Tuesday 24 October 2017

Lilywhites an old-fashioned tale of redemption

Dundalk have put together an extraordinary run of form to sit at the top of the League of Ireland. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Dundalk have put together an extraordinary run of form to sit at the top of the League of Ireland. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Garry Doyle

While the eyes of the football world are focused on Brazil for the next month, this evening in Dundalk, a sporting morality tale disguised as a top-of-the-table League of Ireland clash is captivating a local audience.

For it is here that the defending League of Ireland champions take on the 2014 league leaders – and the prospect of the winner's baton being passed from one team to the other cannot be discounted.

Dundalk are five points clear of the field and six ahead of St Pat's, the pre-season favourites, after putting together an extraordinary run of form which has seen them lose just once in their last 15 league games, scoring 21 times in their last six.

Yet while the hard evidence is impressive, behind the statistics lies an extraordinary story of rehabilitation. For the club, this comeback has been remarkable given that two seasons ago they needed a relegation play-off to avoid the drop and then promptly saw two of their four decent players leave.

The rest were discarded and a new team was built. And meanwhile their new manager, Stephen Kenny, was also there to see his reputation rebuilt.

Having been sacked by Shamrock Rovers, where he was harshly accused of being incapable of handling pressure, Kenny spent the winter of 2012 assessing where it had gone wrong at Tallaght before remembering he had a family of four to feed.

Moping around was not on his agenda. So he scanned the marketplace and waited for a call. Dundalk – who had pursued him on three previous occasions, the first time as far back as 2000 – were happy to make it.

And the upshot was they enjoyed their best season in 18 years last term and now appear set to enjoy an even better one. Their Oriel Park terraces – empty in 2012 – are regularly full these days, inspiring a group of young, hungry players to levels of performance few believed possible.

Certainly their previous clubs didn't see the light. Some, such as Darren Meenan, Sean Gannon and Richie Towell barely featured in previous workplaces.

Others, Andy Boyle, Brian Gartland, Pat Hoban and John Mountney spent chunks of their careers in the First Division.

Of them all, only Daryl Horgan's career appeared to be on an upward curve prior to their arrival in Oriel Park.

And now they look like the best team in Ireland, although Kenny, whose 16 years of managerial experience allows us to forget the fact he is still only 42 years old, is forever trying to keep a lid on the excitement.

"We're playing well and the players are feeding off the energy the crowd brings," he said.

"But it's mid-season and plenty can happen."

He may speak with caution, but his free-flowing team certainly don't play that way. Tonight could be another step along their redemption road.

Irish Independent

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