Tuesday 12 November 2019

Dundalk swap glitz for grit to seal title

It is Stephen Kenny's philosophy that his team go out to win every game Photo: Seb Daly
It is Stephen Kenny's philosophy that his team go out to win every game Photo: Seb Daly

Seán Ryan

Every now and then, sport throws up a people's champion, some player or team, who earn the admiration of the neutral with their exciting play. In soccer we have had Brazil 1970, with their 'we'll score more than you' attitude, or Holland 1974, with their 'total football' concept.

Dundalk, who have just retained their League of Ireland crown with three games still to play, fit into that pattern. Under manager Stephen Kenny, they play an exciting brand of football, which has reaped a rich harvest of goals and has drawn the crowds wherever they played.

In that respect, it was somewhat disappointing that, in clinching the title last Friday night before a live TV audience, their display for once didn't live up to the hype. It is Kenny's philosophy that his team go out to win every game but, apart from a spell just before half-time when they seemed intent on grabbing the breakthrough score, they never really dominated play as they usually do.

For once, this was more a case of digging out a result rather than a triumphant march to glory, and a lot of the credit for that must go to Pat Fenlon's young team who, more and more, look the likely successors to Dundalk.

However, when things aren't going their way, Dundalk have some great leaders - players who set the tone and inspire their team-mates to stick at their task. King among these is midfielder and captain Stephen O'Donnell who once again showed what the Hoops have been missing since they let him go, after two injury-plagued seasons, in 2012.

Friday's game evoked memories of Dundalk's defeat by local rivals Drogheda in the Cup semi-final two seasons ago, not least because the cast of characters was much the same. On that occasion, Dundalk were reduced to nine men when Darren Meenan was sent off, and the opposition included the Brennan brothers Ryan and Gavin, both of whom were in action for the Hoops on Friday.

It was O'Donnell's leadership which kept Dundalk in the game against the odds in that Cup-tie, and once again he proved the catalyst for a resurgent Lilywhite display after they shipped a goal 19 seconds into the second half in Tallaght. And it was Meenan who earned the penalty, which Richie Towell despatched for an 84th-minute equaliser.

Then it was time for Drogheda to come to their great rivals' aid, holding out for a point against Cork City, and thus delivering a second title in two seasons to Dundalk. As the game in Drogheda featured seven minutes' injury time, the Dundalk squad had to wait on the pitch in front of their travelling support until the news came through that Drogheda had done them a favour.

The scenes of celebration were possibly more enjoyable than the football, but Kenny promised afterwards that there would be no let-up: "We'll be going all out to win our remaining games. We've only lost once - to Bohemians, in a game when we had plenty of chances - and we want to keep that form going right into the Cup final."

The thought of missing out on a thrilling finale in the Aviva might lend itself to caution in the players' minds, but Kenny, who had to do without regular starters Sean Gannon and Brian Gartland in Tallaght, warned his players that they have to earn their place for the season's showpiece game on November 8.

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