14 Aug 2022

The Commentary Box: Derby defeat showcases Dundalk may not be title contenders

The Commentary Box: Derby defeat showcases Dundalk may not be title contenders

Keith Ward of Dundalk in the final moments of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Drogheda United and Dundalk at Head in the Game Park

I have been talking a lot this season about how good Dundalk have been at Oriel Park, a place where they have picked up 28 points out of a possible 41 points in total. Fortress Oriel has seen Dundalk go unbeaten at home and help put them in to second place in the league.

But away from home they have managed to win just two games and take 13 points out of a possible 33 on the road. Dundalk went into last Friday night’s game at United Park as red-hot favourites.

I questioned this when I saw the bookies odds. Drogheda were 5/1 to win at home. Dundalk were 7/10 to win the game at United Park. The odds in reality were never like that. I thought that maybe Dundalk might sneak a win by the odd goal or maybe a draw.

I was by no means surprised Drogheda won the game as they had gone on a good run up to losing last week against St Pats. They have beaten Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk in United Park this season.

But the Lilywhites seem to be a totally different side at home, in Oriel they can beat anybody. Away from home with just the two wins, two losses and seven draws, Dundalk have only played as they do in Oriel away from that venue once.

That was in the Brandywell when Dundalk were magnificent against Derry City and came away with a fully deserved win. Three days later they struggled very badly to edge out Finn Harps with a 1-0 win in Ballybofey. Harps laid siege to the Dundalk goal in that game and missed a hatful of chances.

The defeat on Friday had huge implications for Dundalk on any hopes they have on catching champions Shamrock Rovers. They went into the Friday night game 10 points behind the champions but did have two games in hand. The defeat against Drogheda was one of those games.

Even if they win the extra game, they will be seven points behind. Dundalk will fall away from the title race anyway should they continue with their erratic away performances. They have still only been beaten three times out of 23 games which is an excellent record.

But Stephen O’Donnell and his management team must use all their experience and guile to start getting much improved performances away from Oriel if they are to stay in the top three and ensure they get one of the important European spots.

In fairness to Stephen O’Donnell I think he has done a marvellous job at Oriel this season. His signings have been terrific. O’Donnell has a great football foresight and the new players he has brought in have all been very good.

Vinny Perth left behind him a good nucleus of players when he departed Oriel at the end of last season. Those out of contract players would have left but for the fact that it was Stephen O’Donnell who was coming in.

When Vinny left, they knew their future was uncertain as they were out of contract. But with Peak6 gone and a quick move by the new owners to bring in O’Donnell, the talented nucleus of players that everybody wanted to see staying agreed to remain after talks with the new manager.

Dundalk have been averaging 2,500 to 3,000 crowds at home this season. In Oriel they play like a top of the table team. They have drawn and beaten Rovers at home this season. But away Dundalk were very poor against Rovers and lost by a single goal and failed to score.

Two weeks ago their game with Shelbourne at Tolka Park also finished with Dundalk failing to score. Worse still they failed to muster a shot on target for the entire 90 minutes.

Add to this the fact that Dundalk’s failure to score on Friday night was the sixth time this season the Lilywhites have failed to hit the back of the net in their league games outside of Oriel.

Having said that, good teams are always built around a good defense. And Dundalk had gone into their 7th game in a row without conceding a goal. Yet it took Drogheda less than a minute to breach the Dundalk defence and end their long run of not conceding goals.

After the UCD game in Oriel I spoke to Stephen O’Donnell about the fact that the Drogheda game would be very difficult. I brought up Dundalk’s poor away record.

He responded by saying they had taken seven points out of a possible nine in their last three away league games and that they had only been beaten twice the entire season. He seemed to think Dundalk had turned the corner as far as away games were concerned. But Stephen was wrong.

The Finn Harps game that Dundalk won in Donegal saw them going back into their shell. But they managed to get the points. Stephen also did not acknowledge that Dundalk, the week before the UCD game, had failed to have a shot on target in the entire 90 minutes against Shelbourne or note how poor the game was.

Dundalk are a Jekyll and Hyde team when it comes to playing home and away. The away form is a serious problem facing Dundalk and I’m sure the club’s coaching staff are well aware of it. Why the performances are so different I don’t know.

The Drogheda Game

Dundalk were a goal down against Drogheda within less than a minute.  Dean Williams returned to haunt his Louth neighbours by scoring just as he did in March at the same venue. In the first Derby in March, it was a late goal by Williams from the penalty spot that sealed the game for Drogheda.

This time the goal came after just 62 seconds. Darragh Markey had received a ball from from Drogs centre half Eoin Weir on the left. Markey managed to bring Mark Connolly out to him. Weir had the speed of a greyhound moving forward.

He got past Connolly and left Lewis Macari in no man’s land. Weir got the ball into the Dundalk penalty area. Andy Boyle made a hash of trying to clear the ball away. It came to Williams who turned sharply. He fired a first-time rising shot to the side of Nathan Shepperd to give the Drogs the lead.

Dundalk nearly levelled immediately when Darragh Leahy sent in a great cross from the right. David McMillan headed wide. This game was different from the March Derby in that both sides went at each other. Daniel Kelly got a cross. Joe Adams squandered a great opportunity.

Dundalk controlled midfield for most of the first half. Daniel Kelly lobbed the ball over when he should have scored. Robbie Benson was being played in a more forward role than usual. Dundalk forced six corners in the first half. Adams and Daniel Kelly both had chances just before the break.

Ryan O’Kane replaced Joe Adams in the second half while Pat Hoban replaced David McMillan. Keith Ward was also brought on. The substitutions did seem to at least lift Dundalk. In truth though, the second half was awful, with Drogheda being the better side.

They should have got a second goal just after the substitutions. Dean Williams was picked out by Darragh Markey. His shot was bound for the net. Shepperd took off a top class save. Greg Sloggett had a half chance for a goal. Gary Deegan cut him out superbly.

Dundalk did enjoy much possession for the remainder of the game. But they lacked penetration to get in for the equaliser. Drogheda were the better side and nobody would have begrudged them getting a second goal, which they came close to getting right at the end.

Post-Match Reaction

Stephen O’Donnell said afterwards that he was very disappointed. He said his side had more than enough time to stage a comeback. He said that a side will always have setbacks. But he is determined to see his side bounce back.

Dundalk had not conceded in their previous five games. Thus, by the laws of averages they were going to see a goal going in against them at some stage. The earliness of the goal though must have caused them to change their game plan straight away.

But the key to this game was that Dundalk were not at the level they should have been from an offensive viewpoint. It is something they will have to work at. But it is all part of the process of developing his team.

And to be fair somebody like me, as part of the media, has got to understand that Stephen O’Donnell is rebuilding a team and the job he has done so far has been crucial.

Yes, I will of course be critical where merited. Yes, there is a problem with the Dundalk team when they play away from home. But that will be sorted. The local media, including myself, may have got carried away thinking Dundalk have a chance of winning the league.

Friday showed me that I don’t think that can happen this season. In fairness the manager has tried to play down expectations about winning the league. I think supporters need to understand that as well.

Dundalk have been on a very good run. Their aim this week in training must be to start another run. Dundalk just could not create many clearcut chances after going 1-0 down and they must do better in their thinking from a defensive point of view.

This centres on the gift Drogheda got so early in the game. The Lilywhites will be working very hard to put this right at training as they prepare for next Friday’s away game to St Pats.

The Dundalk Bench

Dundalk have a superb medical backroom team. To see Pat Hoban back so soon was a major plus for the team. He sustained a quad injury against Shamrock Rovers nearly three weeks ago. It had been thought that Pat could have been out for up to a month.

But to see the lethal striker back so soon is good news. John Martin was not in the squad last week. He is expected to feature on Friday. Stephen Bradley was also struggling with an injury last week. It was great to see him back in the fold and coming on to play.

John Mountney has not featured for Dundalk this season. He played in an under 19 game last week and was on the bench on Friday night. He will be a good addition to the squad for the Pats game on Friday.

There was no word on the future of Dundee United Loanee Mark Connolly after Friday’s game. The big Clones man is the glue that knits the Dundalk defence so well and makes them very difficult to breach.

I don’t know what to think about whether Mark will be staying at Dundalk or returning to Dundee United. The longer this saga continues, I fear Mark may have to return to his parent club. I have no information at all to base on. But the longer the uncertainty goes on I feel he may be returning to Scotland. I hope I’m wrong.

Final Thoughts

Finally it was really annoying to see Dundalk and Drogheda United fans light flares at United Park on Friday night, just as the teams came out. Dundalk have had to pay thousands of euros in fines this season as the club continually pleads with fans from desisting from this type of behaviour.

Their plea focuses on health and safety grounds for supporters to stop using flares at games. The cost to the club is another factor in the plea for fans to stop. To those Dundalk supporters who set flares on Friday, you have ensured the club will get a minimum fine of €1200.

It could go higher. It’s the people who light these flares who should pay the fines and they should be barred from all games, home and away for a considerable time. I don’t think it would be that difficult to identify the culprits. The club sadly can’t fine them, but they can ban them.

It’s St Pats away on Friday. This will be a very difficult game for Dundalk as Pat’s have returned to form big time in the past few weeks. We shall wait and see what happens.

Nathan Shepperd was taken to hospital as a result of picking up a shoulder injury in the Derby against Drogheda. Dundalk management were hoping it was a muscular injury and nothing else. Let’s hope that this is all it is.

I hope you all have a safe and happy week. Please remember to watch out for each other and of course be careful out there.

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