There’s plenty of time for Dundalk fans to look at the SSE Airtricity League table and bask in the club’s current position
With no game between now and the visit of Shamrock Rovers to Oriel Park on June 17, there’s plenty of time for Dundalk fans to look at the SSE Airtricity League table and bask in the club’s current position.
Not since July 2020 have the Lilywhites been in the top two of the Premier Division. That might be less than two years in the real world but it feels like a lifetime for a club who have barely been away the top of the table since Stephen Kenny rolled into town 10 seasons ago.
His captain fantastic, Stephen O’Donnell, is now the gaffer and what a job he is doing.
The Galway man was late to arrive at Oriel Park last winter as he looked to secure his exit from St Patrick’s Athletic and as a result he was behind in his planning for this season.
O’Donnell might be ruling out a title challenge but the fact remains Dundalk are Rovers’ biggest challengers at this point and if they can win the top of the table clash at Oriel Park when the league resumes then the gap will be just five points with a game in hand and no possible European distractions.
Whatever happens in that game, most people are just happy to see Dundalk back competing again. Friday’s win over St Pat’s came 10 years on from a time when ‘Crisis Point’ was the headline on the back of the local paper as staff were laid off, players went unpaid and the very existence of Dundalk Football Club was up in the air.
It’s been some rollercoaster ever since from the highs of the Kenny era to the lows of PEAK6’s tenure but there’s a real feeling that the club is getting back to where it once was on and off the field.
That’s an incredible achievement and bigger and better than any three points earned on a Friday night.
Dundalk are well placed going into the break but it’s only the half way point. We’ve seen teams in the past, such as Sligo Rovers last season, tail off dramatically.
Equally, we’ve seen teams really kick on. Perhaps none more so than Kenny’s class of 2013.
Back then no one expected Dundalk to be in the title race but the Lilywhites pushed Liam Buckley’s Pat’s all the way.
Kenny’s side had 33 points at the break that year. O’Donnell’s band of brothers have one more this year.
He couldn’t help raise a smile when told of that achievement after Friday night’s win over his old side.
“Do I? Very good,” beamed O’Donnell.
“It's very similar in the sense that Stephen probably had to build right from scratch so it just shows you what a performance he done in regards the first half of his season. Everyone knows that story but we just focus on ourselves and I'm delighted with the application of the players.”
Given his praise for Kenny’s achievements back then, should O’Donnell take as much for his now.
“We're delighted with our start but it's only half way,” he said.
“You can see the fine margins. There were a few scrambles in the box there for Pat's to get an equaliser. We're delighted but I think the break is not coming at a bad time just to sort of re-evaluate and re-energise ourselves.”
One thing that really helped push Dundalk on in that first year under Kenny was the July signing of Brian Gartland. He was one of half a dozen brought in that summer but easily the only one worth remembering. He added leadership, extra solidity at the back and a potent threat going forward.
Dundalk might have fallen short in their pursuit of Pat’s that year but the seeds were sewn for bigger and better days ahead.
O’Donnell has shown his talents, he has demonstrated his eye for a player. Now the board need to get behind him. With the futures of on-loan trio Steven Bradley, Lewis Macari and Mark Connolly still up in the air, where they are come July 1 could determine exactly what the Galwegian needs to do. The latter pair, in particular, have been immense and contributed to a defence which has been tighter than any other than that of Shamrock Rovers to date.
With Macari signing a new deal at Stoke City, his future is up in the air but Connolly could be Dundalk’s Gartland of 2022. He has much of the same attributes as the man he now shares a dressing room with.
One or two more additions could really push Dundalk on.
That’s not to say anyone expects a title but we all crave a European return. While moving second was what stole the headlines on Friday night, the nine point gap to Sligo Rovers in fifth with a game in hand over the rest of the top four was perhaps most pleasing.
It’s fair to say Dundalk have performed ahead of expectations so far this season. Hopefully they’re just warming up though.