Mark Rossiter was a key member of Stephen Kenny’s early period as manager at Oriel Park
There are obvious parallels between the current Dundalk side and the one which Stephen Kenny took charge of in 2013.
Nine years ago the Lilywhites, with current boss Stephen O’Donnell as captain, surprised everyone by emerging as the serious contenders to St Patrick’s Athletic in the title race.
Few doubted they could last the pace but they gave it a good go before ultimately falling just short.
Mark Rossiter, who was part of that side, expects the same outcome this time around as Dundalk look to pile the pressure on Shamrock Rovers over the next few weeks and months but is confident that O’Donnell is building towards better days for the club, just as Kenny was in his debut season.
While the men from the Carrick Road lost some ground in their pursuit of Rovers following a scoreless draw away to Shelbourne on Friday night, they remain in second place in the table. With a game in hand still to be played they also have the chance to close the gap when they visit neighbours Drogheda United on Friday week.
While Rossiter expects O’Donnell and co to achieve what most fans would have taken at the start of the season – European qualification – he feels that ultimately no one will be able to stop Stephen Bradley’s side from keeping the league title at Tallaght Stadium for a third year running.
“I'd tip Dundalk to definitely finish top three but the top one for me is going to stay the top one,” said the 39-year-old.
“Do I think Dundalk can push Rovers or that there are similarities to that season with ourselves and Pat's in 2013? There’s some but the biggest difference is Shamrock Rovers' team and squad is better than Pat's was back then. I think that's the biggest thing.
“St Pat's didn't have Irish internationals in their squad like Jack Byrne or Graham Burke so I think it's a completely different animal to even compare them. I've said in the last 20 years that people can make arguments about the best 11 but they've the strongest squad that I've ever seen, genuinely, and I think that is going to be a huge determining factor between them and the likes of Derry and Dundalk.
“As a former player and as a fan of the club though, I'd be over the moon with the way things are going at the minute,” said the three-time league winner.
While there are some Dundalk fans hoping that Europe might prove a distraction for the Hoops this summer, Rossiter feels the champions are well equipped to deal with that even if they make it to the group stages.
“When you look at it, the likes of Ganno (Seán Gannon) is not playing at the minute so if you take out Andy Lyons you can play him. They just have like for like everywhere. If you take out Rory Gaffney because he has played a load of games you can play Mandriou or Aaron Greene or even Emakhu, who is a young lad full of running but who hasn't had a lot of game time.
“They're just so well-equipped everywhere; it's not even that they've got two players for a position, they've got more than two players, which is astounding. Obviously the wage budget, I'm sure, is huge but they're very well equipped for all eventualities that if they get through rounds in Europe or even make the group stages, I still think they've got the squad to deal with that but still focus on the league as well.”
While the current LOI Show pundit doesn’t expect Dundalk to win the league, he says Lilywhite supporters have a lot to be happy about.
“They're the most consistent definitely of the other sides in the league,” said Rossiter, who was captain when Dundalk clinched their first piece of silverware under Kenny when they pipped Rovers to the EA Sports Cup in 2014.
“I think everybody is looking at them as a surprise package. Mark Connolly has been unbelievable for them at centre back. I think he has hugely shored up the defence for them with Andy Boyle. He has been excellent, as have Macari and Leahy. They've got continuity and Stevie has done really, really well in fairness.
“You look at Steven Bradley and the first month he had when he got Player of the Month you could look at him now and say he's gone a bit quiet hasn't he but that's not the case either. He's just part of a well-oiled machine at the moment.
“The amount of space he creates for Macari at right-back because of the clever runs he makes inside. You need Macari to be making them runs but they've become a really cohesive unit on that side.
“I love Macari. I think he is a wonderful player but a helping factor there is having Connolly there. That experience from him and Andy Boyle is huge and they haven't really missed many games as a pairing, which I think is huge for any team. You look at the team that won the league. If you go back to 2013 or 2014, there were very games where it wasn't the same back five and it’s the same now really.”
One of the key summer signings in that first season under Kenny was Brian Gartland and Rossiter feels holding onto Mark Connolly now can have a similar impact on the current side.
“I remember his debut down in Cork where he scored a header,” he says of Gartland.
“When I was out of contract at Bohs he was trying to get me to go to Portadown so I'd have known Brian before he signed for Dundalk. For a goalscoring centre-back, he was getting up on 10 goals a season, which was huge.
“He brought his basketball philosophy into it where you're checking players off the ball to get space for let's say Dane Massey or Pat Hoban. It was very interesting to see how he brought his basketball background as a coach into that.
"With Darren Meenan firing in balls, it was almost like a penalty at times because Meenie was on fire that year as well. Maybe it was moreso the second season than the first but it became such an important weapon for Stephen Kenny because in a three on three Garts was so powerful, but also Dane Massey, he might not be the tallest man in the world but his leap and timing was nearly like Raff Cretaro for Sligo.
“The amount of goals we got from set pieces was incredible and Garts would have been a huge part of it. If Connolly can bring that sort of a lift to Dundalk then he'd be great to keep. He's only 30 so if he looks after his body and has a bit of luck with injury there's no reason why he can't be there when he's 36 like Garts.”
Having played with O’Donnell at both Bohs and Dundalk and known him since a young age, Rossiter has been hugely impressed by his transition to management.
“It's the evolution of Stevie as a person,” he said.
“I would have known Stevie since he was 12 years of age. My brother and his brother were at Galway together and I'd have seen him down at the Kennedy Cup and that sort of thing. The type of character you meet now as a manager or even when he was a player at Dundalk, even the type of character he was from the first season under Stephen to the second season, was very different.
“I think his injury had a huge part to play in that. I think as a person he said to himself you've got a career-ending injury here so what do you want to do, sink or swim? He completely just changed his whole manner towards everything and just became a consummate professional after that and he has carried them standards that Dundalk had for years into management.
“Yes, they were set by Stephen Kenny but then it was Stevie O'Donnell who would have been the driving force hugely behind that. He's a very vocal person so he's quite happy to call people out on things. He'd argue until the cows come home on a football pitch but then you'd be in the shower and you'd be having a laugh and a joke afterwards. It's nothing personal with him. It's all business.
“He wants to win and he's a winner and he's going to carry that into his managerial career, which he has already done by winning the FAI Cup with Pat's and I've no doubt he will be successful at Dundalk.
“One thing I love having seen an interview with him recently, he's not going to sign players just for the sake of it. If they're not improving the squad, they won't be there and I think that's huge because some managers when they get the opportunity and have a bit of money they can just sign players but they can be a flop and cost money.
“They have to be the right players. Everyone knows what is going on in the background with STATSports and stuff like that but at the end of the day it still has to be run like a business.
“The unfortunate thing for the whole town was what happened with PEAK6. They completely sectioned themselves more or less from everything good that Stephen did when he galvanised the town and I think it's going to take a bit of time for it to get back to that but if people are realistic and give it time then it can get back to the top.”
It’s not only O’Donnell’s evolution that has impressed Rossiter. Having played with a number of the current Dundalk side, he has always kept a watchful eye on his former team-mates and has been impressed by their growth since his days alongside them.
“Pat Hoban has really evolved as a player. He has become a creative striker who can drop deep and obviously you have Robbie Benson behind him, who is able to run beyond him and then you've Bradley on one side, Kelly on the other, who is doing really well too and brings you pace.
“Pat would never have been quick anyway but he was a more selfish player a couple of years ago. Now, I'd liken him to Harry Kane where he's dropping deep and creating stuff but he's still scoring goals with late runs into the box. He has been unbelievable for them and I think being captain has made him evolve as a player. He has been instrumental for him but I think he knows how Stevie works as a person and as a player.
“Stevie doesn't give a sh*t who you are on paper. Plain and simple, if don't buy into him, he'll f**k you out. You seen it with Sligo and Liam Buckley. If the players aren't performing you're the one who gets the sack. They still have a contract and they'll just wait for the next manager to come. Stevie has a job to do and he knows what way he wants to do it and he has the background team that he wants behind him. He's motoring really well.”
Indeed, Rossiter feels the re-signing of Keith Ward – another member of that 2013 and 2014 squad that he was part of – was a real masterstroke.
“In any dressing room, you'll know a team that is pulling in the right direction or not. You'll know a team that's not operating well off the pitch and I don't mean at club level but at team level – like if there's a couple of bad eggs there.
“I think Stevie's been very clever with his signings as well. Wardy is unbelievable in a dressing room. He's the life and soul of the party but also a very talented footballer and he's played a lot more than I would have thought when he came from Bohs. I thought he'd be more of an impact player but he's been a revelation.
“I'm a huge fan of Wardy as a footballer. He'll run the dressing room too. He's 30 now but he's still able to think like an 18-year-old so he's able to bridge the gap between the experienced lads and the kids. They'll all love him so I think Stevie was very clever with that signing.
“I'll never forget in that second season under Stephen where we used to play against the starting team. It'd be all the subs or whatever but you'd give the ball to Wardy and he'd try to hit this outrageous pass and I'd say to him there's probably a 1% chance that you're going to hit that but he just said to me 'Rossi, all I need is 1%. If there's a 1% chance I'm going to hit it then I'm going to go for it.' That's what it is. He's a maverick.
“You look at his cross for John Martin's header a few weeks ago. That was an unbelievable cross. His ball for Daniel Kelly as well, there's very few in the league who see that but he does.
“I genuinely love everything that is going on with Dundalk at the minute. It's in a really good place, which is good to see.”