Wednesday 12 December 2018

Ominous for rivals that leaders are still a work in progress

Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers is challenged by former teammate Chris Shields
Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers is challenged by former teammate Chris Shields

Kevin Mulligan

Played 9, won, 6, drew 3, lost 0, scored 17, conceded 1.

Those blunt figures mark the completion of Dundalk's first series of games in this season's SSE Airtricity Premier League.

Of course they are a little distorted in that Dundalk have yet to play Derry City, while Friday night's win over Shamrock Rovers was the first in the second series of fixtures.

Nonetheless the fact is that Dundalk have now completed a quarter (9) of their 36 League fixtures and the opportunity arises to assess the potential of the team to regain the title.

It helps of course to make that assessment in the week that Dundalk top the table for the first time this season, albeit on a superior goal difference than the surprise packet in the League, newly promoted Waterford, but significantly two points clear of the champions and greatest rivals, Cork City.

From that viewpoint, manager Stephen Kenny and supporters should equally be satisfied with the situation for while it is accepted that Dundalk are still a work in progress and have yet to match the fluency displayed by the teams of recent seasons, they have done very well to remain unbeaten, conceding just once and topping the table.

It is a situation the manager would gladly have taken on March 9th when his team faced Cork City at Oriel Park, already four points adrift of the fast starting champions and with the added pressure that if they were beaten the points gap would be opened to seven, a considerable divide, even at such an early stage of the season.

However, the manager galvanised his forces for a hard won but deserved victory over Cork, and apart from a below par performance against St. Patrick's three days later when their energy levels were sapped by the Cork performance, the team have registered five successive victories.

It is a considerable achievement by the manager and his staff for as Brian Kerr, the former Irish and St. Patrick's manager, mentioned in his commentary during Friday night's win over Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk have had to re-build every season as their best players are lured away to cross-channel leagues.

Last season was no different with Patrick McEleney, David McMillan and Niclas Vemmelund all departing.

The search for replacements and the protracted negotiations over the takeover of the club disrupted the pre-season preparations and contributed to the team's stuttering start that resulted in four dropped points to Bray and Shamrock Rovers as a result of scoreless draws.

That draw with Rovers in Tallaght was a tame affair, devoid not just of goals, but of any real entertainment.

In contrast Friday's night's encounter between the sides in Oriel Park was a great advert for the League as both sides showed considerable improvement, producing at times, quality football, total commitment, and an abundance of exciting incidents to keep the large crowd and TV audience entertained.

Ironically the game was decided in some ways by the opposing goalkeepers, Gabriel Sava and Kevin Horgan, both making rare appearances.

Sava, now 32, has had to bide his time with Dundalk because of the excellence of Gary Rogers, and having deputised for the injured Rogers during the previous week's game with Bohemians, he was then tasked with the formidable challenge of trying to keep clean sheet no. 9 to allow the club equal the League of Ireland record set by Sligo Rovers in 2011.

He failed to do so, for the goal from the very impressive Daniel Carr 14 minutes from the end of Friday night's game meant that it was not only squeaky bum time for local fans, but that the magnificent record of not conceding in eight games was gone.

In the minutes that remained after he conceded the Italian born net minder showed his true valve as a quality reserve for he produced three quite outstanding saves, most notably the half volley from Graham Burke that he touched onto the bar.

In the first half Sava's lack of game time - he has made only eleven League starts since joining the club in 2014 - contributed to a few anxious moments, especially in dealing with crosses and on one or two occasions in his judgement when leaving his area, but he more than compensated for those lapses in the final minutes of the game when he demonstrated his agility and experience.

Sava's chance arrived courtesy of Rogers' injury, but Kevin Horgan was selected ahead of Rovers regular 'keeper, Tober Chencinski and rarely looked comfortable in the game, spilling Pat Hoban's 52nd minute shot to allow Robbie Benson score, and then nine minutes later he inexplicably allowed Chris Shields' tame cross run across his body and into the net off the post.

It was a bizarre goal in many ways but rapturously greeted by Dundalk supporters not just for its impact on the game but because of the fact that it was a fitting reward for the team's most popular player, Chris Shields who was thus registering his first strike since 2013.

The win secured with the two goals and Sava's heroics leaves Dundalk in a good position facing two away games in Bray and Limerick before testing encounters against Derry City at home and Cork away.

The manager will hope to have injured players, Sean Hoare and Ronan Murray back soon, for against the threat that Daniel Carr presented on Friday, Hoare's replacement, Stephen Folan looked insecure at times while Kristian Adorjan, for all his artistry on the ball, is being caught out by the pace and physicality of League of Ireland football.

With the games coming thick and fast - five League games in the remainder of April alone - the depth of the first team panel will be fully tested and hopefully the players will be able to build on their recent run to the top of the table to produce the football that became their hallmark in recent seasons.

The Argus