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26 Jan 2022

The Commentary Box: Stephen O’Donnell starting to put his stamp on Dundalk ahead of the new Season

The Commentary Box: Stephen O’Donnell starting to put his stamp on Dundalk ahead of the new Season

Stephen O'Donnell has been slowly building up his team for 2022. (Pic: Sportsfile)

New manager Stephen O’Donnell has not had much time to get his feet under the desk as he begins the rebuilding of his squad for next season. Pat Hoban signed a three-year contract which keeps him at Oriel possibly for the next three seasons.

This was a great bit of business done by Stephen as it assures him that he has the best striker in the country. Many teams, even the good ones lack a top-class striker. Dundalk have that in Pat Hoban.

Robbie Benson is returning from Pat’s on a one-year deal. Dundalk would have wanted him to sign for longer, but Robbie has always had this policy at whatever club he has been at.

He surprisingly left the club at the end of 2019. He emphasized at the time of departure that he wanted a new challenge as he had done everything he could achieve at Oriel and needed to move on in his career.

He scored the winning penalty in the shootout at the FAI Cup final against Bohemians in November. He will return as part of the rebuilding blocks in midfield after the Derry raids on the club that saw them strip Dundalk’s midfield asunder.

They did nothing wrong of course as Dundalk managed to entice Stephen O’Donnell back to the club in the same fashion. All were out of contract.

Dundalk lost Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy, Will Patching and then Cameron Dummigan. City manager Ruaidhri Higgins is building up some team and they will be right up there with Shamrock Rovers next season.

Last Saturday morning he re-signed Greg Sloggett. The Meath man had a very good season. He will be a massive asset.

It was great to hear that Daniel Kelly has signed a new two-year deal at Dundalk. The young Dubliner has always looked an exciting prospect but has been plagued by injury over the past two seasons.

If he can keep clear of that he will be magnificent on the wings for Stephen O’Donnell. The manager also announced the signing of young UCD midfielder Paul Doyle.

Paul played a key role in getting UCD promoted to the Premier Division and was expected to stay on there. That has all now changed. He is set to become a Lillywhite.

Darragh Leahy is staying on with Dundalk. The club had an option on a contract extension and have duly done so. Leahy is a super player.

He was hit with a lot of injury problems but when he played, he was top class. He was superb in some of the European games and played a key role in getting Dundalk away from the play off zone.

The former Republic of Ireland under 21 International will be watched by cross channel clubs and if he has a good season next year, he would be a certainty to move to a higher level. Like Daniel Kelly, he must keep injury free.

Departures

Dundalk did lose some players recently. Sam Stanton has returned to Scotland and has linked up with Raith Rovers. Scottish Premier League side Saint Johnstone finally got their act together and signed centre half Daniel Cleary.

Cleary was snapped up by Dundalk in 2018. He had been on trial with Shamrock Rovers. They offered him a contract but said they would be loaning him out for a season.

He decided to look elsewhere and lucky for him and Dundalk he went straight into the first team. He was an instant success and has has won cups and leagues with Dundalk along with seeing his side reach the group stages of the Europa League.

A magnificent centre half, he struck up a great partnership with Andy Boyle over the past number of seasons. He could always get the vital goals.

Last season it was his winning goal in the dying minutes of the Louth Derby at Head in The Game Park that gave Dundalk the three precious points. This ensured Dundalk would not be in the relegation play off.

I will always remember how he darted across the pitch and embraced then manager Vinny Perth. The relief was palpable. Daniel is a young man who never sought the limelight, but he was highly popular with both supporters and players. I’m sure everyone wishes him every success in his future career.

Raivis Jurkovskis has signed for Latvian club Riga FC. He was the best of the foreign players to play for Dundalk. Alessio Abibi, Dundalk’s first team keeper for most of the season also departed last week. It was a difficult year for the young player. He had his best game for Dundalk in Arnhem in the Europa Conference league game against Vitesse.

Irish journalists gave him ratings of seven to eight out of ten for his performances. But Allesio’s performances for Dundalk in the league were somewhat inconsistent.

Anyhow I’m sure he will have learned from his year at Dundalk. I’m sure he will blossom into a fine keeper as he pursues his career elsewhere into the future.

Stephen O’Donnell

I did happen to catch up with the Dundalk manager Stephen O’Donnell just as he started his process of rebuilding the Dundalk squad. In an exclusive interview for the Democrat the new boss spoke to me in the video editing room of the YDC.

Stephen said the off season is always a very busy time of the year for any club and manager. He said that this busy time will be more so than usual as he was starting that little bit later.

Stephen said he found it to be a very difficult decision to leave Pat’s who he had just led to winning the FAI Cup. The manager said that winning the cup with Pat’s was probably the proudest day of his career.

But Stephen O’Donnell said he felt his previous connections with Dundalk and the chance of managing them was just too big an opportunity to turn down.

Stephen said that even though he left Dundalk two years ago, returning was not the culture shock that some people might have felt it was going to be. He said there were still a lot of familiar faces that were in Oriel when he played.

He spoke of the magnificent facilities of the YDC building. O’Donnell said that the facilities there would not be found anywhere else in Ireland.

Stephen said he wanted to develop a positive culture within the club and to get everyone to get behind it. He said It was vital to have the playing staff, ground staff and office staff united and singing off the same hymn sheet.

The Dundalk boss said he wanted all at the club to have the same goal and that was getting it back among the top echelons in Irish soccer. Stephen O’Donnell said he was looking forward to working with Andy and Martin Connolly again and of course Statsports.

He said Andy and Martin’s knowledge of the day to day running of the club was enormous. He felt Statsports brought so much to the table throughout all of the aspects of the club.

He stated that it was great to have a worldwide company, founded and owned by two local men in Alan Clarke and Sean O’Connor, as part owners of the club.

Stephen said that he was immersed in the culture of Dundalk. He said he knew the faces and the supporters as not only was he a player at the club for five years, but he also lived here for the same time.

He said that there are not many places in Ireland where a town lives and breathes its football club. But that’s Dundalk. Stephen said he knows the workings of the town.

The manager said that he was aware of the great reaction to him and the fact that he was back in the town. He said that he was not on social media but the great positives that he had received had filtered back to him.

Stephen said he always had a great rapport with the supporters. But showing good realism O’Donnell said neither he, the club nor the supporters can be living in the past. The manager felt that everybody must now move forward.

Players and Management

The Galwegian stated he did have a good corps of players in mind that were already at the club from last season. He has re-signed quite a few of them already. O’Donnell accepted that he was a young manager but to me that is what the club needs.

Stephen said that everyone has to be realistic in their objectives for the club. But he felt that when things are got right there is no place better to be then at Oriel on a Friday night. He said it was a big task he faced but that it was an exciting task.

The manager was very honest when asked how long it would take him to get the squad he wanted at Oriel. He said football was so fluid that situations change from time to time. He said it was very difficult to know at any given minute.

O’Donnell hinted in the interview that it would take time to knit the team together in their various positions. But he said he was looking forward to everything, the ups and the downs. That he said was what football was all about.

He said it was vital he took his assistant at Pat’s Patrick Cregg with him. The manager explained he had known him from the age of 12. They both played at Arsenal and Scotland together as kids.

Stephen said he was a huge part of his team at Pat’s. The Dundalk boss took Patrick over from Scotland to be his assistant when he started as manager there.

Stephen also said the management figure that needed to be brought into the club to make up for the fact he does not have the Pro Licence yet, Dave Mackey, was a great guy. Dave won a league medal with Dundalk in 1991.

His career ended prematurely in 1992 when he broke his leg, Dave tried to come back but the injury was such that he had to retire. Stephen said that he needs good people around him everywhere at the club. Dave Mackey was one of those good people.

O’Donnell confirmed that he has regular contact with former Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny. That contact was there while he was at Pats and will continue at Dundalk.

Finally I asked Stephen what would he be satisfied with in his first season as boss at Dundalk. He said he did not like putting a marker on anything.

The main aim he said was for the supporters to come every week and to be sure they are getting an honest group of players and an honest club. That fans can have no doubt that the players that take to the pitch are going to empty the tank for the club. 

Stadium Restrictions?

Ominously the Covid virus has worsened considerably and attendances at outdoor sporting events already face new restrictions just six weeks after full crowds were being allowed.

But new cases of COVID hit over 9,000 last Saturday, north and south together. Late on Saturday night the media were reporting that the Republic was facing a full lockdown by the 30th of December.

This was from Nephet according to the media and they warned of severe restrictions on spectators at sporting events, if not a total ban. This would be a huge blow to all League of Ireland clubs.

In many ways it was the return to normal crowds that lifted the form of Dundalk and ensured they won almost all of their home games on the run in to the end of the season.

This renormalisation of atmosphere was the boost the team needed. It was the torch that brought a great run of form and ensured Dundalk were safe from the relegation play offs.

The fixtures for the new season which starts at the beginning of February were published during the week. But as I said, a huge cloud hangs over the issue of attendances as a full lockdown looms.

I would be confidant that sporting events will not be suspended so there is no reason to believe the soccer season will not start on schedule.

Garrett Kelleher

Stephen O’Donnell told the National media that he has absolutely zero regrets about the manner in which he left Pat’s. Stephen said everything was done with complete honesty. The Irish Daily Star says the timing of Stephen’s departure not only angered Pat’s owner Garrett Kelleher.

Naturally the timing of his move annoyed Pat’s fans and players. The Star reported that Mr Kelleher was adamant that the terms of a new contract was agreed with Stephen O’Donnell but not signed by him and saw a new wage policy implemented for him earlier this year.

The Pat’s owner believes this means O’Donnell was not allowed to join Dundalk without compensation being paid by the Lilywhites.

Garrett Kelleher has retained a top Dublin law firm to pursue Dundalk for compensation. However it’s not believed there has been any engagement between Dundalk and Pat’s to date. 

But Stephen O'Donnell told the Irish Daily Star he would not have done anything he did not think was legally his entitlement.

Stephen said he handed in his notice and with the agreement he signed originally with Pat’s that was his legal right. The new Dundalk boss did accept that his shock departure to Oriel Park had tarnished Pat’s winning the cup. 

Anyway, to all Dundalk supporters, players, manager, management team, office staff and non-office staff, plus media team can I wish all at Oriel a happy and peaceful Christmas.

I also want to wish the same to the readers of the Dundalk Democrat. We are facing a very dangerous time now, as the new Covid variant spreads rapidly. Look after one another and please be careful out there.

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