'There's huge motivation from having so many people writing you off'

Dundalk skipper Stephen O’Donnell says the champions are driven by doubts from their detractors.

Stephen O'Donnell Dundalk captain Stephen O'Donnell. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

STEPHEN O’DONNELL DOESN’T need to cast his mind back very far for a reminder of why Dundalk can’t afford to be complacent at Eamonn Deacy Park, even if Galway United are rooted to the bottom of the table ahead of the visit of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division champions.

Dundalk were on a high last August when they travelled to Galway for what was expected to be a routine win for a side who, just three days earlier, had eliminated BATE Borisov from the qualifying stages of the Champions League with a stunning 3-0 win in Tallaght.

However, Vinny Faherty’s winner for the Tribesmen on the stroke of half-time is still fresh enough in the memory to ensure that Stephen Kenny’s side won’t pay too much attention to the fact that Galway have yet to win a league game this season when the teams meet tomorrow night.

The welcome is always warm when O’Donnell, a Galway native, returns to face his former club. Nevertheless, he’s keen on a more positive outcome than his last visit to the side he helped to keep in the Premier Division in 2010.

“They had a good win that night just after we beat BATE,” O’Donnell recalls. “We definitely won’t be taking them lightly. They’re a decent side, probably better than what their results so far will show, and they won’t fear us going down there. Anything less than our best probably won’t be enough against a team like them, because they’ll be battling.”

Vinny Faherty scores and celebrates with Stephen Walsh Galway United's Vinnie Faherty celebrates with Stephen Walsh and Kevin Devaney after scoring against Dundalk. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Having already allowed a nine-point gap to open up between themselves and league leaders Cork City, Dundalk can ill afford to sign off on the first series of games with another slip-up, which would allow the Leesiders to increase their advantage if they can seal their 11th consecutive win when they host Bray Wanderers.

For both himself and his team, the season so far certainly hasn’t run smoothly from Stephen O’Donnell’s perspective. Due to a thigh injury, last week’s win over Bohemians marked his first league start since the victory against Shamrock Rovers on the opening night. In his absence, defeats to Cork and Derry City raised doubts over the Lilywhites’ prospects of winning a fourth consecutive Premier Division title.

O’Donnell was introduced as a half-time substitute against Bray Wanderers at Oriel Park a fortnight ago, but being back on the pitch didn’t bring an end to his frustrations. The Dundalk skipper did score by finishing off a delightful passing move, but the visitors caused an upset — aided by two Gary McCabe penalties which originated from dubious decisions made by referee Jim McKell. Ryan Brennan wrapped up a 3-1 victory for the Seagulls.

“We still only scored one goal so even without those decisions we probably would have only drawn the game. That’s something we have to look at ourselves because a one-goal return is not good enough,” O’Donnell insists.

“Everyone could see that the decisions were controversial but we still know that what we produced wasn’t good enough. We’re not hiding behind the decisions. We felt aggrieved but we still knew that we didn’t perform. That’s all we were focusing on after the game.”

Stephen O'Donnell celebrates scoring a goal O'Donnell celebrates after scoring for Dundalk against Bray Wanderers earlier this month. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He adds: “It definitely hasn’t been the start we would have been hoping for, but at the same time it’s been better than how it’s perceived. Winning seven of our first 10 games isn’t a whole lot different to how we’ve done in previous years; it’s just been magnified by how well Cork City have been doing.

“We’re not even thinking about what they’re doing, to be honest, because if we don’t keep winning then it won’t matter to us what they do. We can only catch them by looking after our own results. What they do is out of our control. We’ve had to contend with injuries and new lads settling in, but we feel we’re moving in the right direction.”

Prior to their defeat to Bray, Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny bemoaned the fact that his side haven’t been awarded a penalty in the league in over a year. Whether it was down to coincidence or consequence that their opponents benefitted from questionable decisions just 48 hours later, O’Donnell opted not to linger on it.

“The only people who know that are the officials themselves,” he says. “If that is the case, it’s poor form. But you can’t accuse anyone of something like that without the facts. It’s just one of those things that you see in football; a lot of games are decided by refereeing decisions. We’ve all been in the game long enough to know that. We just have to get on with it.”

As for Stephen Kenny’s decision to publicly highlight Dundalk’s lack of penalties, O’Donnell says: “As players, we didn’t really talk about it too much. I just treat that as the manager’s domain. It’s for him to say what he feels because he’s representing us and representing the club.

Stephen Kenny appeals to the referee for a penalty Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny appeals for a penalty during last Friday's win against Bohemians. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It hasn’t been a massive topic since he came out and said that. We’re just fully focused on the football, trying to get a cohesive team in place and stringing some positive results together.”

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Even at this early stage, Dundalk have significant ground to make up if they’re to retain their title. O’Donnell now has five Premier Division medals in his possession, but he’s adamant that recent successes haven’t extinguished his desire for more.

Dundalk have had the upper hand in their intense rivalry with Cork City, pipping John Caulfield’s side to league honours in each of the past three seasons. Although the balance of power may appear to be shifting towards the south, Stephen Kenny’s side have ample time and opportunity to recover from their inauspicious start.

Never in their 33-year history have Cork City began a season so brightly, but not until the Premier Division trophy is wrenched from Dundalk’s grasp can City finally claim to have overtaken their rivals to occupy the summit of Irish football. There’s a lot of football to be played between now and 27 October.

O’Donnell: “When you’ve been battling head-to-head with a team for three or four years, there’s going to be a bit of needle — which there is, there’s no denying that. But there is respect too. We’ve been the two best teams in the league for a few years now and it’s a good rivalry. They’re games you look forward to.

Stephen O'Donnell with Sean Maguire O'Donnell tussles with Cork City's Sean Maguire. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It creates a bit of interest too. There’s a bitter rivalry there and I suppose it’s up to other teams to get up to that level. We’ve seen Bray threatening to do that and I’m sure there’ll be other teams looking to do that too over the next few years.”

O’Donnell, who spent a season at Cork City in 2009, adds: “It’s a short window as a player so you want to win as much as you can while you’re still playing. Our first priority every year is to win the league and this year is no different.

“There’s huge motivation from having so many people writing you off. You want to go and prove that you’re the best team in the country again. That’s what we’re aiming to do. I think we’ll get stronger from here on in and there’ll be a few twists and turns in the road yet.”

While Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy, David McMillan and Ciaran Kilduff are likely to continue to provide a steady flow of goals, with Brian Gartland leading the resistance at the back, Stephen O’Donnell is the man in the middle who makes Dundalk tick.

If the 31-year-old can avoid further injury setbacks as 2017 progresses, Dundalk’s chances of steering clear of stumbling blocks on that road will increase substantially.

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