Kickoff in Tallaght Stadium on Friday night is at 7.45 pm. The game will be shown live on RTE2, with coverage starting there at 7.35. Tickets remain on sale.

Last week’s President’s Cup game, saw you select a starting eleven that was different from what many expected. You were very happy with how they played first half and made five half time changes, were you surprised how well that starting eleven seemed to gel in that first half?

“Not really, we work really hard on how we play, everyone understands their responsibilities in every position if they’re asked to play. So, we shouldn’t be surprised in how the team played from the start. When I look at the group, I genuinely feel we could start with any eleven and we’d be happy that they’d know their roles and responsibilities and they’d be ready to play, otherwise they wouldn’t be part of the group.”

Fans got a good 90-minute look at new signings Darragh Burns and Josh Honohan, with Josh scoring. Also impressive was Conan Noonan. Conan has been around the first team for a few years now and his health scare in 2022 set him back, is he showing he is now ready to play at this level?

“Yes, I think he showed that at the back end of last season. He played in and out last season, but I think he showed he was ready. We’ve always liked Conan and what he brings to the group, it’s just getting him right and ready. He’s still only young and still learning, but he epitomises what we want from young players, in terms of attitude and application to the game. He and Darragh Nugent showed in the President’s Cup Final that they’re ready to play, which is all you can ask for as a manager. It’s my job to put them in at the right time, give them their head, and let them go at the right time, so both are ready to go.”

You’ve had a busy media week. You did the SRFCTV interview released on our socials on Monday, then on Tuesday, there was a media day where you popped up seemingly everywhere. Should we change the song to “There’s More than One Stephen Bradley” and do media days wear you out or are they another part of the process now every season?

“They don’t wear me out, I think at the start they did, as it was new to me, and it takes a lot of your energy and obviously takes up a lot of your time. But as time goes on and you get more experience in the job, you understand it’s a really important part of what we do. We want more media exposure for the league, for this club and I think the media in general in this country do a really good job in promoting our league. If we can help them by being open with them, and having interviews whenever possible, that’s only a good thing. So as time goes on, you understand and learn how to manage your time better and that it’s all part of what I do, so now I really enjoy it.”

You mentioned in your interview with Graham that Pico would get a rest for the opening weeks of the season after his AFCON exertions. Rovers’ fans or other observers may think those games would’ve put him ahead of the squad in terms of fitness and game sharpness so what’s the thinking or science around Pico’s early season absence?

“I totally understand people thinking that Pico would be ahead of the other lads having played competitive games. But that’s nearly an artificial high that you get, very quickly you’ll see a mental and physical drop-off. It might not happen till May or June, but you’ll get it. We saw that before with Pico, so we have to learn from that and understand that while we all want Pico playing right now, we’ll take the hit short-term for what we get long-term. Giving him time away now, and then getting him back up to speed in a couple of weeks’ time will be worth it in the long run. He probably only had seven or eight days off since the end of last season, being away on camp with Cape Verde and coming back to training with Eoin Donnelly and Glenn Cronin to get ready for AFCON. He’s had little time off and to ask someone to go through a calendar year playing at the level we ask of him, would be silly and naïve. We had similar before with Pico, we saw the dip and he felt the dip, so we have to respect that and understand we have to adjust. But I also understand people thinking Pico was ready to go now.”

To the season opener against Dundalk, a home game to kick off the season with the new North Stand open, a strong squad, you all must be itching to get out and defend that title again.

“Yes, we are. I see a real eagerness in the group this year. I think this time last year I sensed a pressure; I could feel it within the group, I could see tell-tale signs it was there. I don’t get that feeling at all this year which is really nice to see. We’re so eager to be really successful this year and that’s the aim. We’re going to fight every day to make that happen. But I get a nice feeling off the group, regardless of the result against Dundalk, that they’re mentally in a better place than this time last year, they’re a lot freer in their head which is good.”

Finally, other than Pico after AFCON, is anyone else unavailable for the Dundalk game?

“Jack Byrne is out with a calf injury, but the scan is good so we’re hoping he’ll be ok next week. It’s quite normal after a long lay-off that a player can get little knocks elsewhere. We’ll have a late check on Graham Burke. He pulled out of the warmup last week. If this was late in the season or a cup final, both would play. Where we are in the season, there’s no point taking a risk. Aaron McEneff won’t be involved tomorrow, Johnny Kenny is back on Monday. His rehab has gone really well, again if it was late on, we’d push him, but for now, we’ll take precautions and with Richie Towell, we’ll see how he is training today. So, we have a few out with knocks but nothing major. We’re comfortable with our starting eleven in any game and I’m sure we’ll be fine.”