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Saints starting from scratch after a winter of discontent leaves a bitter taste

St Pat’s looked set for another title challenge until an acrimonious managerial exit and raft of player departures left them playing catch up to champions Shamrock Rovers.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE SEVERITY OF contrasting winters for last season’s top two clubs in the League of Ireland is set to be brought into focus tonight.

Discontent for St Patrick’s Athletic.

Decisiveness for Shamrock Rovers.

The Premier Division champions travel to the FAI Cup holders for what should be seen as an early litmus test of the latter’s ability to build on their most recent title challenge.

Instead, two defeats in their opening three games of this term already give this a different kind of complexion. It’s more damage limitation than attempting to set standards in Inchicore.

The 2021 race petered out when Rovers struck an injury-time winner at Richmond Park in late September to open a nine-point lead, one which stretched to 16 by the time they lifted the trophy.

How quickly the tide can turn.

robbie-benson-and-stephen-odonnell Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

For St Pat’s, their waters became choppy in the midst of the jubilation at Lansdowne Road last November. Barely an hour into the celebrations following their penalty shootout win over Bohemians and word was coming through to senior figures at the club that something was amiss.

As head coach Stephen O’Donnell’s post-match press conference was coming to an end, a seemingly innocuous question was thrown to him about whether he would remain in charge.

“We will see,” the Galwegian replied, with team manager Alan Mathews flanking him. “We will get that sorted over the next week or two. I am delighted, buzzing to be winning with this group of lads and the staff.

It has been an abnormal journey in regards Covid, I missed a game a couple of weeks ago, other lads as well because they got Covid, so to dodge all them bullets and end up at the Aviva with 37,000 and be on the right side to win the FAI Cup, just buzzing.”

When O’Donnell returned to the Pat’s dressing room, a source describes how a rather forceful point about his reticence in stating his commitment was made to him given there was an understanding his future had been agreed.

Talks between O’Donnell and club owner Garrett Kelleher over a new deal had first been broached in May and, while the head coach still did not yet hold the required Uefa Pro Licence to take sole charge – hence Mathews’ position in the dugout – the option to extend the contract for a further two years had been formally offered to his representative in the September.

So began the start of an acrimonious departure, the fallout of which was felt publicly and behind the scenes. Brian Kerr labelled the manner of O’Donnell’s departure for former club Dundalk as ‘disgraceful’ while Kelleher is understood to have been furious after holding face-to-face talks with O’Donnell in which he made it clear he was leaving. So much so that High Court proceedings were lodged before Christmas citing breach of contract.

Suddenly, a club which looked set to build on firm foundations and attempt to challenge Rovers this season was rocked.

brian-kerr-ian-bermingham-garrett-kelleher-and-paddy-barrett-celebrate Brian Kerr holds aloft the FAI Cup with captain Ian Bermingham (centre) and owner Garrett Kelleher (right). Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

For the Hoops, their biggest off-season controversy surrounded the announcement that their primary sponsor, a gambling company, had gifted the club a racehorse which was to be named by supporters and would see prize money donated to their official charity partners.

Not the most tasteful of initiatives for some, but one that was made all the more palatable given that boss Stephen Bradley was able to seal the return of Ireland international Jack Byrne to Tallaght Stadium as well as prise highly-rated full back Andy Lyons away from bitter rivals Bohemians.

Bit by bit Rovers continued to build, while their closest challengers last season were chasing their tail with another rebuilding project.

The depth of feeling that had been established between O’Donnell and his players at St Pat’s was evident back in the bowels of Aviva Stadium last November. Lee Desmond and Ian Bermingham, two stalwarts in Inchicore, spoke glowingly of how he revitalised a stagnant club.

jack-byrne-celebrates-scoring Jack Byrne celebrates his goal for Shamrock Rovers against Drogheda United on Monday night. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“Myself and Jamie Lennon drive Ben McCormack over to training every day and we always say to him ‘you don’t know how lucky that you are, things were not like this previously at St Pats’,” Desmond revealed.

“They only know Pats since Stephen came in. Times were tough for a few years. You have your doubts, ‘where are we going, what’s happening?’ You don’t know if you will ever be back here again.

“He (O’Donnell) has brought us on all to another level. Not that anybody was not taking it seriously before but he puts certain demands on you.”
Bermingham added: “The manager came in and immediately there was a change in mentality, it was great, something that I loved, I am thriving on it, I love going in to training every day.

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“He asked us the other day if we trusted him, every single player in that dressing room trusts him.”

Once it became apparent that O’Donnell was heading back to Louth, Drogheda’s Tim Clancy was swiftly appointed. There was turbulence behind the scenes with a raft of players out of contract, yet it seemed pointed that the usually publicity-shy Kelleher posed with Chris Forrester when he committed his future to the club.

james-abankwah Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Desmond, though, was one of a raft of departures from the spine of the starting XI. On-loan goalkeeper Vitezslav Jaros returned to Liverpool, Robbie Benson and Sam Bone followed O’Donnell to Oriel Park, midfielder Alfie Lewis, a crucial component as the season progressed, signed for Plymouth Argyle while livewire attacker Matty Smith eventually headed north to Derry City.

A glut of incomings, most notably striker Eoin Doyle, are attempting to fill the void.

But as St Pat’s endure a stuttering start to this campaign, it has not been underestimated the level of upheaval and change which Clancy has had to manage while attempting to maintain standards.

He will soon lose the promising James Abankwah as he joins Udinese this summer, while Darragh Burns might just come back on the radar of clubs in the UK when the transfer window re-opens.

tim-clancy-reacts-during-the-game New Pat's boss Tim Clancy has seen his side lose two of their first three league games. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

Had Hibernian not offered a paltry five-figure sum to try and get him on the cheap, the talented underage international might well have also followed a glut of teammates out the door.

Rovers, it seems, have at least established a stable environment in their bid for a three-in-a-row.

For St Pat’s, tonight is just about settling a ship that has been on choppy waters since winning the Cup final.

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