Brian Gartland with the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division trophy at the launch of the league. (Pic: Harry Murphy/ Sportsfile)
The season starts for real for Dundalk this coming Friday when the Oriel Park men take on one of the title favourites Derry City. Derry have spent well and invested heavily in a new squad.
They have taken Michael Duffy, Cameron Dummigan, Will Patching and Patrick McEleney from Dundalk to the Brandywell. The players were out of contract with Duffy and McEleney signing pre contract deals last season while with Dundalk which ensured their switch to their hometown club.
Derry have made many other signings and have strengthened their side so much that soccer pundits and reporters feel that they will make a real challenge for the league title and dethrone Shamrock Rovers.
Dundalk too have made many new changes in their squad along with keeping many of the key members of the current team from last season. The club has new owners who are most importantly local and a new manager in Stephen O’Donnell.
The Dundalk boss has hit the ground running, sorting out his backroom team and then strengthening his side considerably. I was at the launch last week of the league in Dublin last Wednesday. All clubs had their manager and at least one player with them.
It gave the media a great chance to get a cross section of opinion from players and managers in both divisions and also from clubs in the Women’s National League. I got talking to Derry manager Ruaidhri Higgins and Dundalk coach Dave Mackey.
I also spoke to Brian Gartland and the chairman of the National League, former Louth TD Dermot Ahern. The opinion among the media present was that Dundalk would be right up there challenging for at least a place in Europe.
To me this must be the main aim. Where managers and media all agreed was they all felt it’s so important that teams get off to a winning start in the League. Bad starts can be hammer blows to a club’s destiny and fortunes for the remainder of the season.
As it is, it’s amazing Dundalk start the new season at home to Derry. Derry were also Dundalk’s final visitors in the league at Oriel last season. They came to Oriel needing a win to grab fourth place in the league and then hope Pat’s beat Bohemians in the cup final to ensure a place in Europe.
Ruaidhri Higgins’s men got their win and Pat’s won the cup on penalties with Robbie Benson converting the last penalty which ensured the Foylesiders of a place in Europe.
Derry is spending this week at an hotel in Dublin and have the use of a state of the art training grounds which will ensure they are raring to go on Friday night. But Dundalk will also be the same.
Brian Gartland told me that everything was going well as far as preparations were concerned for the new season. He said the build-up has been enjoyable and that a great group of players had been assembled at the club.
Brian says there is a really good environment among players, management and backroom staff. He says that although the pre-season build up has been enjoyable, it’s been good hard work as well. He says you feel great after you put in the hard work, with the knowledge that your team are striving for something.
Brian accepted that Stephen O’Donnell has been very busy in the transfer market since he came in. He pointed out that in the starting 11 in the recent pre-season friendly against Galway, there was only one player on the team from last season.
He admitted that there were mistakes made in the past but that the club has now moved forward. He says the club has plenty of recruits who are young hungry players. They work really hard and fit in very well with the squad as a whole.
The Dubliner emphasized that there is a great mix among the squad and that the talent was there as well. Brian did accept there was a small number of players on loan at the club and that some may go back to their clubs in July.
But he pointed out that if they don’t stay, it’s actually a very good sign because that means that they would have done very well at Dundalk. He said that these players have all got good qualities and added that of course Dundalk would like to see the loan players staying on.
But if they do too well, they will all be going on to bigger and better things. Brian says Dundalk want performances from all their players along with a good work rate and commitment. This will include the on-loan players.
Gartland says he is very confident that Dundalk can do very well this season. He said he would not be at the club if he did not believe this. He says Dundalk are going to compete for every game but that there is no point in talking about trophies right now.
He felt strongly that the club has so many new players it would be completely unrealistic of him to say that Dundalk were going to win a league. In his mind, it’s Rovers’ league to throw away and after that there is Derry City.
Gartland says they have lots of money and they have many great new signings, half of them coming from Dundalk. He believes Derry are at a faster pace building because of their financial clout.
Brian also mentioned Bohemians and Shelbourne, but Pat’s specifically. Having come second in the league last season and winning the cup, he points out that the Inchicore men have a bigger budget for this season.
He says they have also signed some big name players. Gartland expects the league this season to be very competitive. He warns that many in Dundalk are talking about 2013 and how the club suddenly became such a force overnight. That was when Stephen Kenny arrived at the club.
He says it’s a different environment in the league to what it was like 2013. He says if Dundalk can repeat that it would be great and that’s the aim. But stressed this does not happen overnight. He says the commitment, the effort, and the will to win will be there among the Dundalk team.
The former Dundalk captain says it must be about concentrating on one game at a time, that the team must try and win one game at a time and then see what they can build as it goes along.
Gartland says the Derry game in three days’ time will be electric. With a broad smile on his face he says he cannot wait for it.
With the movement of Dundalk players to Derry at the end of last season it will add a small bit of needle to it. Especially for the fans, as they will be hurting with the players leaving and going to Derry.
Brian says that despite people saying it’s a good time to play Derry in the first game in the league, he feels it did not really matter because Dundalk have to play everyone.
Brian accepts that there is great optimism and confidence among supporters. But he says people are realistic and they do not expect to see Dundalk turn over every team. He says it’s an optimism, that it’s a start to the building of something.
Winning trophies Brian again says is the main objective. But he says it’s not always instant as it was in 2013. He did say there was a raw hunger and when something is built from that and from a lower point than Dundalk previously were, there is even more pride and success in what teams do.
He says there is also a better feeling with the club being back in local ownership. He says this ensures the fans know that they are part of the club.
On his own personal fitness Brian exclaimed that he is itching to go. He says everything is fine with him as he prepares to play competitive football for the first time in a season.
He picked up an injury in the President’s Cup final against Shamrock Rovers. That game was the season curtain raiser. The injury was that bad he did not play even one game after that.
He agrees with me that he will have to mind himself. He says that is why he has to prepare for the season slowly and that’s why his schedule has to be done slowly and rightly.
The good news is that he is back training and playing games a little earlier. He wisely says he cannot get ahead of himself. Brian says he just keeps listening to the medics. He repeats he is itching to get going and he says it must be the right time.
Brian agrees that the arrival of Stephen O’Donnell had brought a lot of smiles in Oriel. He says players were attracted to sign for him and that the manager and his backroom staff are just an exceptional team.
The Dubliner feels the new Dundalk boss has a great football brain and that he is a proven leader both on and off the pitch. He says it’s fantastic to have Stephen in charge and that it was brilliant for the club.
Brian is such a magnificent asset to the club. Last season during many games he would issue instructions to some of the younger players on the pitch. They listened to Brian, and one could see the respect they had for him.
I asked him had he not thought of going on to be a coach and Brian says he would never rule anything out, but that all he wants to do is play football. He says any way he can help the club he will of course happily do it.
The Malone Cup
Dundalk played their last pre-season game last Friday before the league begins in three days times. The performance asked more questions than it gave answers. Drogheda United took the Malone Cup back to Boyneside for the first time in seven seasons when they had a deserved 2-1 win over the Oriel Park men.
Questions have to be asked over the slack goal Dundalk gave away on 32 minutes. Darragh Markey’s corner on the right should have been cut out by goalkeeper Nathan Shepherd. James Clarke headed home for Drogheda.
Drogheda’s second goal came from Chris Lyons after he was adjudged to have been taken down in the box by Mark Connolly. Dundalk got a goal back seven minutes from time when Keith Ward got a cross in from the right. David McMillan shot home.
Drogheda skipper Dane Massey was presented with the Jim Malone trophy by Killian Moran after the game. In 2020 he collected it for Dundalk. He is the only player who captained both Louth sides to the trophy in its 25 year long history.
Dundalk’s new centre half Mark Connolly played very well for the lilywhites. The Monaghan man from Clones arrived in the close season. He will partner Andy Boyle at centre half during the season. The two have played together at underage international level.
Mark told me he was glad to get the 90 minutes against Drogheda under his belt. He said the new players would have learned a lot from Friday’s game, including playing in front of a home crowd as well as getting used to a new pitch.
He also said the game helped the new players to get used to each other. He said all the preparations for the new season are now done and dusted and that the big stuff starts next Friday with the opening League game against Derry.
Mark said it was very disappointing the way Dundalk conceded the first goal, from a set piece. He said the penalty came about from him getting used to the bounce on the pitch. Chris Lyons got the other side of him, yet he thought it was a very soft penalty that was given. He said it’s something he needs to learn and something he needs to get used to.
The Dundalk centre half says his side are going to have to be at their very best for the game against Derry next Friday as they will have to be for all games from now on.
He said Stephen O’Donnell has the team working hard and that the team will win some games and lose other games. He clarified that the fans would see that the players are giving 100 per cent and that that’s the minimum they can give.
They will be working hard to get the club up the league table where it belongs. He said it did not matter when they played Derry in the League as they would be playing them at some stage and believes it will be great to test themselves against Derry as they have heavily invested in a new team.
He says the game will be a tough one but that he’s looking forward to it. Mark says Oriel will be bouncing next Friday. Mark revealed that he felt his new teammate and fellow centre half Andy Boyle was a terrific player.
He said they know each other well as they had played together at underage level for the Republic of Ireland. He points out there will be keen competition for the centre half spots with Sam Bone also in contention and with Brian Gartland coming back from injury.
Mark says he has been settling in very well since he arrived home from Scotland. He says the set ups in the UK are very different from Ireland, But that he is glad to be home. Being from Clones, he can easily commute to Dundalk every day. He revealed he is living with his mum in Clones.
Mark revealed that sadly his father died last year. He says the timing was right for him to come home and that it was great to come to a fantastic club with fantastic players. He says it can easily be seen where the club is trying to go and that’s getting back to what he called the good old days.
He says it will take time, but he has been very impressed with Stephen O’Donnell, the backroom staff and of course his playing colleagues. Mark mentioned, as did Brian Gartland, that the manager has a magnificent football brain.
He also said O’Donnell and his assistant Patrick Cregg are great to work with and know football. He says both understand and read the game very well.
Speaking to Mark you could only be impressed at the new centre half. The big Monaghan man will certainly play a huge role in Stephen O’Donell’s plans going forward.
And so it’s Derry City on Friday in the opening League game of the season. Derry will have at least three or four of their Dundalk signings in their team. Michael Duffy, Cameron Dummigan and Will Patching are certs.
There are doubts over Patrick McEleney as he has an injury that looks set to keep him out of the game. I think this will be a season that Dundalk will hope to stabilize the club, both on and off the pitch.
The manager must be given time to get things right. Dundalk may hit the ground running from the start. Supporters must be patient as the new owners need time to get things right off the pitch, having seen what went on last season.
They have done so well to take over at Oriel and to be settling in well so quickly. They have brought in an excellent young manager who should get it right on the pitch at Oriel, just as he did at Inchicore with Pat’s. Have a safe week and please remember to be careful out there.
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