He may have refused to throw in the towel on his side’s title bid but the body language of Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny following Friday night’s 2-1 loss at home to Limerick was of a man who knows the Airtricity League trophy is slipping further from his grasp.
Kenny’s team dropped into third place following the result, the first time this season they have lost two league games on the spin.
It leaves the Lilywhites six points behind leaders St Patrick’s Athletic with just 12 points still up for grabs prompting questions that next Sunday’s upcoming FAI Cup semi-final with Drogheda United would take precedence in Kenny’s thoughts.
However the Dundalk boss was quick to shoot down those suggestions.
“We’re going to try and win our last four games. Ultimately, if we win on Monday we are still only three points behind, albeit with a game more played but that is a big incentive for us”, he said.
“There is a lot to play for. Dundalk haven’t finished in the top three since 1995 so we have got to qualify for Europe. That is our focus. We will look at the FAI Cup semi-final after that.”
Reflecting on Friday night’s defeat, Kenny said that Rory Gaffney’s controversial second goal for Limerick was a real ‘kick in the teeth’.
“We had a lot of the play but we found ourselves two goals down.”, he said.
“The first one was our own fault, giving the ball away in an area where we shouldn’t but the second-goal looked two yards offside and that was a real kick in the teeth.”
A Richie Towell penalty gave Dundalk a lifeline in the 68th minute but the Lilywhites failed to produce the grandstand finish that has been one of the hallmarks of their campaign.
“There was a lot of free-kicks and gamesmanship going on from Limerick but we are disappointed with our last 10 minutes”, conceded Kenny.
“We have shown a great capacity to come back this season but we didn’t do enough to come back and equalise.
“Everyone misses players”, he continued. “Part of challenging for the league is that you have to contend with that but, at home where you need to get five or six passes to open things up, we missed Stephen O’Donnell tonight. He is our playmaker and he was a loss.”
When the dust settles on the season, Dundalk will look back at their three encounters with Limerick and be able to pinpoint exactly where the title was lost.
“We scored five against them in the FAI Cup but in the league it has been the difference”, said Kenny.
“We have only taken one point from three games against Limerick and ultimately that is what has killed us. We have found them difficult.”
There might be no title party at Oriel Park come November but Kenny said he was still extremely proud of his players.
“We are disappointed that we haven’t kicked on but at at the start of the season they were talking about us as being behind the likes of Shelbourne and Bohemians and a good bit behind Drogheda United. We are also ahead of a lot of talented squads like Shamrock Rovers, Cork City and Derry City.
“It’s the first time we’ve lost two games on the bounce and we’re disappointed with that but the players have come from nowhere this season. A lot of the players here haven’t played in the Premier Division before.
“It is a new learning curve for quite a few players and players react differently. We’ve had some positives but some people are on a learning curve and you can’t afford to carry anyone. We should have done better than what we did but we have to take the punches.”