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Is Dundalk's greatest era now over?

The Lilywhites take on reigning champions Shamrock Rovers at Oriel Park this season.

The Dundalk team (file pic).
The Dundalk team (file pic).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

DUNDALK WILL ALMOST certainly always be associated with the 2010s in the same way Shamrock Rovers are with the 1980s and Shelbourne are with the early 2000s.

There is no doubt the Lilywhites, during that era, have been one of the great teams in the League of Ireland’s history.

Yet there is a growing consensus that the club are no longer the force they once were.

Last season saw the Lilywhites fail in their bid to win a third successive title, with champions Shamrock Rovers finishing 22 points ahead of them ultimately.

However, amid a shortened 18-game season disrupted by the pandemic, 2020 could be dismissed as a blip and it was certainly how some people saw it. 

Dundalk striker Pat Hoban, in particular, seemed to dispute the Hoops’ success, provocatively commenting last February: 

“You’re telling me that winning the league after 18 games is winning a league? It’s not. It’s like being top of the table in June and saying ‘we won the league’. Come on. Let’s be realistic here.

“Before we went into the games last summer I said it was ridiculous. I could not see myself, if we had won the 18 games last season, celebrating like we had won the league, especially after winning three before that. I just couldn’t do it.”

It’s also worth pointing out that last year was a pretty decent season for Dundalk in some respects. They reclaimed the FAI Cup, beating Rovers 4-2 after extra time amid a dramatic final.

They also managed to qualify for the Europa League group stages for only the second time in their history, securing two glamour ties with Arsenal as well as other considerable bonuses.

Many felt that the funds secured from their first Europa League group stages qualification in 2016 would be sizeable enough to enable them to dominate Irish football for the foreseeable future.

Yet it hasn’t quite worked out that way. After 11 games played this season, Dundalk find themselves languishing in seventh, 16 points off table-toppers Shamrock Rovers.

Even if they win tonight, the Oriel Park outfit would still need a minor miracle to claim the title.

Consequently, there is a real sense of a dynasty coming to an end. If they come up short this season, it will be the first time the club have failed to win two titles on the bounce since their incredible run started in 2014.

During that period, only Shamrock Rovers last season and Cork City in 2017 managed to usurp them. On the latter occasion, similar questions were undoubtedly being asked of the team, and they responded by winning the next two titles. Repeating this feat now already looks incredibly unlikely.

So where has it all gone wrong?

An obvious starting point is the lack of off-field stability.

At their most successful, there was no doubt Stephen Kenny was the dominant figure at the club.

Yet the period since Kenny’s departure has been decidedly more turbulent, if not entirely devoid of success.

The people running the club have been ruthless in their decision-making at times.

The era of relentless success looked set to continue initially under Vinny Perth, when he guided them to the title in 2019, though he departed as manager less than a year later after the club failed in their bid to qualify for the Champions League group stages amid an indifferent start to the campaign.

His inexperience in coaching at a high level and lack of a pro licence meant that Filippo Giovagnoli initially appeared to be a stop-gap replacement, but his success in qualifying for the Europa League group stages and the FAI Cup triumph bought the Italian some time.

This season, though, was marked by more confusion, with tighter regulations in relation to managers needing a pro-licence, leading to coach Shane Keegan being presented as manager, with Giovagnoli staying on with the club but refraining from doing media interviews and other duties normally assigned to the boss.

That strange situation did not help matters, as the club experienced a dismal start to the campaign, and last month, it was confirmed that both Keegan and Giovagnoli had left their respective roles, with Sporting Director Jim Magilton currently in charge on an interim basis.

The club were in such a poor position early on, failing to win their opening six Premier Division matches, that it led to some speculation that a relegation battle was more likely than a title fight.

They then followed the 2-1 defeat of Drogheda with a similarly encouraging 3-0 victory over Waterford, before enduring another bad patch that has seen them take just two points from their last three fixtures.

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In addition to the off-field issues, a key factor in Dundalk’s downfall has surely been the loss of several important players in recent seasons.

Even in the Kenny era, they lost a number of important individuals like Richie Towell, Ronan Finn, Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle (who subsequently returned), but managed to find adequate replacements.

Yet there are only so many important figures a team can withstand the loss of, and in recent times, the number of talented performers heading for the Oriel Park exit door has accelerated, many of whom represented the backbone of their title-winning teams.

Since the 2019 season, the players to depart include Dane Massey, Gary Rogers, Robbie Benson, John Mountney, Seán Hoare, Jamie McGrath and Seán Gannon.

There is still talent and experience at the club, of course. Chris Shields and Brian Gartland have been with the Lilywhites since they really took off under Kenny, though an ACL tear suffered earlier this season means Gartland will be out for an extended period.

At their best, Patrick McEleney, Pat Hoban, David McMillan and Michael Duffy are among the most formidable attackers in the league, while Andy Boyle, Daniel Cleary and Darragh Leahy would widely be considered to be in the top tier of defenders.

However, it has been a baptism of fire for some of the newer players. Sonni Nattestad,  Wilfried Zahibo, Han Jeongwoo, Ole Erik Midtskogen, Alessio Abibi, and Raivis Jurkovskis — all of whom started Dundalk’s recent 1-1 draw with Finn Harps — are still all relatively new to the league and will inevitably take time to fully adapt to this level.

Consequently, it looks set to be a season of transition for the Lilywhites, and patience will be required if they are to persevere ultimately.

Taking points off Shamrock Rovers, quite clearly the best team in the league right now, would be a step in the right direction, but regardless, the Louth club faces an uphill task as they bid to restore the glory days.

Premier Division fixtures:

Friday

Waterford v Derry (17.45)
St Patrick’s Athletic v Bohemians (17.45)
Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers (19.45)
Finn Harps v Drogheda (19.45)
Sligo v Longford (19.45)

First Division fixtures

Friday

Athlone v Cobh Ramblers (19.45)
Cork v Galway (19.45)
Wexford v Bray (19.45)
Cabinteely v Treaty United (19.45)
Shelbourne v UCD (19.45)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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