Wednesday 17 July 2019

Plenty of merit in mid-term report

Dundalk FC

Kevin Mulligan

No student welcomes a mid-term report. Perhaps it is the same with managers and footballers, for no honours have been won, no reputations enhanced or relegated.

For that reason proper assessment of Dundalk's season can only be made when the final game is played on November 3rd next with the FAI Cup final.

There are however some valuable indicators that can be made as the management and players take that mid-season break. Management Team: Head Coach: Vinny Perth: First Team Coach, John Gill and Assistant Coach: Ruaidhri Higgins.

Taking over from a legend was never going to be easy as the many who tried to step into the shoes of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United have discovered.

For that reason the trio who have taken over from Stephen Kenny, even given the rather unusual nature of the management structure, that was designed for to allow Vinny Perth to complete his coaches badges, has worked well.

Initially it appeared to sideline observers that there was some teething problems with exactly who was calling the shots, and in some early games the players themselves seemed confused with the barrage of different instructions coming from the sidelines.

However, this confusion appears to be resolved as Vinny Perth asserted his authority. That early situation wasn't helped by the stuttering start to the League campaign when early points were dropped home and away, and by the serious injuries sustained by key players, Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney in the opening game, and a later injury to Chris Shields which badly depleted the engine room of the team, the midfield.

To bring the team through that difficult period, and embark on a 12 game unbeaten sequence, which has seen a 13 point lead which Rovers enjoyed on April 13th, and go into the break at the top of the League with a five point lead over Shamrock Rovers, is a considerable achievement by Vinny Perth and his backroom team, and deserves a high mark in the mid-term report.

That unbeaten sequence has been achieved, the management team will admit, without the team reaching their full potential, and they will welcome this mid-season break to get their injured players back to match fitness and prepare for the difficult months ahead in both League and Europe.

Indeed the management team could be facing a welcome dilemma in the weeks to come for with Robbie Benson, Jamie McGrath and Sean Murray back in training, the selection of the best midfield combination will be very difficult task in getting the right balance. Goalkeepers: Gary Rogers has been in such fine form since the start of the season that newly signed Aaron McCarey has had to confine his League involvement to a seat on the bench and EA Sports League Cup matches.

His twelve clean sheets in 21 games speaks volumes for Rogers form behind a continually revolving defensive combination, and it is difficult to find fault for the 'keeper for any of the goals conceded in the League, his last display against Finn Harps again demonstrating that age (he's now 37) hasn't blunted his sharpness for he took off two very fine saves when the concentration of others lapsed as they concluded the game was won.

Neither Aaron McCarey or Ross Treacy have had sufficient game time to make any assessment on their contribution. Defenders: Sean Gannon the only ever present member of the back four is having an outstanding season, and was a worthy winner of the Player of the Month for May. 

The 21-year-old Dubliner continues to turn in consistently quality performances as a right wing back to such an extent that opposition teams almost inevitably delegate a player to curtail his attacking forages.

The improvement in his defensive duties which has been evident since his arrival at Dundalk has rescued many very dangerous situations on numerous occasions this year.

The debate over whether Dane Massey or Dean Jarvis is the first choice left-full is frequently aired among supporters and it appears that Vinny Perth is not all that certain either for he continues to alternate the pair for almost every game. For the opening games of the season Massey was the first choice and was playing exceptionally well, producing at times his best displays for quite some time and developed a very potent attacking partnership with Michael Duffy on the left.

Age and Dundalk's hectic schedule in recent times may have influenced the decision to bring in the younger defender, Jarvis for games, and the Derryman, with his first really extended run in the team has shown his quality. He's also invaluable as a cover for midfield, displaying his versatility on a number of occasions filling in for injured players in that sector.

Another wing-back who has got little opportunity in his favourite position is Cameron Dummigan for his involvement has been confined to coming late into the game often in midfield to help secure a result, although he did show in a recent League Cup outing against UCD that he could be a worthy deputy for Gannon. Like the left-back berth, the management team seem uncertain about their best combination for the central positions in defence. 

Sean Hoare would appear to be the first choice, but he did miss one match through suspension and was rested for the last game against Harps. He is however playing exceptionally well, and probably the best in his position in the League, his strength both on the ground and in the air his primary asset, but he is deceptively quick to recover, and takes the ball well out of defence.

Captain, Brian Gartland seems destined to have to share the other central position with Daniel Cleary, for it appears that the management team assess the opposition, and the venue before making their choice. Neither have let the side down when selected, Gartland coming up with some vital goals, as his enthusiasm for the cause has never waned while Cleary's ability on the ball, has helped stretch opposition defences when he makes the extra man in midfield.

The concern, voiced by some, of the constant changes in defence, appears to be no problem for the management, but with Europe fast approaching the combination in central defence will be vital in countering the different style of play that the team will encounter. Unfortunately Stephen Folan has got no opportunity to challenge for a place because of injury.

Midfield: This sector has been devastated by injury with Robbie Benson, Patrick McEleney, Chris Shields, Sean Murray, John Mountney, all missing games at one time or another. The result is that defenders, Dean Jarvis and Sean Hoare have had to fill in at times, and only on rare occasions has it been possible to field the same combination in the sector.

Understandably this has made it difficult to achieve the same fluency as in previous seasons when the team enjoyed a more settled combination, and for that reason the players deserve great credit for the manner in which they have knuckled down to get results.

As ever Chris Shields has been the lynchpin of the sector, and any few who still doubted his commitment should look to his performance when he returned from a lengthy layoff with a knee injury, for although still hampered by the injury, he immediately lifted his side to secure a vital victory.

The mid-season break will hopefully allow the midfield dynamo and recharge the batteries before the crucial latter part of the season, for he'll be vitally important both in the domestic and European campaigns.

Early in the campaign Jamie McGrath was hitting his best form since his arrival from St.Patrick's and his injury sustained against Waterford on April 29th and which has since kept him out game, has deprived the team of an invaluable asset, an energetic player to hold the ball, beat an opponent and pick out a pass.

Another major injury loss has been Robbie Benson, who sustained a broken bone in his leg when winning a penalty in the opening minutes of the first game of the season against Sligo Rovers. He is now back training with the panel and may return in the coming weeks. If nothing else the absence of the best box-to-box player in the League has underlined his importance to the team, and has rightfully made those who did not always value his contribution to be more appreciative of the attributes that he bring to the team.

In that opening Sligo game, Patrick McEleney also received a serious foot injury which made it a nightmare opening game for the team, adding to the fact that they dropped two points in a 1-1 draw.  The Derryman's return on the same night as Chris Shields gave the team a great lift and helped considerably in their extended unbeaten run of 12 games. 

Understandably after his injury McEleney has struggled to regain match fitness, and hasn't matched the form of previous campaigns with his failure to find the net a concern, but he has chipped in with a number of very vital assists and at times in games, especially the away match against Bohs, he was exceptional.

In the early stages of the campaign, Sean Murray was pressed into action sooner than his management team would have liked for he was struggling for fitness. 

Initially he made light of that handicap, and had supporters buzzing with the purity of his strikes with three goals in the opening five games, and the quality of his passing.

Unfortunately he couldn't sustain that form, as a niggling injury curtailed his involvement, preventing him from getting the run of matches he needs.  When fully fit he looks to be a real asset, and could be a threat in the European games.

Another new addition to the club this season, Jordan Flores has also been pressed into action before he reached full match fitness, and for that reason he struggled to see out games. 

Unquestionably he is a talented player, with a lovely left foot and the ability to see a pass, but at times he fades out of games and unable to match the frenetic pace of the Irish game. He too, like Murray, could blossom on the European stage for he has the passing game that will be needed.

Wide Players:  Throughout the difficult opening period, and in the subsequent winning sequence, Michael Duffy has been outstanding, not just in creating chances, but in supplying vital goals. 

He has added additional vital ingredient to his armoury this season, with his heading ability, notching three vital goals, his latest against Finn Harps. Many who watched the Republic of Ireland's laboured display against Gibraltar recently were asking if the Derryman would be a much more potent threat on the left flank than another fellow city man, the predictable James McClean, for Duffy is clearly the most outstanding wide player in the League.

Newcomer this season, Daniel Kelly is taking time to adjust to the full time training regime and like others, notably Daryl Horgan it may take him a season to adjust, for he is undoubtedly a very talented player as his hat-trick against Finn Harps in April showed, and given the chance to improve his strength on the ball, he will be a valuable addition.

The former Bohemians man has had to compete for the right flank role with John Mountney who is in the goal scoring form of his life, and over the last month has made it impossible to Vinny Perth to leave him out.  Against Sligo recently and again in Ballybofey he was Dundalk's best player.

Strikers: Patrick's Hoban's lack of goals from open play is frustrating for the player, given his record creating feats last season, but this has in no way nullified his contribution to the team, for his hold up play, and the manner which he brings others into play, is exceptional and a nightmare for any defender to play again.

He has compensated for his lack of goals from play by his conversation rate from penalties, making him the League's leading scorer, and if some eyebrows have been raised by others about the number of penalties awarded to Dundalk this season, the reality is that it is difficult to recall one that was not deserved, and is an illustration of the pressure that Dundalk put teams under.

Hoban's deputy, although he might not like to be called that, is Georgie Kelly who has had limited chances because of Hoban's excellent form, but he has taken the few chances he has had, most notably against Bohemians when he chipped in with the vital first goal and his all round play in such a vital game meant that the suspended Hoban was not missed, which is a worthy testament to Kelly's contribution.

There have been reports that Dundalk may be tempted to add to their panel in the transfer window in July, with Andy Boyle's name mentioned, but if all the players report fit after the mid-season break it is difficult to see where any new players would fit in

The Argus