Dundalk FC's Patrick McEleney and Ciaron Harkin of Derry City during the teams' most recent SSE Airtricity League Premier Division encounter. (Pic: Sportsfile)
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Patrick McEleney believes Dundalk FC’s many trials and tribulations this year ultimately proved a blessing in disguise, with one more domestic case to close this weekend before attentions turn to the European stage.
The defending champions have had to deal with setbacks on an almost-weekly basis since the opening day of the season back in February, when McEleney and Robbie Benson suffered long-term injuries.
Benson finally returned to action from the bench in last week’s valuable victory at closest challengers Shamrock Rovers, where Jamie McGrath and Seán Murray also made their comebacks.
While Jordan Flores’ fitness was dealt another blow and Stephen Folan’s knee knock resurfaced, Dundalk’s squad is finally nearing full strength for the first time in 2019.
The fact that they still saw off Rovers without the services of Daniel Cleary, Dean Jarvis, as well as new arrival Andy Boyle – and with their aforementioned midfield trio still finding their feet – shows the depth available to head coach Vinny Perth.
With a comfortable lead opened up at the top of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division table, the Oriel Park outfit would be forgiven for glancing more than one eye towards next Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League first qualifying round first leg visit of Riga from Latvia.
However, Perth’s men must first take care of business north of the border this Friday when they face Derry City at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium (7:45pm).
The Candystripes are right in the chase for European qualification this season under returning boss Declan Devine, and last week’s 4-1 hammering of Cork City at Turner’s Cross was by far their most impressive win of the year.
McEleney will know the threat that his hometown club poses, particularly on their own turf, but he is understandably pleased with how Dundalk have recovered from their early-season woes, with the team hitting top gear with perfect timing.
“It’s a nice position to be in,” the 26-year-old said. “We went to Shamrock Rovers to win; we go everywhere to win. Every game in this league is tough, but going into Europe, we have put ourselves in a nice position.”
The Derry man added: “It seems to be all gelling. I think at the start we couldn’t have got any more setbacks if we had asked for it. It is sort of turning for us now. To be honest, I think it brought us together more, even with the new players – I think it made us gel more, so it could have been a blessing.”
Dundalk have an excellent record at The Brandywell, being undefeated at the venue since October 2012. Last year, they won 4-1 and 4-0 there, and back in March of this season they were 2-0 winners thanks to Murray and Patrick Hoban.
At Oriel Park in May, the sides drew 2-2. Hoban had given the hosts a two-goal lead early in the second half, but they threw that away as Darren Cole and Eoghan Stokes – from the spot – struck back, after Hoban had harshly received a red card for the penalty incident.