Dundalk U19s manager Martin Connolly watched his side open their FAI Northern Division campaign with a 4-0 win over Letterkenny Rovers on Saturday and speaking afterwards he said promotion was the name of the game for his side this season.
The Lilywhites are part of a five team division which includes Derry City, Letterkenny Rovers, Fanad United and Finn Harps. The top two from the league will go into a play-off with their counterparts from the southern division with two of the sides winning promotion to the Elite Division.
Because of the financial costs involved, Dundalk declined an invitation to take part in the inaugural Elite Division two seasons ago but now that the club’s finances have been stabilised by new owners, Connolly insists that promotion to the top tier is his main objective.
“We really want to get promoted”, he said. “It is a massive cost to play in that Elite Division. One week you could be in Cork and two weeks later you could be in Cobh but now that things have settled down and the club is on the right footing then we would hope that won’t be a deterrent when the next time comes around, which will hopefully be at the start of next season.
“This time last year we were in an awful situation because we didn’t know what way the club was going”, he added.
“It was a case of ‘forget about your youth team and U19 team for the moment’. That showed in the way both teams started their respective leagues last year.
“It was very hit and miss. Both teams got better as the year went on and the club got better but I’m hoping that this year we hit the ground running.”
Connolly’s side look comfortable throughout against Letterkenny. Highlights of the win included a fantastic header by George Poynton and a brace from Craig Doherty.
“We got George from East Meath United over in Laytown”, revealed Connolly. “He looks a great prospect and has been called up to Ireland U17 squad to fly to Slovakia next weekend.
“Craig Doherty is a young local lad from Dromiskin. He played with Shelbourne for the past couple of seasons and we’re delighted to have him with us.”
Connolly’s side also boasted a number of familiar faces with Manny Kaguako, Kevin Nolan, Conor McDonald and Ciaran O’Connor all returning from last season.
“We’re happy with the group of players that we have got”, said Connolly.
“We’ve got a nice mix of players who are in their last year with the U19s like Manny and Conor McDonald.
“Then we have fellas who are underage for the next two years like Craig Doherty and Craig Pentony and young lads like Anton Reilly - who wasn’t involved against Letterkenny - Dylan O’Hanlon and George Poynton who are underage for the next two season after this.
The performance of McDonald was the most pleasing aspect of the victory for Connolly.
The former Rock Celtic schoolboy became one of Dundalk’s youngest ever players when he appeared as a substitute aged just 16 years and 101 days against St Patrick’s Athletic in September 2011.
Since then he has been hampered by injuries but Connolly feels he is beginning to get back to his best.
“I was delighted for Conor today. He was exceptional”, remarked Connolly.
“He has had a troubled year or two with injury, some serious, some not but ‘Chippy’ is a quality person and it is so pleasing to see things going right for him.
“He is still a young player. A lot of things happened quite quickly for him and when he got injured there was a bit of a lull.
“He probably expected to get back to the same level straight away but it doesn’t happen like that. It’s great to see things working out for him again.”
While the underage season may just have started, some of the young Lilywhites were in action back in July when Stephen Kenny handed six of the club’s future stars their first-team debuts against Shamrock Rovers in the Leinster Senior Cup tie in Tallaght.
It was a move that gave Connolly and his fellow youth coaches great encouragement for the future.
“Three of our back four in the Letterkenny game - Paul Finnegan, Manny Kaguako and Kevin Nolan - played against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght Stadium and that is a great start for them”, he said.
“Ciaran O’Connor has spent the last six months with the first-team. He has signed pro and has been on the bench with Stephen’s side. He was over with Stoke City for a week recently.
Connolly continued: “Stephen’s first team squad, with the talent he has in it, means that our lads will have to be very good to figure in it but if they do develop and start to play well then I know that Stephen will introduce them. He already uses some of them in 11 v 11 training games which is a great learning experience for them.”
Dundalk travel to Fanad United next Saturday.