When 2598 people packed into Oriel Park for Dundalk’s season’s opener against red hot title favourites Shamrock Rovers on March 8, not too many would have expected the Hoops to be going into the final round of fixtures sitting 10 points adrift of the summit.
Even fewer would have imagined that Dundalk would be going into this week’s game sitting in second place, just three points behind St Patrick’s Athletic and seven ahead of Trevor Croly’s side.
That is the dream scenario for Dundalk fans at the minute. Stephen Kenny’s team have been the surprise package of the season and even though nobody outside of Dundalk seems to think the Lilywhites are capable of winning the title, their form suggests that they could yet pull off what would be the most unlikeliest title wins ever.
Kenny’s side sit on 43 points with 33 still to play for. In the first round of games the Dubliner’s new look Dundalk side racked up 21 points, winning six of their first 11 games, drawing three and losing two.
Those two losses came against Sligo Rovers and Derry City at Oriel Park with the game against the champions on March 19 being the only time this season that Kenny’s men have failed to do themselves justice against one of the ‘big four’.
If those defeats were hard to take, the draws against Limerick and Drogheda United were harder to swallow. On both occasions Dundalk recovered from two goal deficits to take a point but the feeling after both games was that valuable points were dropped.
If Dundalk’s home form was patchy early on, their away form has been the platform on which this title bid has been launched. 25 of their 43 points have come away from home this season, a staggering feat, with victories at the Showgrounds, Hunky Dory’s Park and the Brandywell in round two confirming their title credentials.
Those wins helped bank some of the 22 points accumulated in round two. It could, and should, have been more but 3-2 defeats against UCD at Oriel Park and Limerick FC at Thomond Park cut deep.
A similar haul of points in this round would see Dundalk finish on 65 points, four more than Sligo Rovers needed to in the title last season although there were three less games played.
Home comforts will be the key for Dundalk in this round. Oriel Park - where attendances this season have reached the 19,000, some 5k more than all of last season - should be at fever pitch for home fixtures against Rovers, Sligo Rovers and Drogheda United in the space of the next five weeks.
A tough looking assignment against a rejuvenated Shelbourne side is sandwiched in between but Dundalk won comfortable at Tolka Park earlier in the season and their away form suggests that they should have enough in the locker to overcome Johnny McDonnell’s side.
If Kenny’s men are still in the shake up come the end of September then a trip to Richmond Park, where Dundalk will be looking or their third win of the season over Pat’s, has the look of a potential title showdown.
So too, does the visit of Derry City to Oriel Park on October 4, a week after Dundalk take on Limerick at the same venue, hoping to beat Stuart Taylor’s side for the first time this season.
The season finishes with an away trip to basement boys Bohemians on October 12 before the final home game of the season on October 18 against Cork City.
If the impossible dream is still alive at this stage then expect half of Dundalk to decamp to the seaside on October 25 for the final game of the season against Bray Wanderers at the Carlisle Grounds.
At this stage of the season it is all about gathering momentum as the finishing line comes into sight. Friday night would be the ideal time for Dundalk to start increasing the tempo.