'You can flip where Dundalk are now at the end of the season because they will be challenging'

Stephen O’Donnell will not be underestimating the Lilywhites ahead of his side’s clash at Oriel Park this weekend.

Stephen O'Donnell (file pic).
Stephen O'Donnell (file pic).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC travel to face Dundalk on Saturday (kick-off: 6pm), with the two sides having experienced contrasting fortunes so far this season.

After four games played, Stephen O’Donnell’s men are top of the league on 10 points, while the Lilywhites sit second from bottom having lost all but one of their opening Premier Division fixtures.

Last week’s 2-0 victory over Derry was the Richmond Park outfit’s third win on the bounce, after an opening-day draw against reigning champions Shamrock Rovers.

Yet O’Donnell believes the team that he represented for six seasons as a player are currently in a “false position”.

“You can flip where Dundalk are now at the end of the season because they will be challenging,” he says.

“They should have got something from the Shamrock Rovers game. It can change so easily with three games in a week, you could have a completely different picture in 10 days’ time.

“We are under no illusions, we’re going to have to be at our very best to get something out of the game on Saturday.”

St Pat’s have a decent recent record against the Lilywhites, with both games between the sides ending 1-1 last season.

And while pleased with the team’s good start, O’Donnell says he won’t be getting too carried away with just four games played.

Moreover, for all the good memories he has of his time at Dundalk, the Pat’s boss says he does not spend much time with old teammates.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing in our lives is our professional [livelihoods] and it’s what we do, it’s tricky because what do you have in common with the players that you played with? It’s talking about football. We’re not the most intellectual, we’re not like Robbie Benson, so we don’t have much else to talk about other than football.

“Football isn’t something that we can talk about when we are in contact because we’re all professional and we want to do as best we can for St Patrick’s Athletic, and they are playing for Dundalk, they want to do that, so everything is a little bit guarded. For instance, when Garts [Brian Gartland] did his cruciate, I sent him a text to see how he was. But as far as being in contact regularly, it wouldn’t be a thing.”

Of course, O’Donnell is not the only former Dundalk man now at Pat’s. Midfielder Robbie Benson is in his second season with the club, after four years at Oriel Park, while John Mountney linked up with the Saints ahead of this campaign, having been Dundalk’s joint longest-serving player before his departure was announced last December, and defender Paddy Barrett, who played for the Lilywhites between 2015 and 2017, was another off-season recruit.

“I knew what I was signing having lived with John [at Dundalk]. If you play with a boy and live with a boy, then you will obviously know them 24-7 and know what they are like away from the pitch, on the pitch, how professional they are.

“From a standpoint of professionalism and bringing it to training every day, I knew what I was getting and he has definitely not disappointed me.

“He’s the ultimate pro, looks after his body so well and football is the number one thing in his life — he wants to do the best that he can while he is still playing.

“And in just integrating everybody and being a character and positive leader in the dressing room, I knew that he was going to be like that.

“And even more so now from when I played beside him, John has matured in the couple of years since I left Dundalk. He knows his role now is as one of the leaders.

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“We have quite a good mix but still have plenty of young players, so you’re not going to get a better role model than John Mountney.

“He takes a seriousness to his game and he’s still trying to improve himself. He’s the type of character who, until the day he dies, this is in his make up.”

On Benson, he adds: ”Robbie is another one whom I knew what I was signing. Ultimately, none of these lads would have been signed if they were not good footballers. It was not a friends thing or that: ‘I’ll do you a favour by signing you.’ They had to be bringing something to the table and be an asset for St Patrick’s Athletic.”

O’Donnell’s encouraging progress in a short time and the sense that he is building something special at Pat’s has led to comparisons with former boss Stephen Kenny. Of course, whether he can fulfil that promise is another matter and he is understandably inclined to play down any similarities between the two situations.

 “Well if you’re getting comparisons, you’re doing something alright. But look, it’s totally different journeys, it’s totally different circumstances. You don’t replicate the times and legacies, you try and create your own. 

“I’d like to think we have improved [compared to last year], but time will tell. A lot of players were here last year and are more comfortable now. We’ve signed good characters and good players on top of that. Sixth last year in what was a mad season, a half-season, but I thought at the back end, our performances were consistently at a good level and I thought if we’d improve on that, the league won’t lie at the end of the season.

“It’s evolution, lads who were here last year now have a much better understanding of what we’re looking for and how we want to deal with games. There’s maturity as well. Boys who were here in 2020 in their first year are more comfortable where they are now.

“Then the lads we’ve brought in have given us a good bit of quality. We had a good performance against Derry but there is still lots we can work on.”

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Paul Fennessy

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