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26 May 2022

The Commentary Box: Dundalk struggling up top but Welsh keeper is a real gem

The Commentary Box:  Dundalk struggling up top but Welsh keeper is a real gem

Dundalk goalkeeper Nathan Shepperd. (Pic: Sportsfile)

Stephen O’Donnell made some very astute signings in the close season. One of the best was goalkeeper Nathan Shepperd. The Welsh under 21 international has starred in a number of games this season. He was the Dundalk hero on Friday night when making at least three top class saves.

From the stand you could see Shepherd constantly shouting at his defense as he showed top class organizational skills. Worryingly for Dundalk, Pat’s were able to rip Dundalk open by getting down the two flanks easily.

This caused Dundalk endless problems throughout the night. The problem has been there for all to see since the start of the season. Robbie Benson towered head and shoulders above the rest of his midfielders. But he needs help here. Dundalk lacked physicality in this area.

And where one can say Dundalk have been top class defensively, one can’t say the same in the middle of the park. The midfield lacks height and the physicality that’s going to be needed to drive this team forward.

Robbie Benson was Dundalk’s best outfield player on the night. As the games go on, he gets better. Marc Connolly was another shrewd signing by Stephen O’Donnell. On Friday night, as in most games he was top class dealing with everything that was lobbed into the box.

Andy Boyle is an excellent centre half and both are forming a good combination. Darragh Leahy is a young player of exceptional ability and will get better as he comes back from a serious injury. Lewis Macari too gets better and better as the weeks go on. He did well on Friday night.

Daniel Kelly creates and scores goals out of nothing. He is a highly talented player. If he can avoid injury, I think he will be key to Dundalk getting one of the European places in the league at the end of the season.

Stephen Bradley has great ability and can score goals out of nothing. He was injured in March having opened the season so well that he picked up the soccer writers player of the month award.

Stephen is gradually getting back into something like his best form and when that comes, the goals will flow. Greg Sloggett gives his all for Dundalk in every game. His commitment is top class. And he is very popular among the supporters.

This Dundalk team are very young. They are a work in progress. Stephen O’Donnell had to build a decent squad pretty much from scratch when he came in before the start of the season. But this team needs more physicality in its ranks. And that means signing at least two good players when the window opens in June.

Dundalk were very lucky to come to Inchicore and get a point. I don’t think they had a single shot on target in the entire night, nor did they have one corner kick for the entire 90 minutes.

Feisty Reception?

Thankfully there were no huge protests upon the return of Stephen O’Donnell to Inchicore. It can’t have been easy for Pat’s supporters to see the man who guided them to cup glory in November sitting in the Dundalk dug out.

The atmosphere was electric throughout the game. O’Donnell’s return was not the welcome to hell reception that many expected. Home fans behind O’Donnell’s dug out vented their feelings at the Dundalk boss for the entire 90 minutes.

But it was nothing out of the ordinary. It had been speculated on some social media channels that there would be pigs heads a plenty there to be used in a protest with O’Donnell returning. Apart from a couple of banners being unveiled in protest, it was all peaceful and nobody crossed the mark.

The Pat’s fans deserve great credit for this as does the club in ensuring there were no problems. Stephen O’Donnell and Pat’s boss Tim Clancy shook hands at the end of the game.

There were no such pleasantries exchanged between Pat’s general manager Alan Matthews and Stephen O’Donnell. Mathews was by Stephen’s side for every game in the last two seasons before O’Donnell returned to his old club.

Superb Pats Attack

Pats lost their main Mann Chris Forrestsr through injury before Friday’s game. 17-year-old Adam O’Reilly replaced him and he was a revelation. However, he lasted just 22 minutes, having to go off with a hamstring injury.

Darragh Burns on the other flank was also causing Dundalk problems in the opening 20 minutes. Despite all their attempts Pat’s failed to get the breakthrough up to the break. Eoin Doyle played his part in pressurizing Dundalk.

Darragh Byrnes put over two critical crosses. Doyle’s headers forced Shepperd into two top class saves. Doyle sportingly gave the Dundalk keeper a pat to congratulate him for the first fantastic save.

Doyle, try as he might could get no closer to the Dundalk defence. The away team ran the clock down to collect a valuable point. However, despite the away point, it must be a matter of concern that they are picking up too many draws.

They had good spells in Friday night’s games. But they never pressurised Pat’s in any way. Dundalk played a rearguard action policy on Friday night as they have in all of their away games this season.

They failed to get the proper ball supply to Pat Hoban. This has to be worked on. Dundalk’s lack of scoring power is there for all to see. They could only score one goal in the entire month of March.

They have scored 10 goals in nine games. But they have conceded only six, a great example of how good their defense is. Two of the goals scored against them were penalties.

The SSE Airtricity man of the match award was given to Pat’s defender Joe Redmond. He said after the game that Pat’s deserved to win the game given the domination they had shown.

He said that but for the two sensational saves pulled off by Nathan Shepperd it would have been Pat’s night. Joe stated that he was very happy to have kept such an experienced striker like Pat Hoban so quiet. It was a great boost for him. The young player was top class.

Gary Rogers Thoughts

The Man of the Match award should have gone to young Nathan Shepperd. He was a class above everybody. Gary Rogers said that on the balance of play Pat’s would have deserved to win.

The former Dundalk keeper says Pat’s dominated the ball. Gary said they won the particularly key battle at midfield, and this was significant as Chris Forrester had been a late absentee through injury for Pats.

Rogers felt Forrester’s replacement Adam O’Reilly did really well. Sadly for Pat’s the 17 year old went off with a hamstring injury. Up to that point O’Reilly was slicing the Dundalk defence open at will.

Rogers says that Nathan Shepperd’s saves were excellent. He said his positioning was excellent for both Pat’s efforts and this was what allowed him to get to get to both.

He said the depth at which the Welshmen was positioned for the first effort allowed him to tip the ball over the crossbar. Gary said how he turned the ball over the bar to make it a super save. He said his depth was so good for the second attempt by Pat’s that he was again allowed to make a magnificent save.

Gary Rogers said the first of Nathan Shepperd’s saves, where he tipped the ball over the bar, was the best save.

He mentioned that the fact that Dundalk had drawn six games out of the opening nine meant that they will have to start turning some into victories. He said draws can be very disappointing because your team is just not quite getting over the line.

Gary said that Dundalk did not deserve to get anything more than the draw on Friday night and that Pat’s could feel aggrieved that they did not get all three points. Gary said that Dundalk are a team in transition and are building.

He said they have work to do. He pointed out that Stephen O’Donnell has put in a lot of work to replace players from a previous panel. He said he has brought some in already, but that Dundalk are a new team that is just being put together.

The Lilywhites did get a precious point from Inchicore. But Pat’s did deserve to win. Dundalk served up some really good performances at home. But away from home they have struggled and sometimes they have struggled badly.

The 2002 FAI Cup

Dundalk won the FAI cup by day last Sunday in 2002 when they beat Stephen Kenny’s Bohemians 2-0 at Tolka Park. Dundalk had been relegated the week before in Gortakeegan against Monaghan United.

They were very unfortunate that season as the Premier Division was reduced to 10 teams, meaning that the premier Division in 2002 would lose three teams and see one team being promoted from the First Division.

Dundalk beat Monaghan well on the Sunday. But Longford, who Dundalk needed to be beaten by Pats drew. Pats had an effort nearly go in but it shaved the post. So with Dundalk winning and Longford getting a result, the Oriel Park side were relegated.

It was a travesty as Dundalk had only been promoted the year before. Normally only two teams went down. But with the reduction to a 10 team Premier Division, Dundalk were relegated as they finished third from bottom.

The lilywhites in fact finished well clear of the second from bottom team, which would usually have meant no relegation. But manager Martin Murray was very unlucky to see his team go down after just one season, after bringing them up the previous year.

The following Sunday Dundalk met Bohemians in the cup final. The team showed massive courage, knowing they had been relegated the week before. It was a mainly local team that turned out for the final.

So confidant were Bohemians that a big banner draped over ST Peter’s road beside the local church in Phibsboro said welcome home Bohemians Cup winners 2002.

The big day came with around 5,000 of the 8000 crowd turning out to be Dundalk supporters. Dundalk had beaten Shamrock Rovers emphatically in the semi-final. They repeated the dose on Bohemians on that great cup final day.

Gary Haylock put Dundalk in front. Bohemians leveled. They missed a number of good chances to win the game. But Dundalk struck for the winner with Gary Haylock grabbing it.

David Crawley became the first local to lift the FAI cup for Dundalk FC in decades. The return home that night was the best I witnessed since Dundalk did the double in 1988. About 10,000 people welcomed the team back as they crossed Hill street bridge.

It took the bus over four hours to complete the victory parade. This Dundalk team made history as being the first Oriel Park side to be relegated and win the FAI Cup in the same season.

It was at this time that summer football was being introduced. The season was a short one starting in August 2002 and finishing in December. There was a second FAI cup final in December 2002 with Derry winning it.

Thus, Dundalk only had possession of the cup for just five months. The first summer season began in March 2003. They remained in second tier until they were promoted back to the top flight in November 2008.

The great 2002 cup team have been invited back to Oriel for next Friday’s game against Sligo Rovers at Oriel Park. The team will be introduced to the crowd at half time. It will bring back some great memories.

Final Thoughts

The Easter weekend will be a busy one for Dundalk. Next Friday, as stated already, they play Sligo at Oriel. The following Monday they are away to Shamrock Rovers. The following Friday Daman Duff will have his Shelbourne team in town. I think it’s a really nice festival of football for the Easter week.

Derry City continue to set the pace at the top of the table. Former Dundalk midfielder Will Patching was on the scoresheet twice for City to help them pick up six points over two games. On Saturday it was his late goal that gave Derry the vital 2-1 win in the Northwest Derby against Finn Harps.

Patching’s goal restored City’s six points lead over Shamrock. Rovers. The night before Aaron Greene scored a late goal for Shamrock Rovers to narrow the gap on Derry for 24 hours. It looks like it will be a two-horse race for the title.

I for one hope Derry dethrone the Hoops and win the league. I predicted at the start of the season that they would. Have a good week. And please remember to be careful out there.

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