Former Dundalk boss Stephen O'Donnell. Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

O'Donnell departure leaves Dundalk facing a gamble that needs to pay off

Lilywhites are at their lowest ebb for a decade and need a manager who can help avoid relegation.

THE IRONY WON’T be lost on Dundalk fans that St Patrick’s Athletic are the visitors to Oriel Park tonight.

In the week that began with confirmation of Stephen O’Donnell’s departure as head coach, following a winless start to the season with five defeats and three draws, the club whose manager they were able to poach arrive to town on a completely different trajectory.

It was not supposed to be this way.

The situation the Lilywhites now find themselves in, rooted to the bottom of the Premier Division and desperately short of any kind of confidence or belief to drag themselves out of danger, means it is a very different place to the one O’Donnell walked into in the days after guiding St Pat’s to 2021 FAI Cup glory.

Or, at least, that’s what he thought.

It wasn’t just the emotional connection that O’Donnell shared with Dundalk as captain during the glory days of the Stephen Kenny era that tempted him away from St Pat’s, at a time when it felt like he was beginning to mould that club in his image and could potentially challenge Shamrock Rovers at the top.

“What am I going to say to our fan base only that I love the club. As I said, I was so committed to sacrificing to come back and it wasn’t for nights like tonight,” O’Donnell said after Friday’s 4-1 defeat away to Derry City, the fixture that turned out to be his last in charge.

O’Donnell headed back to Louth because this was supposed to be the start of the club returning to former glories under the local ownership consortium that included businessman Andy Connolly and the sports technology firm StatSports.

They regained control from American investment firm Peak6 and ear marked O’Donnell as the man to make them a force on the pitch again.

And yet, local reports in The Argus in recent weeks have highlighted that “substantial debts, believed to be in the region €750,000″ greeted the latest new owner, Brian Ainscough, who took the reins late last year.

Dundalk were playing catch up in the transfer window and relied heavily on the Scottish and English markets for a combination of unproven youngsters and academy graduates attempting to forge senior careers.

Targets such as Evan Weir, who was loaned back to Drogheda United after joining Walsall, and St Pat’s defender Conor Keeley were missed out on.

Allied with the hasty decision to allow last season’s top scorer Pat Hoban leave for a modest fee to Derry City while still having one season left on his contract, O’Donnell just wasn’t able to get the age or experience profile of his squad right.

The parting of the ways was amicable in the circumstances, with new owner Ainscough understood to have shown more patience than some expected given the run of results.

Yet O’Donnell’s standing remains high, with the 38-year-old hailed by Damien Duff earlier this week as “a brilliant manager, one of the best managers this league has seen,” while elaborating further on his strengths.

“Just even setting up against his teams, you know he’ll always have something set up really well. I was gutted for him, I was gutted for [assistant] Padge Cregg, I believe they’re good guys. Granted I’ve had ding dongs with them and that was my opening line in the text.

“But I felt I should text him because he’s a proper, proper manager, proper brilliant coach. In Ireland, in any league, it’s results at the end of the day, I guess. It’s as volatile a profession as any.”

Dundalk now find themselves in an equally volatile market searching for a new boss at a time when their stock as a club is at its lowest for a decade.

Ainscough is a new, ambitious owner and the Irish-American may have been able to tap into his contacts book in Boston to bring in other investors, but Dundalk are simply not operating at a financial level to be able to entice candidates of a higher calibre than O’Donnell to take over.

There will be no shortage of applicants, of course, in an industry with high turnover and demand.

But while Dundalk were able to attract O’Donnell and prise him away from a rival above them in the table, the state they find themselves in now means that won’t be possible.
They’re faced with a gamble and it needs to pay off otherwise relegation beckons.

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