The first pre-season game is normally an exercise in fitness and an opportunity for players to get the feel for a ball after almost three months without a competitive game.
However, for parts of Friday night’s game with Championship side Barnsley, Dundalk looked as though they had never been away.
Stephen Kenny’s side may have been beaten 4-1 but there were enough signs, both in terms of fitness and football played, to suggest that the Dundalk players have returned, focussed and hungry to go one step better than they did in 2013.
With six games still to play before the Airtricity League curtain raiser with Drogheda United, there is plenty of time for the new faces to get to grips with what is expected but the early indications are that there won’t be too much fine tuning needed.
The hastily arranged game gave Kenny the chance to hand a debut to defender Sean Gannon - one of the six new faces added to the Dundalk squad during the close-season - while Simon Kelly started alongside Andy Boyle at the heart of the back four.
Ruaidhri Higgins, Gabriel Sava, Marc Griffin and Daryl Horgan were all on a strong looking bench with Brian Gartland and David McMillan the only absentees.
There were some familiar faces in the Barnsley squad with former Derry City and Celtic winger Paddy McCourt and Irish international Liam Lawrence taking their place in the Tykes starting XI. New loan signing from Hull City, Nick Proschwitz, was named on the bench.
Despite returning to pre-season training just 12 days earlier, Dundalk showed few signs of ring rustiness in the opening period.
Darren Meenan fired over after just 25 seconds following Stephen O’Donnell’s set up and the winger had another sighting of goal minutes later. Given time to lift his head, his low drive from the left of the area went wide of Christian Dibble’s post.
Kenny would have hoped to get through the evening without picking up any bumps and bruises but the nightmare scenario arrived after just seven minutes when skipper O’Donnell limped off to be replaced by Daryl Horgan. Although, from initial viewing, the withdrawal looked to be more on the side of precaution.
Dundalk’s bright start to the game was rewarded in the 17th minute. Meenan - whose deliveries were a notable feature of last season - saw his corner from the left needlessly fisted away by Dibble. The goalkeeper had ample time to gather the ball and he was punished as Richie Towell collected on the 18-yard line and sent a fine effort to the bottom right hand corner.
Barnsley replied just three minutes later. Simon Kelly was adjudged to have fouled Danny Rose on the edge of the box and Peter Cherrie was given no chance with Thomas Cywka’s sublime right footed free-kick.
The lively nature of the game continued until the break. Towell, who certainly didn’t look out of place against Championship opposition, broke down the right in the 27th minute. The subsequent cross found its way to Meenan at the far post but his curling effort was blocked by the sizable frame of Jean M’voto.
Barnsley took the upper hand after that and they went in front in the 32nd minute. Reuben Noble-Lazurus whipped in a cross from the left that wasn’t intended for Rose but the striker showed good instincts to direct the ball goalwards, catching Cherrie unaware, to find the net and make it 2-1.
Dundalk were almost punished again on the stroke of half-time. A mix-up between Boyle and Cherrie saw the Scottish goalkeeper pick up the defender’s back pass. Referee Neil Doyle awarded an indirect free-kick but Cherrie was on hand to gather Lawrence’s effort at the second attempt after McCourt had teed him up.
Kenny made a raft of substitutions at the break with Higgins, Griffin and Hoban all introduced. The two attackers combined in the 53rd minute when Hoban robbed M’voto on the left. His low centre picked out Griffin but, under pressure, he couldn’t direct his effort on target.
Understandably, the encounter lacked any sort of real intensity. Barnsley’s extra fitness levels told and they finished strongly, with M’voto almost making it 3-1 in the 61st minute when he smacked an effort on target after Dundalk had failed to clear a corner. John Mountmney was the man in the right place to avert the danger.
Barnsley boss Danny Wilson followed Kenny’s lead by emptying the bench in the 65th minute, throwing on four substitutes, and one of those, American Brek Shea, made an instant impression, beating Gabriel Sava with his first touch to to make it 3-1.
Paul Digby’s forceful run and drive drew the best out of Sava, who made a fine save to his right before Shea - on loan from Premier League side Stoke City - blazed off target from the right.
Hoban drew applause with a right footed effort that worked former Manchester United goalkeeper Luke Steele before Dale Jennings put the cap on the Tykes win with a stoppage time strike.
Dundalk FC: Peter Cherrie (Gabriel Sava HT), Sean Gannon (Manny Kaguako 83), Andy Boyle, Simon Kelly, Dane Massey; John Mountney (Conor McDonald 65), Chris Shields (Ruaidhri Higgins HT), Stephen O’Donnell (Daryl Horgan 8), Darren Meenan (Marc Griffin HT); Richie Towell, Kurtis Byrne (Patrick Hoban HT). Unused sub: Ciaran O’Connor.
Barnsley: Christian Dibble (Luke Steele HT), Lewin Nyatanga, Jean Yves M’voto, Martin Cranie (Dale Jennings 65), Stephen Dawson (Jacob Mellis 65), Reuben Noble-Lazarus, Paul Digby, Paddy McCourt (Tom Kennedy 65), Liam Lawrence (Brek Shea 65), Thomas Cywka, Danny Rose. Unused subs: Peter Ramage, Chris O’Grady, Nick Proschwitz, Jim O’Brien.
Referee: Neil Doyle.
ATTENDANCE: 1500 approx.