Wednesday 26 April 2017

Stephen O'Donnell sums up what it takes to be a League of Ireland champion

Stephen O'Donnell, Dundalk, celebrates at the end of the game
Stephen O'Donnell, Dundalk, celebrates at the end of the game
UCC’s players celebrate after beating UCD 2-1 in the Collingwood Cup final in Maynooth. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's the perfect fixture to kick off the new campaign.

Dundalk's bid to secure a fourth league title in a row starts with the visit of the only other club to have achieved that feat.

The mission at Shamrock Rovers right now is about much more than stopping Dundalk and their stunning move to sign Ronan Finn from the league champions in December - a factor that adds another element to the highlight of the opening night - was a statement of intent.

Rookie boss Stephen Bradley knows there is pressure to compete for the title this term, even though he has said that catching up with Stephen Kenny's side might take more than a season. He will have an idea where his much-changed group will stand after tonight.

And so too will Dundalk, whose attempt to add to their legacy has been complicated by a winter of high-profile departures and seven new arrivals. That's a massive overhaul by the standards of the Kenny era.

There's only so much spin that can be put on the changes. "I suppose in an ideal world you would have kept the boys that have left," said captain Stephen O'Donnell with a smile.

Sparky

Certainly, the natives would love to have Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Finn walking out in white for what should be a sparky affair.

But they were always going to lose some stars after the year of their dreams and, in the end, they did quite well to hold onto other long-standing squad members that wondered if it was time to seek a new challenge.

O'Donnell was in that bracket, especially as he lives in rental accommodation in the town, but the skipper eventually committed to another two years in Louth.

"I'm 31 now, I'm not from Dundalk and you need to look at the next phase of your life and career," added the Galwegian. "You saw what happened with Ronan (Finn). I'm delighted to have stayed but for the level we've got to and want to maintain, it's 24/7. It's not like 10 years ago where you can do a bit of football and something else.

"The level we are at is full-time and I think you have to dedicate your whole life to it if you want to succeed. it didn't happen by accident - us getting into Europe. It's a big commitment in that sense.

Stephen O'Donnell. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Stephen O'Donnell. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

"I'm happy I've done that again but it wasn't all black and white and not all financial. There was a lot of things to weigh up but I made my decision and I'm delighted.

"There was a case to be made for freshening things up as well," he continued. "You hear Pep Guardiola saying that he stays at the same club for only three or four years. Whether that's the same case for players now, I don't know.

"When you do get the turnover we've had, it does invigorate everything again. Different players, different dynamics. It keeps the players that are here on their toes.

"I think we're going to play differently because when players leave I think you're never going to play the same sort of style. It will be intriguing."

The installation of a fresh surface should help that with the squad getting to train on the new artificial pitch last night, a considerable improvement on the bumpy and ugly-looking effort that was disliked by the home and away dressing rooms.

O'Donnell is convinced that it will benefit the style of Kenny's side, and is firmly of the opinion that the enforced switch to Tallaght for their later stage European games was a major factor in their success.

"It looks green which is a start," he laughed. "Anything is going to be an upgrade on what it was last year and I think you're going to see far better games of football at Oriel. It was hard to break teams down sometimes and get into a rhythm at home when the ball is hopping the height of a house.

"I thought we had far more control of games away from home and that was down to the surface whereas it was such a lottery at home, with the ball bouncing and trying to get it under control and get into a pattern of play.

"The games in Tallaght in Europe, you could see it. I couldn't envisage us beating BATE 3-0 at Oriel on that surface. So I think it will make a big difference and it will be very beneficial to everyone."

Rovers have a similar surface at their evolving training base and their knowledge of Dundalk goes beyond Finn with Darren Meenan and Michael O'Connor also returning to their old stomping ground.

Bradley and McPhail watched Dundalk lose to Cork in the President's Cup last Friday - a game that some members of the Dundalk panel needed.

They will have to operate at a much higher level to start their title defence on a winning note. Expect sparks to fly.

Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers,

Live, eir Sport 1, 7.45

#LOIWeekly has arrived!

Download episode one now on ITunes by clicking here

Or you can tune in on SoundCloud below:

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport