Of the 2066 people who were at United Park for last Friday’s SSE Airtricity League opener between Drogheda United and Dundalk, it was estimated that almost 1000 had made the trip from The Town.
Pictures and tweets prior to the game showed a convoy of 52 seater buses making their way past Xerox, PayPal and eBay and onto the M1, packed with expectant supporters looking forward to seeing Stephen Kenny’s team begin the start of, hopefully, another tilt at the title.
By the time each of them got into the ramshackle venue that is United Park - large queues outside the ground meant that some missed the start of the game - the mood was even more positive.
Dundalk, with Richie Towell overcoming an ankle injury, made an assured start, playing what first-team coach Vinny Perth described afterwards as ‘their best football at United Park’ under Kenny’s tenure.
Chances arrived for the Lilywhites. Kurtis Byrne’s, after good approach play with Patrick Hoban in the 8th minute, was a glorious opportunity for a player with Byrne’s technique. Twelve-yards out, slightly to the left of the penalty spot, the Dundalk no 11 dragged his shot wide.
An even better opening arrived 18 minutes later. Towell, who never quite looked 100% fit, made his best contribution of the night with a beautiful dink over the Drogheda defence. Daryl Horgan pounced, leaving Shane Grimes in his wake but, with substitute goalkeeper David Ryan approaching him like a steam train, Horgan’s touch lacked direction and the ball drifted, almost in slow motion, just past the upright.
The songs got louder from the visiting support and another flare - which will financially hit the club in the pocket - was sparked up. Things were going to plan.
Flickers of what was to unfold soon appeared. Chris Shields, named at centre-back beside Andy Boyle, was booked for taking Gary O’Neill out of it as he bypassed the midfield and made his way to the Dundalk danger zone. Eric Foley’s free-kick was met by Paul Andrews but Peter Cherrie, at point blank range, made a stunning save.
Ten minutes later, an almost identical scenario presented itself. This time it was captain Stephen O’Donnell who committed a foul on O’Neill. Tempers flared between the skipper and Shields with fingers pointed by both players. Seconds later, Dundalk were a goal down, Foley leaving Cherrie with no chance thanks to a sumptuous free-kick.
The mood at half-time was still one of optimism in the visitors section. One down to a sublime free-kick was hardly a catastrophe and there were more than enough signs in the first-half that Dundalk had enough creativity to fashion more chances.
That optimism had all but evaporated less than 10 minutes after the restart. Three nil down, and pulled apart defensively, Dundalk were looking down the barrel of a heavy derby defeat. A Hoban header brought a slight reprieve but when Declan O’Brien made it 4-1, the numbers in the far right corner reduced by the second.
When Dundalk fans recall the 2013 season, many extol the performances of the attacking players: Hoban’s goals, Towell’s massive contribution in the latter part of the campaign, Byrne’s spectacular efforts, Meenan’s deliveries and so on.
However, the campaign was founded on a defence which prided itself on restricting goals, especially from set-pieces.
Perth spoke afterwards, failing to mask his disappointment in the manner of which Dundalk folded at United Park and in the Setanta Cup game with Coleraine less than two weeks earlier, from basic situations.
Suddenly, a team that had only conceded one goal from a set-piece in the second-half of last season - a disputable goal for Bohemians’ Neil Yadolahi in the 1-1 draw at Dalymount Park in October - looked a shambles.
If Gavin Brennan’s 48th minute goal was the result of a defensive horror show, then what could be said of O’Brien’s brace that followed? In particular, Fabio’s second goal of the night, a diving header from 12-yards to guide Brennan’s looping free-kick home; how the veteran striker was allowed the time and space to stoop so low in a packed penalty area was undoubtedly a subject of Kenny’s inquest at full-time.
In defence of the defence, there have been some mitigating factors which explain the performances against Coleraine and Drogheda.
Andy Boyle missed a chunk of pre-season with a groin strain and is still feeling his way back to full fitness. Mark Rossiter, who many would have expected to partner Boyle on Friday night, was nursing an injury and was only named on the bench.
Simon Kelly was poor against Coleraine and Shields, who can be slightly erratic at the best of times, was also playing his first game in quite some time after recovering from a knee injury.
It is the loss of Brian Gartland, though, which has been the biggest problem. The imposing defender formed a formidable partnership with Boyle when he joined during the summer transfer window last year, Dundalk losing just three of the 15 games they played as a duo.
The former Portadown man has had a couple of weeks to forget, picking up an ankle injury in pre-season and then seeing his father pass away.
Dundalk fans will be delighted to see him make his return. Judging by the evidence thus far, they will be hoping it is sooner rather than later.