Shane Keegan defended goalkeeper Alessio Abibi after his howler paved the way for Finn Harps to record a first win over Dundalk in almost 14 years at Oriel Park last night.
The Albanian was caught in possession by Adam Foley three minutes before half-time as the striker charged down his attempted clearance with the ball deflecting to the net.
Despite Patrick Hoban pulling a goal back for the home side three minutes after the restart, Foley beat the Dundalk offside trap to get the better of Abibi again in the 63rd minute to ensure Ollie Horgan’s side made it two wins from two at the start of the new SSE Airtricity League Premier Division season.
It was the Donegal side’s first win over the Lilywhites in any competition since a 2-0 play-off victory in November 2007 and the first time they had won at Oriel Park in almost 15 years since a 3-1 victory in May 2006.
While most of the spotlight fell on Abibi after his error, team manager Keegan refused to point the finger at the 24-year-old saying the overall performance “wasn’t good enough” on the night.
“The goal is the goal but I’ve no real quarrel with the goal,” he said.
“We got a point out of Sligo last week because of Alessio and we won the President’s Cup the week before because of Alessio.
“Something like that will happen to a keeper. Now it shouldn’t happen to him more than once or twice in a season but when it does happen you’re relying on the rest of your team to get you out of jail and show enough quality to go and win the game anyway when something like that happens to you but unfortunately we haven’t done that,” said the Laois man.
Keegan said he didn’t think the error would impact Abibi’s confidence going forward.
“I doubt it. I like him. He’s a larger than life personality and, not that it will be water off a duck’s back to him, but he is big and bold enough to be able to deal with something like that.
“I don’t think it will hit his confidence and I think he will bounce back next week. He has made one outstanding save in the second half so I think he’ll be fine.”
Keegan said it was disappointing how little his side created and admitted the lack of matches in pre-season might have had an impact on the performance.
“It’s the conclusion you’d jump to after a result like that,” he said.
“The lack of bodies was a big problem for us as well. We think we’ve recruited really well and yet we were without four or five of those bodies that we’ve brought in. That said, we’ve put out a team onto the pitch that is good enough to go and win the game as well so it’s very little excuse for us to be able to lean on.
“Half an hour into the game Ollie is roaring at his lads to try and get into the game. We have dominated but we’ve dominated in terms of possession but let’s be honest, we haven’t created a huge amount for all the possession that we’ve had.”
The former Galway Utd boss said it was now important that Dundalk bounced back against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght on Friday night.
“We have zero time to feel sorry for ourselves,” he said.
“It’s Rovers, followed by Bohs, followed by Pat’s. If we’re going to wallow in self-pity then the season will be over before we get our act together so we’ve zero time to feel sorry for ourselves.
“We’ve got to put in an incredible week of hard work next week and we need to engage the brains as a collective and figure out what wasn’t good enough and how we’re going to fix it and just get to work on it,” said Keegan.
Dundalk face being without Patrick McEleney for up to a month after the midfielder picked up a new injury in training last week.
The Derry man had faced the media last Wednesday ahead of Friday night’s game against Finn Harps – which the Lilywhites lost 2-1 – and had spoken about his desire for a run in the side after an injury-disrupted couple of seasons.
However, it is understood that the midfielder pulled a hamstring in training on Thursday which will rule him out of this Friday’s crunch match against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght Stadium (kick-off 7.45pm, live on RTÉ Two), as well as potentially several other games.
Speaking about his injury problems last week, McEleney said: “It’s been bad. It’s no secret that I had a bad year with injuries last year but I’ve come back really well and I’ve had nothing so I’ll be doing my best to stay injury free.”
Asked was there one injury he could trace his problems back to, he said: “I broke my foot in the first game against Sligo in 2019 and it was just one after another after that.
“When I came back from that I played about 20 odd games in a row and then in the FAI Cup semi final away to Sligo later in the year I slipped and tore my hamstring. It just seemed to be one thing after another. It was just so stop start. “I did manage to play in most of the big games last year but if I can stay injury free, it will be so much better.”
The 28-year-old had also spoken of his desire to contend for the PFAI Player of the Year award last week having been runner-up to Seani Maguire in 2017.
“The year when I came second in the Player of the Year, I had one injury that season. The next year I had the Player of the Year award as a target but that’s when I had all of the breakdowns and injuries and it was the same the following year.
“It is one of my targets, though, and I know what I can do when I’m injury free. I’m my own biggest critic and I don’t doubt myself if I can say injury free.”
McEleney won’t be Dundalk’s only absentee against Rovers with Sean Murray and Ole Erik Midtskogen remaining sidelined and Sonni Nattestad – who became the first Dundalk player since Joey Donnelly in 1936 to score on international duty for the Faroe Islands in their 3-1 defeat to Austria in Vienna on Sunday – facing a two match ban for his red card in the President’s Cup final earlier this month.
Despite being away on international duty for Friday’s defeat to Finn Harps, Dundalk were dismayed to discover that the clash with the Donegal men wouldn’t count towards the defender’s ban so he will also miss the visit of Bohemians to Oriel Park on Friday week, April 9th.
Team manager Shane Keegan said: “I just can’t wrap my head around it. Surely it has to be one or the other. Either the game gets called off because of it or, if the game isn’t called off, then one of his suspension games gets used up. I just cannot wrap my head around it but it is what it is and there is no point whinging about it now.
“I don’t really have a problem with him missing the Shamrock Rovers game; the problem is with him missing the Bohs game the following week. That’s the real kick in the gut but you have to be careful what you say here.”
In better news for Dundalk, injured pair Daniel Kelly and Val Adedokun will hope to step up their return to first-team affairs this week while Brian Gartland could also come into contention having been an unused substitute against Finn Harps on Friday.
As exclusively revealed by The Argus Dundalk also completed a move for South Korean winger Han Jeong Woo last week with the 22-year-old making his debut by playing the final 10 minutes of the defeat to Finn Harps.
Keegan said he and Ryan O’Kane were the two positives to take from the defeat.
On O’Kane, the Laois man said: “I thought he was absolutely when he came on.”
Keegan said it hadn’t been his intention to use Han so soon but was pleased with his early promise.
“It was necessity. He’s had one collective training session and yet I think you saw why we’re kind of excited about him as well. By that stage we had McMillan and Hoban on the pitch so you’re looking to get as many crosses into the box and he’s got a sweet left foot. I thought he put in a couple of fantastic deliveries so there are positives there to take away but we need to build on them and we just need to find another three, four or five gears because it is in us.”
Keegan also admitted in his programme notes for Friday’s game that the club were hopeful of bringing in former Valencia midfielder Wilfried Zahibo but that deal is unlikely to be completed in time for him to face Rovers.
On the 27-year-old, he said: “With Wilfried, we’re pretty much there and now it’s just about trying to get everything boxed off.
“He is the complete central midfielder and he would give us a tremendous presence. Some players have brilliant technical ability but might not have the same physicality while some have tremendous physicality and aren’t quite as technical. Wilfried ticks both boxes and is the complete midfielder so hopefully we can get it finalised in the near future.”
Meanwhile, Dundalk last week announced two new commercial deals with local businesses RockSalt and XXI Ice coming on board as sponsors. RockSalt, who have outlets in Blackrock and Earl Street in Dundalk, are the club’s new official Good Food Partner while XXI Ice, who are based on Clanbrassil Street, have become the official Premium Hand Rolled Ice Cream partner.
Dundalk are set to finally land a South Korean winger after being frustrated in their initial attempts.
Over the winter Han Eui-gwon had agreed terms for a move to Oriel Park from K League side Suwon Samsung Bluewings but failure to secure a work permit having been just one appearance shy of the quota required scuppered a move for the 26-year-old who has since signed for Seoul E-Land in his homeland.
Now Dundalk have turned their sights to another of his countrymen.
It is understood that the man in question is Han Jeong Woo, a 22-year-old right winger who has been capped at both U-18 and U-22 level for his country.
He is a free agent having departed Suwon FC in January after helping them to promotion to the top flight after a runner-up finish in K League 2 last season.
The player is understood to be currently in Ireland with his agent so a deal could be completed this week.
Speaking to The Argus earlier in the year, sporting director Jim Magilton had spoke about expanding the brand in Asia.
“We’re looking to expose and expand the brand as far as possible but he’s also a good player,” he said of Eui-gwon.
“If we can attract players from that part of the world it means that the Dundalk FC brand gets more exposure, the league gets more exposure and it could then open opportunities for other players to come into the league and we know that Korean players bring a fantastic attitude and work ethic and they’re top, top people,” said Magilton.
A potential move for Jeong Woo may not be Dundalk’s only business this week either. As revealed in last week’s Argus, Central African Republic international midfielder Wilfried Zahibo is expected to sign upon his arrival from France and he could be joined by fellow French born defender Tom Gaston. The former Bordeaux player, who has been capped at U-19 level by Ireland, trained with Dundalk last week. Australian goalkeeper Patrick Beach is also on trial with the Lilywhites at present with Armagh GAA goalkeeper Niall Brady also training with the first team.
With Raivis Jurkovskis and Sonni Nattestad away on international duty for Friday night’s home game against Finn Harps and Brian Gartland struggling with an injury that saw him press pre-season, Gaston could also be fast-tracked into the side if he impresses.
Dundalk had been hoping that the Finn Harps game, which kicks off at 5.45pm on Friday, would be postponed due to international call-ups but the club only discovered last Tuesday morning that this would not be possible due to what team manager Shane Keegan described as “one of the strangest rules” he has seen.
Clubs can have games called off if two or more players are away on international duty but this only applies to call-ups for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
With goalkeeper Alessio Abibi also said to be on the fringes of the Albanian squad that could leave Dundalk without several key players for not only the Finn Harps match this weekend but also the trip to face Waterford on September 3rd, the home fixture with reigning champions Shamrock Rovers on October 8th and the Louth derby with neighbours Drogheda Utd in the penultimate game of the season on November 12th.
Keegan called for the rule to be revised ahead of next season.
“In fairness to the FAI, the explanation I got was that this is a rule set out in the participation agreement which is something technically agreed by the clubs. It’s very black and white so we can’t argue.
“There’s no room for manoeuvre there really.
“We have plenty of quality there and it’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t become an issue by others stepping up to the plate.
“I think it’s something that the clubs will need to look at before the start of next year.
“I suppose it was something that was agreed without much thought because we didn’t really have mass volumes of internationals from outside of the Republic. I don’t really understand what the thinking was behind it but the FAI’s argument is that it’s not our rule, it is the participation agreement which is something that you’re involved with coming up with.
“It seems a very, very strange one because Abibi could be called up too. He has been in the past and he’s going to be in with a chance of being called up so it seems a strange one and it’s going to make life a little bit more difficult on ourselves but look we have good strength in depth too so we just have to try and cope with it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Shamrock Rovers’ trip to face Derry City this weekend has been postponed after Candystripes goalkeeper Nathan Gartside was called into the Northern Ireland squad. Asked would it give Dundalk an advantage to be playing ahead of the meeting of the two sides next week in Tallaght on April 2nd, Keegan said: “It all depends on the result against Finn Harps.
“If we get a win next weekend and we have momentum heading into the Rovers game then it definitely works in our favour all right. That’s the only way I can look at it really that if you get the win you have that bit of momentum whereas they might be caught a little bit cold but these things are always looked at with revision in that the result will dictate everything.
“If we beat Rovers in that game and we’ve played the week before then everybody will say Rovers were a bit rusty because they hadn’t had a game the previous week whereas if they beat us people will say they had more energy because they hadn’t played the previous week so it’s going to be the same either way,” said Keegan.
Mick Fairclough’s near 39-year record as the last Dundalk player to be capped at international level is set to come to an end this week.
The Annagassan man – who won a league, FAI Cup and League Cup with Dundalk in the early 80s – remains the last from the club to win international honours while still at Oriel Park having come off the bench at the Arima Municipal Stadium for Brendan O’Callaghan in the 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago on May 30th 1982.
Nine days earlier he had his made his Republic of Ireland debut in a 1-0 defeat to Chile on Eoin Hand’s side’s ill-fated South American tour which included a 7-0 thumping by Brazil in which he didn’t feature.
Since then many ex-Dundalk players have received international recognition, with Daryl Horgan in Stephen Kenny’s plans for the World Cup Qualifiers with Serbia on Wednesday and Luxembourg on Saturday, as well as the friendly with Qatar next Tuesday. However, Raivis Jurkovskis and Sonni Nattestad’s inclusion in the Latvia and Faroe Islands squads mean they are set to become the 12th and 13th players to be capped while at Dundalk.
Jurkovskis will be hoping to add to his 13 caps when Latvia play World Cup Qualifiers at home to Montenegro on Wednesday before travelling to face the Netherlands on Saturday and Turkey on Tuesday.
Likewise, Nattestad will be expecting to add to his 31 caps for the Faroes when they take on Moldova on Thursday, Austria on Sunday and Scotland next Wednesday.
Should either or both play they will be the first to be capped at international level in a competitive game while at Dundalk since Turlough O’Connor and the late Tommy McConville were part of the Irish side which lost 6-0 to Austria in Vienna in a European Championship qualifier almost 50 years ago in October 1971.
Dundalk’s international caps so far are as follows:
Shane Keegan admitted his frustration at Dundalk’s failure to get their season off to a winning start in Sligo at the weekend but was well aware they could have had no points at this stage just as easily as the one they left The Showgrounds with.
Speaking to the media afterwards, the Laois man said he felt his side were about to kick on after bright starts to both halves of the match but was relieved at the end not to have lost to Liam Buckley’s side.
Asked if the Lilywhites were hanging on a bit at the end, Keegan said: “Yep, we definitely were.
“It was a very frustrating game because at two different stages of the game I thought we were going to kick on and win the match. We’ve gone 1-0 up and you’re thinking let’s kick on now and go and get a second and then the game is over and we haven’t managed to do that and then in the first 10 minutes of the second half we started well and Pat has hit the post and there was the one he squared back to Cammy and there was a chance for Greg.
“Again, I was thinking just put the ball in the back of the net here and we’ll go on and win this game but then it became anything but.
“You get games every now and again where both management teams are probably coming away giving out and disappointed and that was definitely the case tonight because they’ll be coming away scratching their heads as to how they didn’t win it in the end.”
Keegan said a change in formation to bring Patrick McEleney deeper had paid dividends at the start of the second half but admitted that ultimately the switch left Dundalk exposed.
“We tweaked it a little bit at half-time and 15 or 20 minutes into it you’re thinking this tweak has really worked and it is working brilliantly and then by the final whistle you’re thinking maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do at all because we’ve ended up on the back foot for so long.
“They were being very aggressive in their press which we knew they would be which meant that we thought if there’s not a huge amount of space in front of them then maybe the space is behind them so that’s probably why we tweaked it a little bit and it has worked to a certain extent. Hoban, for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the second half, has bullied the life out of them really and really put us on the front foot but with any system it’ll give you some advantage but it’ll also give you some disadvantages and they probably exploited some of the disadvantages to the tweak at that stage then as well.”
Keegan admitted there were a few occasions where the side looked like they had still some work to do in terms of bedding the new signings in but he wasn’t overly concerned about it being a factor in the long term.
“It was probably the first time that we have seen signs of lads only getting the feel for each other a little bit,” said the former Galway Utd boss.
“We probably gelled a little bit better in some of the pre-season games but at the same time it is their fourth ever time playing together so it is inevitable that they’re not going to be fully on the same wavelength but yet they were in periods.
“From our point of view we need to establish a performance over 90 minutes rather than the likes of this game where it was up and down and peaks and troughs the whole time through the game. Trying to get a bit more consistency over the 90 minutes is key for us.”
Keegan said he felt the offside call to deny Mark Byrne a late winner for Sligo was the right decision but admitted he hadn’t seen it back despite Bit O Red officials insisting afterwards the linesman had got it wrong.
“I did expect the flag to go up but bear in mind I haven’t seen a replay.
“Now when I say I expected to go up, I was also praying it would go up when I was looking down the line but I did immediately look down the line expecting to see it but until I see it back they could be right, maybe it was onside. They were certainly appealing like they felt it was. If we’ve got away with one there we’ve got away with one.”
Dundalk team manager Shane Keegan is hopeful of having some players back from injury for his side’s first home league match of the season against Finn Harps on Friday (kick-off 5.45pm, live on WATCHLOI).
Having only named seven subs instead of the nine allowed for their draw away to Sligo Rovers on Saturday night, the Lilywhites will now be without both Raivis Jurkovskis and Sonni Nattestad for the visit of Ollie Horgan’s men due to international duty for Latvia and the Faroe Islands respectively.
Brian Gartland, who had hoped to be back in the squad for the trip to Sligo, suffered a setback in his attempted return from injury last week while Daniel Kelly and Sean Murray remain sidelined at present.
While Gartland and Kelly both have a chance of making this weekend, Keegan is hopeful that youngster Val Adedokun will also be available.
Asked why Dundalk only named seven subs in Sligo, the 39-year-old said: “Bodies and injuries.
“Garts had a little bit of a setback in terms of his recovery. We’re still a couple of bodies down with Daniel Kelly and Sean Murray so we need to get a few more back because we’re down a couple of bodies for the next game but at the same time we still have serious strength in depth.
“We’ll have a look at it during the week. There is a chance that we might manage to get one or two more bodies back. I don’t think Val’s injury would definitely rule him out for next week yet. I think Daniel Kelly may have a chance as well.
“We need to see over the weekend how Garts has reacted to his little bit of a setback.
“Again, I don’t think we can overly whinge or moan about missing a couple of bodies. We’ve got real strength in depth and we’ve got quality all over the field so we should be able to cope. You’re going to be down a couple of bodies be it from international duty, suspension or injury over the course of the season and you just have to deal with it as best you can.
“I mean you can only bring on a certain amount of bodies too. The 20 player thing is probably a help in terms of less lads dissatisfied at not actually making the match day squad but does it affect how you can actually impact a game? No because the first five subs who you’re likely to use are the first five whether you’re naming 18 or 20.”
Following their opening day victory over Bohemians at Finn Park, this will be the Donegal outfit’s first visit to Oriel Park ahead of Dundalk in a league table since first half goals from Gary Crossan and Kevin McHugh earned them a 2-0 victory on August 26th 2004.
After their strong finish to last season, Keegan is expecting a tough test from a Harps side who drew 0-0 on their last visit to Oriel Park last October.
Anything you say about Harps at this stage sounds clichéd but they’re still true,” he said.
“Ollie, you just don’t ever get an easy game off him. Their tails will be up on the back of that one so it probably does make it a little bit even tastier again.”