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18 Aug 2022

The Commentary Box: Dundalk players well aware they are in a battle for the title

The Commentary Box: Dundalk players aware they are in a battle for the title

Dundalk players applaud to the supporters after their victory over St Patrick's Athletic last week

The FAI Cup holders St Pat’s were in town last Friday night hoping to inflict a first home defeat against their former manager Stephen O’Donnell’s new team Dundalk. They failed to get anything from the game. That was down to the magnificent goalkeeping of Nathan Shepperd.

The Welsh under 21 goalkeeper landed save after save in the final 20 minutes of the game that ensured Dundalk got all three points, which allowed them to move into second place as Derry was held to a 2-2 draw at the Brandywell. Dundalk won the game at Oriel 1-0.

Three games in eight days is hard for anyone. This applies even to reporters like me. I was the only local reporter who made it to all the games. Last Friday week I travelled to Derry to see Dundalk pull off a sensational 2-1 win at the Brandywell.

Within 72 hours I was back in the North West where I saw Dundalk grind out a 1-0 win at Ballybofey in Donegal. Then last Friday it was back to Oriel where Dundalk grinded out another 1-0 win this time against Pat’s.

Stephen O’Donnell made four changes to the team that won in Donegal. Mark Connolly returned in place of Sam Bone. Keith Ward was replaced by Robbie Benson. John Martin was replaced by Joe Adams while Paul Doyle was replaced by Stephen Bradley.

Dundalk dominated the first half. They finally took the lead with the help of a mistake by Pat’s defender Ian Bermingham on 24 minutes. Daniel Kelly struck for the golden goal when Bermingham failed to cut out a pass in the box.

The ball landed at the feet of Pat Hoban. He hooked it up over the top as Daniel Kelly got in. Birmingham got between Kelly and his own teammate Sam Curtis. Bermingham’s attempt to head the ball backwards towards his own goal dropped well short.

Daniel Kelly side stepped Pat’s keeper Joseph Anang before finishing the ball to the net for his 5th goal of the season. Dundalk failed to add to their lead in the second half as Pat’s gradually took control.

Pat’s came close with shot after shot, as they ripped through the Dundalk defence. It was the under 21 Welsh international keeper Nathan Shepperd who took off at least 5 top class saves to keep the lilywhites in the game.

How Pat’s failed to get an equaliser is beyond me as Dundalk tired a lot in the last 20 minutes. I was amazed Nathan was not awarded Man of The Match. That was given to Daniel Kelly.

Whoever makes these decisions every week at Oriel usually do not tally with me or other members of the local media. The award used to be decided by us. But now that power has gone elsewhere.

Stephen O’Donnell did have to make five substitutions during the game. In the end it was a case of a team not playing that well but who still managed to win. This was exactly what happened in Ballybofey the previous Monday.

It’s a sign of a good team who don’t play that well in a game and still can get the win. It was Dundalk’s 6th League win in a row at home in Oriel. They are in second place going into the break. They are eight points behind leaders Shamrock Rovers with a game in hand.

Ironically their first game back after the break is against Shamrock Rovers on 17th June when the season resumes. Win that game and it will blow the league race wide open.

Stephen O’Donnell won’t discuss the question when asked can his team win the league this season. He says there is such a long way to go and that all his team can do is take each game in turn. He refutes any idea that Dundalk can win the league.

But talk to the Dundalk players and there is no doubt they firmly believe they can chase Rovers all the way and depose them as champions.

Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly told me that the team had sorted out a mini league in their own minds for the three games against Derry, Finn Harps, and Pat’s to see if they could get maximum points. This was a fantastic idea and it worked.

Daniel said the game against Pat’s was the worst performance out of the three. He said the players were disappointed with the performance against Pat’s, as the manager was nailing down performances.

But he spoke about how they had the break now and will take advantage of that. Daniel thought Dundalk got away with one against Pat’s. But he emphasized that thankfully the players at the back were magnificent and kept a clean sheet.

Daniel was full of praise for Nathan Shepperd who he said was brilliant. Daniel said all the players would have bitten somebody’s arm off at the start of the season if they had known they would be in second place in the league by this break.

The Dubliner continued that considering all that had gone on at the club over the past 18 months the players are very grateful to be where they are now.

He said they just wanted to keep the run going and that in a way the break had come at the wrong time, given the momentum the team was experiencing. But Daniel said they will have a nice few day off and return ready to go.

Daniel reemphasised the players were tired and that could be seen in the way they played last Friday night .He said the players  will return to training in a few days and that they will be fresh and ready for all that the second half of the season throws at them.

Daniel’s Injury Worries

The in-form attacker was very gracious when I said he was doing very well this season. He says thankfully he is now playing week in and week out, which he always wanted to do as before this his career had been marred by injury.

He noted how Stephen O’Donnell and the players had put a lot of faith in him. Thankfully Daniel says he is able to repay them a bit. He says there is nothing he can point to which has seen him go virtually injury free for most of this season while he has suffered so much injury in other seasons.

He said a knee injury he sustained previously that left him out of Football much longer than it was supposed to. Then he was unfortunate to go into a pothole and do his ankle which caused Grade Two ligament injuries to the ankle.

Daniel says he also had other niggles which kept him out of football. He said his absence from first team football had been frustrating. But he feels now that he has avoided serious injury this season, he is looking forward to helping Dundalk have as successful a season as possible.

The Pats Match

Daniel says Pat Hoban did very well for the goal. His pass found him nicely and he thought he did well to control the ball and get in position. He had to change his mind where he was going to place the ball as a Pat’s defender was blocking his intended path to goal.

He saw another gap and slotted the ball past the Pat’s keeper and was delighted to see the ball wrestle in the net. Daniel agreed Dundalk were the better team in the first half. But he said they were disappointed that they did not dominate as well as they should have.

Daniel said Pat’s are a good side and are excellent on the ball. He agreed it was Pat’s who dominated a lot of the second half. On Nathan Shepperd, Daniel told me how he is a great person to have in the team.

He stated he has a great future ahead of him. Daniel says Nathan just needs to keep on doing what he has been doing. He believes that Peter Cherrie deserves a great shout out as he does great work with Nathan.

Staying Loyal to Dundalk

Daniel says there is a great bond between all of the keepers and that there is a great comradery between all the players and that it is great to be a part of. Daniel noted it’s great to see the club back on track in comparison to what it was like last year.

He says he loves the club and that’s why he came. Daniel says last season it was hard to play given what players were hearing about what was happening off the pitch. When the season finished he was thinking of leaving, as were all of the players.

He confirmed he did speak to managers of different clubs as he was out of contract and could do so. Daniel stressed that football is ruthless, and everybody has to look out for themselves.

Yet when the word came through that Stephen O’Donnell was to be the new manager, Kelly decided to stay, as did the members of the remaining squad. Daniel says that Stephen loves the club and is such an inspiration.

He says Stephen was a good manager with Pat’s, but that he had returned to take charge of the biggest club in the country.

The Title Race

Daniel accepted that Dundalk are now involved in a race for the title. But he said that it was important that the players do not look to far ahead. Dundalk are eight points behind Shamrock Rovers but have a game in hand.

If they win that game and beat Shamrock Rovers at Oriel on the 17th of June when the season resumes, they will only be two points behind the leaders. Daniel says that when Rovers visit Oriel next month hopefully Dundalk will get the three points and then the players will see where they are.

Stephen O’Donnell

Stephen O’Donnell says that he was happy with the score line, but that he thought Dundalk could have been a lot better performance wise. He says he believes it was the flattest Dundalk have been at home this season.

He says Dundalk were the dominant team in the first half. But the Dundalk boss told me he felt his team could have played with better intensity and control. He says he was reserving judgement after the two long trips to Derry and Finn Harps over a period of 72 hours.

He stressed that if he was offered nine points out of nine the week before last, he would have been delighted. The Galwegian exclaimed he thought Nathan Shepperd was top class throughout the game.

He felt the two centre halves were terrific, along with Greg Sloggett in midfield. He was full of praise for Daniel Kelly who he said did so well for the goal. Stephen noted that Nathan is playing maturely beyond his years, as he is only 21.

The Dundalk boss said his keeper can be so proud of himself of his performances in the first team in the first half of the season.

O’Donnell confirmed that there were no injury worries. He says he did not see it as a problem that there was a gap of three weeks until Dundalk’s next away game and that it might disrupt his side’s good run of collecting points. He felt like his side did look fatigued and that a break might not be the worst thing in the world.

Fan Trouble

Dundalk have been hit with another fine by the FAI after supporters let off flares in the Brandywell during the Derry game. The good news is there were no flares let off at the Finn Harps game eight days ago and again there were no flares let off at Oriel Park on Friday night.

The Journal have reported that undercover as well as uniformed Gardai are clamping down on what’s been called rampant drug use at League of Ireland matches.

The report said officers attached to drug and public order units have been carrying out operations targeting drug use at games. Dublin based League of Ireland clubs, as well as those in Louth, are understood to be among those being patrolled and monitored.

Multiple security sources have told the Journal that there is expected to be a serious clampdown on the use of drugs at these games in the coming weeks. There has been a significant increase in crowds this season compared to pre Covid pandemic attendances.

One security source told the Journal that Gardai are seeing the use of drugs more often and it seems people think they can get away with it. Gardai are seeing many people leave league games off their heads on cocaine.

Gardai stressed this is a a real problem that they are trying to solve. One Garda source said it was rampant. The Journal say they have contacted the FAI as well as Dublin based Premier Division clubs on the issue. They say as of Saturday evening they had received no replies to their queries.

This is a very serious and sinister development in the game. A serious clampdown by Gardai on people who take drugs like cocaine into grounds will help stop League of Ireland games from losing the appeal it has as a family event.

All clubs must make a big effort to work with Gardai to keep the scourge of drug taking out of their grounds.

Final Thoughts

Jamie McGrath was at the game on Friday night between Dundalk and Pats. Jamie’s team Wigan Athletic have just won promotion back to the English Championship. Jamie played for Pat’s and Dundalk.

He moved cross channel from Oriel Park In 2019, just after they won their 5th league title in six seasons. Jamie has since picked up several Republic of Ireland senior caps. It was great to see Jamie in Oriel. Hopefully this will be the first of many visits to Oriel by the Republic of Ireland player.

There was sad news of the death of the Derek Stokes, a member of the great Dundalk team that won the League of Ireland title in 1966/67. Derek was born in West Yorkshire in 1939.

He was a striker and made his first appearance for Dundalk on 15th December 1966 in the Leinster Senior Cup. Dundalk won 5-2. Stokes came to Oriel having scored over 100 League goals in eight seasons in England.

He joined the strike force at Oriel of Ben Hannigan, Paddy Turner and Danny Hale. By the end of his first season with Dundalk he had a League winners medal and a top four medal as well. He scored 17 goals for Dundalk in his first season.

The team scored a record of 111 goals from 49 games, an average of just over two per game. Derek scored quite a number of goals in total for Dundalk over the three years he was at Oriel.

In 1968 he scored twice for Dundalk over two legs in the old Inter City Fair’s Cup against Dos Utrecht of Holland. He helped Dundalk advance to the second round of a major European competition for the first time in their history.

This competition is the equivalent of the Europa League competition. Kevin Blount, Mick Millington, Alan Fox and Derek Stokes have now passed away from this great team. I had the privilege of seeing this team. It was one of the best teams to have ever represented Dundalk.

It’s been a busy week. I will talk to all of you again next week. Please remember to look after each other. And remember be careful out there.

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