'I'm invincible' - Dundalk FC head coach Vinny Perth celebrates winning the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title. (Pic: Sportsfile)
Dundalk play the most important game in the current history of the club when they take on NK Ceije of Slovenia in Budapest tonight.
It is a huge game in that a win is worth €1 million for the Oriel Park club.
The Slovenians go into the game as firm favourites as far as the bookies are concerned on less than evens odds. Dundalk are 4/1 to win despite the vast experience the club has in the competition and how well they have done in the modern era.
But the odds also reflect the fact that domestically Dundalk have hit the buffers form-wise since the resumption of league four weeks ago.
Dundalk have lost once and drawn twice and are eight points behind the leaders Shamrock Rovers with just 10 games to go.
Dundalk came back from the dead last Friday after being 2-0 down to Waterford. Goals in the last 10 minutes gave The Lilywhites a point they scarcely deserved.
Three days earlier Dundalk beat Waterford in the Cup when a Sean Hoare goal was enough to send them through.
It was a better performance than the terrible display Dundalk served up against Bohemians the previous Friday.
Hoare got the winning goal after just 17 minutes in what was his first game for Dundalk in nine months. He was excellent at the back.
Another player who greatly steadied the ship was Brian Gartland who was also starting his first game in nine months. Gartland was simply superb and his presence also seemed to inspire many of the other Dundalk players around him. Patrick McEleaney also returned and was excellent.
Cameron Dummigan started at right full. He’s been away on loan to Crusaders and did well versus Waterford but, sadly, he went over on his ankle and is now out for up to two months.
Dundalk got their draw for the next round of the Cup the following day and it seems on paper to be a comfortable enough one with an away game against First Division Cobh Ramblers.
But when I heard the draw I asked myself was it history repeating itself? In February 1983, Dundalk were really struggling with their form. And it seemed as if the team who dominated Irish football from 1974 to 1983 were losing their grip at the top.
Ramblers were a non-league side and dumped Dundalk out of the Cup. Back in the modern era the Oriel Park club are struggling very much form-wise and it’s quite conceivable Cobh will beat Dundalk.
In 1983, that Cup defeat by Cobh and the failure of the club to qualify for Europe brought to an end the Jim McLaughlin era. He departed at the end of the season and headed to Milltown and made his new club Shamrock Rovers into the team of the 80s.
Now, two years ago Ramblers knocked Dundalk out of the EA Sports Cup in the semi-finals. Dundalk were the holders of the trophy but yet went on to do the second double under Stephen Kenny.
Last season current manager Vinny Perth led the club to their fifth league title in six years. They also won the EA Sports Cup and went out of the FAI Cup on penalties in the final at the Aviva.
I say all this about Dundalk’s ascendancy at the top of the tree in League of Ireland football as I have watched an excellent team this season that seems to have hit the buffers.
Last Friday Dundalk were dreadful against Waterford in the league. Matthew Byrne skipped past three Dundalk defenders and fired home a screamer on 24 minutes.
Former Oriel striker Kurtis Byrne set him up.
There was no Gartland in the side. He was missing due to a stomach bug.
But this highlights part of what is wrong with Dundalk. Manager Vinny Perth just can’t seem to name a consistent first 11 week after week. Much of this is because players are getting injuries week after week. But some of the reason is that Dundalk have such a big squad that there always seems to be some changes to the first 11 by the choice of management.
This is understandable in one sense as it’s important to give players in the panel first-team experience.
But Dundalk must be able to use practically the first 11 week after week if they are to get the engine running again properly as well.
I also believe Dundalk signed too many players this season. And some of these players have not impressed at all. They were, in my opinion, not good enough for the high standard expected at Oriel.
They just were not the signings Dundalk needed. As a result we are just not seeing the team we know that can do it and maintain the club at the top table of Irish soccer.
Waterford got a second goal two minutes after the break when Byrne fired to the net from 18 yards.
Dundalk offered little in reply but 15 minutes from time the game suddenly swung their way. Waterford were down to 10 men when Alaister Coote was sent-off for a second bookable offence.
Within five minutes Dundalk pulled a goal back with Pat Hoban scoring.
Right on time, Daniel Cleary bundled the ball over the line from a Sean Murray corner.
Dundalk came at Waterford in waves. Sean Gannon had a header come back off the crossbar and they nearly had the chance of a winner again when a strike was narrowly wide.
The game did not get the headlines one would have expected following comments by Waterford manager John Sheridan. Perth told the media after the game that Sheridan had said from the dug out that the League of Ireland was a pub league. The comment seems to have been made when Waterford had their player dismissed.
Perth and Sheridan were involved in a verbal spat at the end of the game.
The Dundalk manager went over to the Waterford boss to confront him what he’d said to one of his own players.
Perth told the media he had heard Sheridan say that the league was “a shambles, a pub league”. Perth said that he has no time for these comments. He said he loved the league and that it meant so much to people like him.
Perth said he would defend the league whether he is a coach at Dundalk or back at Malahide United.
He was also told by Sheridan that he would be getting the sack. Perth said the comments were just not good enough.
Sheridan was grossly disrespectful to the Dundalk boss in a post match interview with RTE. When asked about the spat he had with Perth, he replied that the name of the manager did not appear to be known to him. Sheridan then said the Dundalk boss needs to just look after his own team.
On Dundalk’s performance, Perth admitted it was not good enough. He also accepted that Dundalk had just not hit form since the resumption of the league.
He said that he could not give a reason why they had suddenly hit such a bad run of form; that it was almost as if a black cat had been run over.
There is no one single reason why Dundalk have suddenly seen their firm dip as badly as it has.
As an outsider looking in, I can never doubt the commitment and work ethic that Perth has put into the club as assistant manager and now as manager.
He has an excellent backroom team. Ruaidhri Higgins was a massive loss to the club when he joined Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland backroom team but Dundalk were lucky to get Alan Reynolds as his replacement. He is at Oriel at least until the end of the season.
Being manager of a top club like Dundalk brings its own pressures. The owners, Peak6, naturally demand instant success.
But this Dundalk squad does have the ability and talent to be the best.
I do believe the squad is too big. That can lead to frustration and impatience among the players who are not getting a game.
But many of them are as the first 11 never seems to be the same.
Perth has a huge job on his hands to try and look after any frustration among players who are maybe unhappy they are not getting a game.
The club signed David McMilan just before the resumption. To me, there was no need to do that as the club already had Georgie Kelly. To be fair, Perth rightly felt it was best to let Georgie go on loan as he would get games every week.
But Georgie, to me, should have been getting regular first-team football. He is a class player, one Dundalk could ill afford to do without.
McMillan has been a great asset to Dundalk in the past. He will always be a Lilywhite legend. But I would not be signing a player who left the club three years ago in place of such a talented young player as Georgie Kelly.
So I do feel the squad at Oriel is way too big. The weekly wage bill must be colossal.
Tonight Dundalk will walk out into the home ground of Vasas Budapest. They played a second leg European Cup tie against the Hungarians in 1967.
Vasas won the game in Budapest 8-1. They already won the first leg in Oriel 1-0.
Tonight’s opponents, NK Celje, will be tough opponents.
But I think if Dundalk can rediscover the form they are capable of performing Perth’s men can cross the rubicon and get the big win.
Champions League football is what Dundalk must strive to achieve every year.
Perth showed how much he cares about the League of Ireland and the work done in it by his passionate defence of the game here in Ireland.
But he knows he must get to the answer as to why Dundalk have hit such poor form on the domestic front.
Is all ok in the dressing room with the players? If not, Vinny and his backroom team must sort it out. It’s impossible for me to answer the question if there is something wrong in the dressing room.
I’m sure if there is it will be sorted.
There have been problems with players picking up injuries as well. This must be sorted and soon.
Best of luck to Vinny and his team on Wednesday night.
It’s a huge game. But there are many others also coming up of equal importance.
Another week gone folks. Please, be careful out there. Talk to you next week.