'Win in Coleraine was the catalyst'
IT might be very early in the year, but the Setanta Cup changed Dundalk's season and set them off on a run of form that has taken them to the top of the Premier Division table.
That's the view of Brian Gartland at least.
After the highs of 2013, there was a largely forgettable pre-season campaign this time around. Then came a shock 3-2 defeat at home to Coleraine in the opening round of the Setanta Cup, followed by a 4-1 hammering away to neighbours Drogheda United on the opening night of the league campaign.
At that point people were talking about Dundalk suffering from second season syndrome, and had they exited the Setanta Cup at that point, it would have left a fairly substantial hole in the budget off the field that would have had to be made up elsewhere.
Stephen Kenny's side looked to be heading for that exit in the second leg against Coleraine when, despite leading through a Pat Hoban strike, they were poised to go down to an away goals defeat. However, up popped captain Stephen O'Donnell in stoppage time with a strike that sent Dundalk through.
It started a run of form that led to the side going 11 matches unbeaten - starting with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Limerick FC. Despite that impressive streak coming to an end with a 1-0 defeat away to Bray Wanderers at the end of last month, they bounced back in style to hammer table-toppers Cork City 4-0 at Oriel Park on Friday night.
It meant that by the start of May they were top of the table, in the Setanta Cup Final and looking like the side everyone has to beat.
While the two additional matches were hardly ideal in preparing for a busy league schedule, a 2-1 win in Tallaght and a 1-0 win in Oriel Park over cup holders Shamrock Rovers in either leg of the semi-final were two of the highlights of the season to date.
You have to wonder what would have happened had O'Donnell not found the net on that night in Coleraine, though.
For Gartland, it was a real turning point.
'I was like every fan that night. Due to injury, I didn't travel and I was watching it at home and I was absolutely leaping around the room when Stephen got that late goal.
'That game was a real pick-up. I know we were only two competitive games into the season, but sometimes you need things like that to give you a bit of a buzz and a confidence boost. It seems so long ago now, but it showed character.'
Now a final awaits and Gartland admits he's confident that the side will get the job done on Saturday.
'I can't wait,' he said.
'That's why we all signed for this club, because we all felt we could get to finals and win trophies, but getting to a final is not enough. We have to go there and take the trophy back.'
The centre-back knows his side will get nothing easy against a Sligo Rovers outfit who are on a decent run of form themselves at present after a difficult start to the campaign.
Ian Baraclough's side are known for their cup pedigree. They've won three of the last four FAI Cups, not to mention the league title in 2012.
They're always tough to beat and their players certainly don't lack experience. They're also in a good vein of form themselves, as Gartland is all too well aware.
'They weren't playing bad at the start of the season, but results just weren't going their way. In the last few games, though, they've scored a lot of goals and they've found their feet.
'They're going to be tough opposition, and even when we played them earlier this year, despite the fact they had 10 men we just about got by them.'
Dundalk have been nothing if not resilient so far this season, though, and a trophy on Saturday would be just rewards for their impressive start.