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Ryan Byrne/INPHO The Lilywhites conceded just 20 goals in 36 games in the Premier Division this season.
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'We were unlucky in 2016 and lost on penalties last year. If anyone looked like winning those games, it was us'
Brian Gartland looks ahead to Sunday’s FAI Cup final against Cork City where Dundalk are aiming to secure the double.

BRIAN GARTLAND SAYS that he does not use heartbreak as fuel to push himself and his Dundalk team-mates towards future success. Despite back-to-back FAI Cup final defeats, the defender states firmly that motivation comes from within, and that it has to.

“I don’t really go through them,” he says of their 2016 and 2017 final losses against Cork City. The centre back has enjoyed yet another stellar season at Oriel Park, securing their fourth SSE Airtricity League title in five seasons with a record points total, and the least goals conceded since Stephen Kenny took over as manager six years ago.

The club has reached extraordinary new heights in 2018 and are intent on seeing out the year with a historic double. Tomorrow will be the fourth year in a row that Dundalk and Cork have met at Landsdowne Road on the first Sunday in November, but the appetite to get one over on each other has not subsided in that time, says Gartland.

Brian Gartland lifts the trophy Ryan Byrne / INPHO Gartland won his fourth SSE Airtricity League title with Dundalk in 2018. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It would be out of this world to lift the cup,” he explains. “But to be perfectly honest I’m not even thinking of winning the double, I’m just thinking about winning the FAI Cup.

I’ve been asked about the double a few times lately and it does start to reside in your head. You’re thinking ‘jeez, this would be something special’. For it to be the second double in four years, it would be outrageous.”

The Dubliner was plagued by a host of injuries at the beginning of the year; including a muscle and quad setback, as well as abscess on his throat which saw him miss the opening 13 games of 2018.

But he recovered to become the ever-present rock at the core of the Lilywhites’ defence he has been ever since arriving in Louth during the summer of 2013 from Portadown.

Dundalk have conceded just 20 goals all year — keeping 21 clean sheets — winning 27 of their 36 games in the Premier Division en route to reclaiming the title, following a 2017 which left the club completely empty-handed for the first time in four years.

“I was disappointed obviously at the start of the year with injuries,” says Gartland. “We had a great pre-season and a week before the season got underway everything went wrong.

Brian Gartland Bryan Keane / INPHO Gartland was speaking at Oriel Park ahead of Sunday's FAI Cup final. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“For a couple of months everything was wrong, but you get that in football and luckily in my football career I haven’t had many injury setbacks like that. Since I got myself right and back in the team I haven’t missed a day’s training.

I’m delighted with how the season has gone. I thought I’ve played well and at the back we’ve done really great — we’ve kept the most clean sheets in all the years I’ve been at Dundalk and conceded the fewest goals.

“So that says something about the season all us in defence have had this year. Lads like Stephen Folan and Sean Hoare and Dan Cleary have all been excellent, as well as the full-backs.”

The defender has personally won four league titles, one FAI Cup, two EA Sports Cups, one Leinster Senior Cup and one President’s Cup since coming to the club.

Brian Gartland Bryan Keane / INPHO Brian Gartland pictured at Oriel Park with the FAI Cup on Tuesday. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Maintaining that appetite for success would seem like a tricky task given he has won everything there is to win before. But Gartland honestly explains that taking stock of trophies and cups too early in one’s career can allow a sense of complacency to creep in.

There will be plenty of time to reflect and reminisce when the boots are hung up after retirement, he says, but still only at the age of 31 and in the thick of his prime years as a footballer, there is plenty more to achieve.

We want to win every game, it doesn’t matter if it’s a cup final or not, we just want to win. If you’re not first, it doesn’t matter where you are. We just want to be here all the time.

“It’s about winning as much as you can, because your career is going to be based on your success. The more medals and more trophies you have, the better career you have. It just comes down to that competitiveness we have inside us and in this dressing room. It’s all about numbers and getting as many wins as we can.

Ciaran Kilduff celebrates scoring the equaliser with Brian Gartland Karel Delvoije / INPHO The defender celebrates during Dundalk's Europa League group stage game against AZ Alkmaar in 2016. Karel Delvoije / INPHO / INPHO

“You never know if you’ll be in another cup final after this year. We keep saying that every year, but it is true. You never know what will happen. We’re all about breaking records, setting new records and breaking them again.”

The player collapsed to the floor when Sean Maguire scored a 121st minute winner for Cork City in 2016. Trying to hold off the striker inside the box, he could only watch on in horror as the ball crept beyond the reach of Gary Rodgers and into the farthest corner of the net.

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Every single meeting between Dundalk and Cork in an FAI Cup final has went to extra-time, with no more than one goal separating the rivals over the course of the last three years (a 1-0 Dundalk win in 2015, a 1-0 Cork City win in 2016, Cork City winning on penalties in 2017).

Last seasons’s dramatic defeat on penalties was like a sucker punch, Gartland says, but he states firmly that he does not look back on past shortcomings to push himself on further.

That motivation comes from within the Dundalk squad and management team, he says, with the player adding that his side performed well in the last two FAI Cup finals, despite coming up short.

I thought we played well in all those games, we were just unlucky in 2016 and then we lost on penalties last year,” he says. “If anyone looked like winning those games, a lot of the time it was us.

“They’ve all been tight and I wouldn’t really be looking at the heartbreak to motivate us or anything like that. It’s all about looking forward and taking the positives.

Brian Gartland celebrates after the game 12/10/2018 Tommy Dickson / INPHO Cork and Dundalk face off in the FAI Cup final for the fourth year in a row tomorrow. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“If you look at it this year, we’ve won three times against Cork — twice at home and once away. So we’re going into the game confident that we can win in 90 minutes. 

I’m expecting the same from them as we’ve had every game over the last few years. We’re expecting the same sort of football they play — they’ll be tight, hard to play through.

“Listen, Cork come out like bears. They are never short of work-rate and they do have a will to win and a lot of motivation in there. It’s never an easy game against Cork, so we’ll have to match that intensity if we are going to come out on top.”

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