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Saturday 17 November 2018

Bootroom expertise is the secret behind Dundalk's success

Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup, Sunday November 4, Aviva Stadium

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny

Kevin Mulligan

Stephen Kenny believes that retention of his backroom team at Oriel Park is equally important as retaining his current squad of players, for they played a vital, and largely unheralded part in regaining the SSE Airtricity League this season.

The manager, in a wide ranging pre-Cup final interview, spoke of his admiration and appreciation for his backroom team, of his growing affinity with the town and supporters, and of his views on Irish football. Predictably he anticipated a very tough match with Cork City in Sunday's final and said 'there have only been four goals in the last three Cup finals we have played with Cork, and three of those goals were scored in extra time, with penalties deciding the outcome in last year's final.' For that reason many anticipate that Sunday's final could be another stalemate.

'It may be that way again, because while we have won three of the four League games between us this season, the first goal, as always in matches between us, will be important.' He is however determined to be as creative as possible, is conscious of the importance of the occasion, and the desire to entertain, for he remarked: 'Cork have a very good squad of players, and they will be hurting after losing the League, so we are going to have to be at our best, and hopefully provide a final worthy of the occasion.'

Much of that attention in the final will be on record goal scorer, Patrick Hoban, and his manager says there is no better player in the country to bag a crucial goal on such an occasion. 'Look at all the vital goals he scored for us this season, against Rovers in Tallaght when we were a goal down and struggling, and the last minute goal against Pats to clinch the League. Invariably he has scored the first goal or the all-important goal for us in many games.'

Hoban will be appearing in his first Cup final with Dundalk on Sunday, having spent the past three seasons in English football, and his return to Oriel Park last November caused a few raised eyebrows, but his manager never doubted his character.

'He is a very competitive and some would say a volatile character whose presence might upset some dressingrooms, but he is a winner, and I had no hesitation about re-signing him for I knew his qualities from his first stint with Dundalk in 2014 when he had a great run at the end of that season to help us win the League' said his manager. When he started pre-season with Dundalk after returning from England and after months of inactivity the player could hardly run and Stephen Kenny gives great credit to one of his backroom team, physiotherapist, Davy Miller for his work not just with Patrick Hoban, but with the other players.

'Danny is a former tri-athlete himself, is excellent at his job and has done great work with the players' revealed Kenny. 'With Patrick Hoban we had to manage his playing time in the early stages of the season and some supporters were shouting at us for taking him off after 60 minutes but that patience has paid off handsomely for us in the latter stages of the season.' Another player who has returned to the club mid-season, Patrick McEleney, has also benefited from the fitness work of the backroom team at Oriel Park and is now reaching the form that could illuminate the Cup final. 'Patrick is the most gifted player of his generation,' said his manager who gave him his League debut at 17 in his native Derry.

'He sees things on the field before others, has two excellent feet, can dribble, pick out players with wonderful incisive passing and scores some outstanding goals.' His is, according to his manager, a very modest, and genuine person who like Patrick Hoban has thrived in the right environment encouraged in Dundalk.

'Some people doubted our decision to re-sign Patrick, but I knew his qualities and I had no doubt that he would regain his best form once he reached full fitness.' The experience of Hoban and McEleney in English football, and that of others from Dundalk who have gone across the water such as Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and David McMillan won't deter others from leaving for according to their former manager players who left can earn five times with cross-channel clubs.

 For that reason he is delighted to have secured the services of his outstanding winger, Michael Duffy for another two seasons and revealed: 'Michael is very happy with Dundalk and has had an outstanding season. He is extremely fit and in all out fitness tests he always comes out on top in terms of speed and stamina, and he has such skill that it is sometimes overlooked that the outstanding volley he scored in the Europa League tie with Levadia Tallinn was with his weaker left foot.'

The Derry born winger is yet another of the players who has shown rapid improvement under Stephen Kenny's management, but another player, Chris Shields who was with the club when he arrived in 2012 has displayed the greatest progress of all. 'Chris is another player, along with John Mountney who have benefited greatly from the work of Danny Miller and the backroom staff for they were both suffering from osteitis pubis injuries which affected their lower abdominal and pelvic areas.

These injuries were caused by wear and tear and Danny worked intensively with the players in the pre-season to get them right,' revealed their manager. The result was that while Chris Shields did well in previous seasons, mostly notably, 2014, he is about to finish his best season and is a worthy candidate for 'Personality of the Year'. 'He has matured greatly, on and off the field, for he is much calmer, and has developed his passing skills not just with hard work and practice, but because if he gives the ball away now, which every player does, he doesn't panic and make a silly mistake in trying to redeem the situation.'

His value to the team is greatly appreciated, not just by supporters who would make him man of the match in every game, but by his manager and teammates, for when Dundalk play five attacking players Shields plays a very vital and unsung role in tidying up situations. In the early stages of the season Shields was competing with captain, Stephen O'Donnell for the midfield holding roll, but a broken leg sustain in Waterford on May 4th deprived the team of their inspirational leader.

'I'm not sure yet whether Stephen can play any part in the final,' said his manager who also revealed that although the player's contract is finished at the end of the season the club would like the 32-year-old Galway man to stay. Another player who could be doubtful for the final is midfielder, Robbie Benson but the manager refuted reports that the player is seeking to return to part-time football next season. 'Robbie is one of a number of players who haven't re-signed yet, but I am not aware that he wants a change in his status. His contribution to the team is not always appreciated until he is missing, for we have seen that in our results and performances on many occasions.' The manager has not ruled out adding a few new players to his panel in the close season and does not subscribe to the view that quality players who would enhance the Dundalk panel are not available in Ireland.

'There are some very good players with other League of Ireland clubs, but it is much more difficult nowadays dealing with players for most have agents, and we will not be doing unrealistic deals for players.' He hasn't ruled out looking abroad for players and has not been deterred by his experience with the three foreign players brought into the club at the start of the season.  'Karolis Chvedukas was very unfortunate because of an ankle injury and now that he has had an operation on the ankle and is on the second year of his contract next season we hope to see the best of him for he is an international player and one of a very few attacking midfield players in the League.'

Kristian Adorjan, the Hungarian born midfielder, was signed on loan from Italian club, Novara as late cover for Patrick McEleney when he left for Oldham, and was a very good influence in the team on and off the field.  'He lived in Carlingford with his wife and loved it round here, was popular with everyone, and while it took him time to adjust to the physical aspect of the game in Ireland, and the heavy pitches at the start of the season, he is a very technically gifted player who made a valuable contribution not just with a priceless goal against Cork, but in the manner in which he was able to tie down play in midfield late in matches.'

Marco Tagbajuimi was unfortunate, according to his manager, who revealed that he was signed because of uncertainty about Patrick Hoban's fitness and David McMillan's late decision to join St. Johnstone. 'I believe that we didn't see the best of Marco because he never got a good run in the team as Patrick Hoban was playing so well, and other League of Ireland clubs wanted to sign him before he left Ireland.'

The uncertainty at the end of last season over the late decisions by McEleney and McMillan to move abroad caused disruption in the pre-season, and the early games in the League, as did the takeover of the club by American owners Peak6. 'Hopefully we will have a smoother pre-season for the 2019 campaign,' said the manager who revealed that he has developed a good working relationship with the new owners, and values the experience that CEO, Malachy Brannigan has brought to the club, especially in dealing with player contracts.

'I know it is difficult for the chairman, Michael Treacy in living so far away in America and in trying to stay in touch with all that is going on, but he is passionate about the club, and has been very supportive to me,' said Kenny.   It is a well known fact that the manager would like to see an improvement in facilities at Oriel Park for staff, players and spectators, but admits that he is not privy to the owners plans. He is however grateful for the support that he received when he was enticed in 2014 to join the club by the previous owners, Paul Brown and Andy Connolly.

'They saved the club when it was on its knees, no one should forget that, and they deserve their place in the history of the club. From the start they let me get on with the job and never interfered and a lot of the success we have had in recent seasons can be attributed to them, for they never were just owners, they were supporters of the club, football men, and are still at every game.' That support is not only available from the club, but at all levels in the town, and manifested recently in an incident revealed by the manager.

'I was stopped on the street by a lady who admitted that she didn't go to Oriel Park or knew much about football but said that the club had done more for the town than a factory full of jobs.' The comment resonated with Stephen Kenny and reinforced his views that the level of support for the club, from all sections of the community, could only be found in a provincial town such as Dundalk.

'It wouldn't happen in a major city because all socio-economic groups live side by side in provincial towns share many of the same interests and ambitions for their town.' The result is that all age groups, and people from all backgrounds, are supporters of the club, for people in their 70s who are invigorated by the team's recent success to the very young. 'Perhaps we lost a generation when the club went though a very lean time and were playing in Division 1 which, for some was like living in purgatory for seven years, but now many say to me that they are back in heaven.'

He never anticipated the success he met in Dundalk when he joined, but revealed before joining the club he told the then owners Paul Brown and Andy Connolly that he would only join on the basis of forming a partnership with the club and the town.  That has been achieved over the years, and with two more years left on his contract, the manager who previously was at the helm with Longford Town, Bohemians, Derry City (twice) Dunfermline and Shamrock Rovers, involving over 900 games, and with a 53% win rate, has moved to live in town with his family this year, is making no commitment beyond that.

His comments in the wake of the Republic of Ireland's insipid displays in recently internationals have again ignited the prospect that he will one day become Irish manager. That prospect was not the motivation behind his comment that it was important to dispel the current train of thought that it's in the DNA of Irish players to play a more direct style and that being Irish you were inherently born with a footballing deficit.

'I just felt that I had to make the comment, for I hate when I hear on radio shows and read that a team is not playing in the right area of the pitch.  Does that mean that the ball is not being booted up field to a centre forward?'  'Players cannot play out from the back or through midfield if the team is not set up to play that way and if players are not comfortable in the roles they are asked to play.' Cork, who have had their critics for the manner in which they play, with one commentator referring to their 'agricultural style of football' after the recent game with Dundalk in Cork.   They will not be deflected from their objective of retaining the Cup by such comments, and Stephen Kenny and his players know that while they may be favourites on Sunday, it is going to be an epic struggle, with goals in scarce supply as is always the case when these two teams meet. 

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