By Graham Gillespie
A few weeks ago on Saturday October 8th I was sat in the press box of Eamon Deacy Park watching Galway United take on Cork City, a game that was over after 30 seconds when Sean Maguire got Cork’s first goal. As this was happening far more surprising news was coming out of Oriel Park, Dundalk were being beaten at home by Sligo Rovers. Come full time Dundalk had lost 3-0 and it became evident that the forthcoming Tuesday night clash with Cork had become a potential title decider.
With the on paper exhausting schedule caused by Dundalk’s heroic European exploits, many (myself included) felt this title race had now swung in Cork’s favour. Dundalk could have been forgiven for perhaps letting league focus slip with all they had achieved this season and Cork who had just completed their 5-0 rout of a decent if demotivated Galway side would certainly have been worthy champions
However, this Dundalk side is unlike any other Irish team. A Daryl Horgan inspired 2-1 victory over the Leesiders kick-started a run of five games in twelve days for Dundalk which ended with them clinching their third title in a row against Bohemians on October 23th with two games to spare.
In this run the only game Dundalk did not win was a narrow 2-1 loss to Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg. For context as Irish Independent correspondent Daniel McDonnell mentioned in a tweet, Dundalk’s squad was put together for €20,000, Zenit’s cost €145 million.
Dundalk have to be regarded as perhaps the greatest Irish club side ever with their exploits over the past three seasons. This suggestion is made even more remarkable when it is considered where the club was when manager Stephen Kenny first took charge at the end of the 2012 season.
In that campaign Dundalk finished second bottom and there was genuine fears that the club would end up like Monaghan United who withdrew from the league that season. However, Kenny’s impact was immediate with them finishing second the next year before winning the first in their trio of titles in 2014.
Kenny also succeeded in another crucial way by instilling an attractive attacking passing brand of football despite having an artificial pitch at Oriel Park (it is worth noting that Dundalk’s home record this season was much worse than their away form). This perhaps has been most notable when Dundalk have competed in European competition this season. In the past there has been some special moments for Irish teams in Europe such as Shamrock Rovers run to the Europa League group stages in 2011 or Athlone Town’s famous 0-0 draw with AC Milan in the mid-seventies (yes that really did happen), but whilst other Irish teams would usually set out defensively to stop other sides Dundalk have always played the game on their terms this season in Europe.
The most striking example of this was their 3-0 humbling of Champions League regulars Bate Borisov in August which was perhaps the greatest Irish club display in Europe ever. In this game Dundalk completely outclassed a side who have taken points off Bayern Munich and Roma in recent years and if anything Bate were lucky it was not more embarrassing.
Throughout their European campaign, Dundalk have time and time again stepped up and looked like they truly belong where they are. No other Irish team has done this. When Shamrock Rovers made the group stages they lost all six games, Dundalk already have 4 points with three games left to play at time of writing.
There are only maybe two or three players in the rest of the League of Ireland who would be able to make it into this Dundalk side. Daryl Horgan has taken much of the limelight for his displays and deservedly so but there are several other Lilywhites who deserve wider appreciation. If Martin O’Neil is considering giving Horgan a call up then perhaps full back Sean Gannon who has been consistently excellent during the past two seasons can start to imagine himself walking out in the green jersey.
Gary Rogers, Andy Boyle, Stephen O’Donnell and David McMillian provide an incredibly solid and skilful spine whilst Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney are two exciting young prospects who have flourished under Stephen Kenny’s guidance. It is difficult to think of another Irish team that had this much exciting talent which is also coupled with a remarkable strength in depth.
The maintenance of their dominance domestically whilst playing in Europe speaks volumes of their squad depth which is not matched by any other Irish team ever. Fringe players have been pivotal as Dundalk have had to deal with an outrageous schedule which has seen them play ten games in 28 days. Chris Shields has offered excellent midfield cover throughout the season, veteran right back Alan Keane has filled in in crucial games in the run in, whilst striker Ciaran Kilduff has made a key impact off the bench most notably when he scored the equaliser against AZ Alkmaar.
Dundalk’s options have been so good that a player like Georgie Poynton who has captained Ireland at underage level can’t get a game. Also astonishingly considering their fixture congestion, Dundalk have had remarkably few injuries. Fitness coach Graham Byrne must take plenty credit for enabling Dundalk to be not only technically superior to all other Irish teams but also a step above physically.
Set to the backdrop of disappointing attendances for the league and the ongoing dispute between many of the clubs and the FAI, Dundalk will be looking to qualify from their Europa league group and have European football after Christmas. This would take Irish club football somewhere it has not been before.