Saturday 15 December 2018

Injury-hit Lilywhites panel will be tested by ludicrous schedule

Stephen O’Donnell signals to the Dundalk bench after suffering his injury. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Stephen O’Donnell signals to the Dundalk bench after suffering his injury. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Kevin Mulligan

The loss of all three points to Waterford in Friday night's SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match pales into insignificance when compared to the loss of captain Stephen O'Donnell for the remainder of the season.

The 32-year-old had, by his own admission, just started to find his best form after his pre-season was disrupted by injury, and the cruel blow of breaking his leg in Friday night's game could, given his age, be a career-ending injury.

Hopefully not, for the Galway midfielder - who joined Dundalk in December 2012 from Shamrock Rovers - is arguably the best midfielder ever to wear the black and white.

Some may dispute this assessment, but shrew observers of the game highlight the fact that he is much more than a very good player, he is a leader on the field, and as such has the rare quality to lead by example.

That was never more evident than in October 2014 when, in his first game back after six months out with a career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament injury, he gave a man of the match performance, including scoring the winning goal as Dundalk clinched their first League title against Cork City under Stephen Kenny's management.

In the two title-winning seasons since that memorial night and the glorious European adventures in 2015 and 2017, Stephen O'Donnell has been at the heart of all that was best about Dundalk's exciting football, with opposition managers at home and abroad identifying the former Arsenal apprentice as the vital hub round which the team's passing game flourished.

Unfortunately, in recent seasons injuries have taken their toll and he has had to play a restrictive role, allowing the debate to flourish between the qualities that he brings to the team when compared to those of Chris Shields.

That debate surfaced recently when Dundalk twice surrendered the lead and two points to Derry City, but supporters who witnessed the demolition of St Patrick's Athletic at Oriel Park last Monday night in their best performance of the season fully appreciate the qualities that O'Donnell brings to the team.

Again in Waterford on Friday night he was playing a vital role in a game that was scoreless when he sustained his horrific injury. Clearly the impact of that injury distracted Stephen's teammates, for some were visibly upset and thus lost their concentration for the two very soft goals they conceded.

Getting one back so quickly through a Ronan Murray free helped, and in the second half when they regained their composure they should have at least got the point which they deserved.

The defeat, combined with the loss of their captain for the remainder of the season, will be a big test of character for Stephen Kenny and his players, for in addition to O'Donnell they have lost Sean Gannon for an extended period and now possibly Daniel Cleary who had to be withdrawn at half-time in Waterford.

O'Donnell's absence will be particularly felt in the European matches in July where his leadership and ability to control the tempo of the game is vital.

The immediate problem, however, is coping with the totally ludicrous schedule of matches in the coming weeks, and the question must be asked if the FAI ever heard of duty of care to the players, for while the full-time squads like Dundalk, Cork and Rovers are better able to cope, the remainder of the clubs with part-time players and limited squads are being asked to undertake almost an inhumane schedule.

O'Donnell's injury cannot be directly attributed to the schedule, but players asked to extend themselves beyond what is reasonable are more vulnerable to sustain injuries.

That schedule, not matched in any other league, now demands Dundalk play five games in a 14-day period, starting with St Patrick's at home on April 30th and ending with a very difficult away game in Derry on May 14th.

Before that Derry game they play Bohemians tonight (Tuesday) in the EA Sports League Cup quarter-final at Oriel Park and Sligo Rovers in the League at Oriel Park on Friday.

These upcoming fixtures and the growing injury list will certainly test the limits of the squad, and while it would be a temptation to sacrifice the League Cup to maintain their challenge for the league by playing a youth team, it is unlikely that Stephen Kenny will be thinking that way, for he likes to win every game.

The injuries and the need to rest key players should be an opportunity for the fringe players to step up to the mark, for in the face of adversity there are those who can emerge. That opportunity now awaits Marco Tagbajumi, Krisztjan Adorjan, Karolis Chevedukas (fitness permitting), Sam Byrne, Jack O'Keeffe, Dylan Connolly and George Poynton.

All have been on the fringes since the start of the season, and a number failed to impress when they did get a chance. Now is their time, their chance to deliver and there should be a renewed determination within the group to produce their best for their club and captain.

Like with the illness that has struck Sir Alex Ferguson, many have been tempted to write his obituary, hopefully a lot too prematurely.

Likewise with Stephen O'Donnell, we must not be tempted to write off his career, for he has shown throughout his career that he has the quality and the character to come back.

The Argus