville, McLaughlin, O’Brien (Sheehy 80), Dainty (Flanagan 80), McDowell, Cavanagh, Tommy McConville, Lawlor, Devlin.
The opening home game of the season will come on Friday March 26th when Finn Harps visit Oriel Park and that will be followed by a tricky run which includes the first league meeting against last year’s league winners Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium on April 2nd, followed by back to back home matches against Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic on April 9th and 16th respectively.
That game with Pat’s is the start of a run of three games in a week with a trip to face Derry City pencilled in for Monday April 19th followed by the first Louth derby of the season at Oriel Park on Friday April 23rd when newly promoted Drogheda Utd make the short trip up the M1.
There will be a trip to face Waterford at the RSC a week later before another journey to face newly promoted Longford Town on May 3rd in a match that will complete the first series of games.
Other key dates further along the calendar include the first visit of Shamrock Rovers to Oriel Park on May 21st, a trip to United Park on June 21st and a home fixture against Derry City pencilled in to conclude the season on November 19th when Dundalk will hopefully be lifting some silverware.
Before the league commences, Dundalk will travel to Tallaght Stadium on Friday March 12th to take on Shamrock Rovers in the President’s Cup final while other pre-season fixtures are expected to be finalised shortly after it was confirmed clubs could play friendly matches from February 21st onwards.