01 Jul 2022

The Commentary Box: Robbie Benson ready to reshape Dundalk back into title contenders

Robbie Benson

Robbie Benson during a Dundalk pre-season training session at Oriel Park. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

As Dundalk continue their preparations for the new season, which is now just over two weeks away, manager Stephen O’Donnell continues to lay the correct foundations for the season ahead.

Dundalk did go down to a 5-1 defeat at Oriel to Bohemians last week. However, I would not be duly concerned at this result as this was just a pre-season friendly.

I remember Dundalk hammered Bohemians at Oriel during a warmup game before the 2020 season resumed later in the year as a result of the Covid 19 virus. When the league action returned it was Bohs who had a great finish to the season, ending up in Europe.

Dundalk did win the FAI cup, but finished 3rd in the table, their lowest position since 2012 in the league. Stephen O’Donnell will have learned a lot in the preseason games, and they continued to learn following a game away to first Division Galway this week.

Excitement among supporters continues to grow as they look forward to the start of Stephen O’Donnell’s reign as manager. One of the first actions the new boss did was to bring midfielder Robbie Benson back to Dundalk.

Robbie joined Dundalk before the start of the 2016 season. It was possibly the most successful season the club ever had, given their great run in Europe and retaining the league.

The club were just a two-legged game in the European qualifiers away from qualifying for the group stages of the champions League. In the end they finished up in the Europa League Qualifiers and went on a magnificent run.

One of the players who played such an outstanding role in what was, arguably, the best ever Dundalk team was Robbie Benson. His blockbuster goal in August 2016 at Tallaght put Bate Borisov out of the Champions League qualifiers and created shock waves across Europe.

Dundalk beat the Belarussians 3-0 in that game which sent them through on an aggregate score. Benson scored another massive goal in the Champions League qualifiers against Legia Warsaw.

In the end Dundalk did not make it to the Group stages. Instead, they powered their way into the Europa League qualifiers which ensured the season ran until December.

Dundalk did win the league that year. They were beaten in the cup final by Cork City. Robbie Benson played a major part in the success during the Kenny era’s European and domestic runs. He won the double in 2018 and within a week saw his manager Stephen Kenny depart to take on the Irish under 21 job.

2019 saw more great success at Oriel however. Dundalk won the League and EA Sports Cup under new boss Vinny Perth. The side just failed to win the treble when the cup final was lost to Shamrock Rovers on penalties.

Robbie departed Dundalk at the end of 2019 having won three league titles and one FAI Cup and achieving great runs in Europe. He moved back to Dublin and joined St Pat’s as Stephen O’Donnell had taken up the role as manager.

Robbie had achieved so much at Oriel that he felt that he needed a new challenge. The first season with Pat’s was successful enough for his new club in that they got stability on the field. In the second season Pat’s finished second in the league and won the cup.

The final against Bohs went to penalties and it was Robbie Benson who scored the decisive spot kick. Within 48 hours of that game Stephen O’Donnell was on his way back to Oriel as the new boss. Robbie Benson quickly followed him back.

The Interview

This week I caught up with Robbie, the famous 29-year-old midfielder from Athlone. Robbie played for Athlone Town right at the start of his career. He went on to play for UCD before coming to Dundalk for the first time in 2016.

Then of course he went on to St Pat’s where he won the cup. Now he is back at Oriel. Robbie started by saying he felt great to be back with Dundalk and at Oriel. He said he got the call from the management to come up to Dundalk for a chat.

The Dundalk midfielder said that all the memories came flooding back. And that there were still people at the club who he had a good relationship with. He felt great to be back working with them as well.

Robbie says he can sense the excitement around the club and among supporters as the season approaches. He said he was very aware how the supporters feel about all the changes that have taken place so quickly.

From the appointment of Stephen O’Donnell to the new owners and about the players he has signed. I would say many fans at the very least are so excited at having Robbie back as a midfield general.

Robbie said that the first league game at home to Derry will be an exciting one. He says that it’s important the team show each week that they are doing their very best. And he emphasized they must do that in every game.

Robbie said that of course teams can have off nights. But he said Stephen O’Donnell will instil in all his players that they give 100 per cent in every game. He added he was sure there will be a bedding in period for the team given the high turnover of players that there has been.

However, he does think that settling in period will be sorted out very quickly. Robbie revealed that leaving Pat’s was never a decision he expected to make. But he weighed up all the options when Dundalk came calling.

The Athlone native stated that the first thing he felt in his gut was that a move back to Oriel would be a good thing. He felt that it’s usually a good decision in the end when you go with your initial feeling. And that he said is what he had done.

Benson’s Milestones

Robbie said it was fantastic for him personally to win the cup with Pat’s and that there won’t be many moments like the one he had in scoring the winning penalty in the Cup final shoot out with Pat’s.

He says if he gets another moment or moments that eclipses that penalty in his career, he would be very happy. The penalty he scored, given that it was in a cup final will always be replayable by many. He says the cup win was a great day for him personally.

He added that the two best wins he had in his career when winning trophies were the Dundalk cup win over Cork City in 2018 and the Pats win over Bohs in the cup final just gone by. He says it was the occasion of the cup final day.

But Robbie quickly added that the one competition you get measured on and the one you want to win are leagues. Robbie says that if there was a choice in winning the league or the cup it would have to be the league.

He says winning a league is the competition that players would always look back on, yet the occasion on winning a cup final is just sensational.

Robbie acknowledged the fact that he was lucky to be in such a great Dundalk side when he won three league titles over a four-year period in 2016, 2018 and 2019. He also won a cup and the double in 2018 with Dundalk.

2022 Goals

Robbie added that the foundations were there for him when he came to Dundalk in 2016 in terms of success and says that his arrival back at Dundalk is a new start.

He recalled how they had finished in mid table last season and that even though they won the cup the previous year the club had slipped a bit as Dundalk did not win a trophy.

Robbie said it will be even more of a fresh start now for Dundalk given how things had gone in recent times. He added it would be even more of a success for him and add more of a weight to his career if he can help Dundalk to win trophies again given the position they are starting from now.

Robbie said the players know they have good quality in the squad, and they know about the expectations that people have of them. He says the side will be competitive but that it may take them time to settle however he also felt that they could hit the ground running straight away.

He says there are a number of players who will need to get to grips with League of Ireland football quickly. These he said are the players who are coming into the League of Ireland from outside the country for the first time. He has every confidence they will be fine.

The dynamic midfielder is looking forward to playing in front of a full house of supporters at Oriel, given the difficulties of Covid 19 and the fact that teams have been playing in empty stadiums for the past two seasons.

And he says he thinks that given the fact that fans have been absent from grounds it will ensure they won’t take things for granted on a Friday night, as they know now how situations can change so quickly.

Fans he believes will have a greater appreciation for being there on a Friday night more than they had before Covid struck. And Robbie wants the fans to know that Dundalk will be giving it their all. That even if or when results don’t go right on the pitch, he says it won’t be for lack of effort.

Robbie says that the fact that the club was back in the hands of Andy Connolly and also Stats Sports was huge for the community. He said the club means everything to the people of Dundalk and the people mean everything to all those involved in the club.

He says Dundalk FC and the people of the town are really one and the same. Robbie also says he is very excited by the fact that Stats Sports are coming in as new owners as the players will be able to use their expertise.

They are a leader in their field in the areas of sport science, statistics and improvements and he felt this will be a great help to all. 

He says the goal he got against Bate Borrisov and the one he got against Legia Warsaw were the two most important goals of his career in terms of the exposure they got. He also said that was at a time at the height of the Dundalk story.

Robbie says he left the club at the end of 2019 as he felt there was not much more he could do at the club, as he had achieved all and felt he needed a new challenge. He got this by moving to Pat’s.

Robbie clarified that he was not coming back to the same thing he left when he departed in 2019 and instead was coming back to something fresh and new, believing that it’s an exciting time ahead for the club.

Robbie sees Stephen O’Donnell as a great influencer on his career, be it as as Dundalk captain or as Pat’s manager. He says that add in Stats Sports and what they will be able to do for the team, then it is surely going to be an exciting time ahead for the club.

Robbie says for him, the most important aim was to make sure the club are known for their competitiveness in the league. He added that last season they had slipped down the table. This coming season they must move forward again and that is what they will do.

He says he wants to see the club competing for honours and that this is where they deserve to be. He believes clubs like Derry, Pats and Bohs have recruited well and that this will make it an exciting league.

He predicts Sligo Rovers will be strong, as will Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk. Robbie predicts it’s going to be a very open league this season and I agree with him. It’s all about which team can build up the most consistency.

Final Thoughts

Robbie Benson is a leader both on and off the pitch. He is a great asset for the club to have in their armoury. His arrival back at Oriel shines like a beacon of light and positivity which is back at the club and which has not been there for some time.

It was confirmed this week that League of Ireland TV is returning this year in a different format. All games in the Premier and First Division will be available.

However, fans can no longer buy a season ticket to watch games throughout the season. They must pay a fee of €7 a game in the Premier Division and €5 in the First Division.

With no season ticket option as there was last season, it means fans must pay out an extra €111 if they wish to see all 36 premier league games their club plays.

The increase is an 82 per cent rise in the prices of the subscriptions to the online service. This is because the once off annual subscription no longer applies. As said above you pay for each individual game. The games will be covered by two cameras. Live coverage of the Women’s National League can be seen for free.

The signing by Italian Serie A team Udinese of Pat’s teenager James Abankwah for €800,000 is seen as a magnificent boost for the League of Ireland. James is from Longford. He is sitting his Leaving Cert in June.

He can play for Pat’s until the end of June. Then he travels to Italy to begin what hopefully will be a magnificent career in Serie A with Udinese.

Dundalk FC won the website of the year award during the week. It’s awarded by the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland. Presentations were made to Gavin McLaughlin, the club’s media content officer. It’s a great credit to Gavin and the club for picking up such an award.

Finally, it was 44 years ago on January 28th that Brian McConville passed away suddenly. Brian was a brother of the late Tommy McConville.

Brian re-joined Dundalk in 1975 and played as a teak tough defender. He was in the side of 1975-76 that won the league for the first time for Jim McLaughlin as manager of Dundalk.

Brian went on to win a cup medal in season 1976/77 for Dundalk. He continued to play for the Lilywhites until the day he died. On 28th January 1978 he had been playing for Dundalk in a league game against Pat’s in Inchicore.

He returned home that evening and sadly passed away very suddenly. The town of Dundalk was stunned at the news, as was the club and his fellow players. Brian played full back for Dundalk at that time. His brother Tommy was centre half.

His death was of course felt most by his young family. He was a magnificent player at full back. Nothing ever got past him. Have a safe week everybody. And please remember to be careful out there.

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