On the day Dundalk unleashed their foreign giants, it was the little guy from down the road Ryan O’Kane who stood out.
A first pre-season game of 2021 was keenly anticipated at Oriel Park on Friday as eager fans awaited a first glimpse of some of the club’s new recruits.
Bohemians would prove a decent test on the day, with the performance and result against last season’s league runners-up giving many hope that Filippo Giovagnoli’s splurge on players not familiar with the SSE Airtricity League may not be as wild a prospect as many had feared.
The immediate thought when the new look Dundalk took to the field was their sheer size. You can read a player’s profile all you like but seeing goalkeeper Alessio Abibi and attacker Ole Erik Midtskogen, both 6ft 5in in height, and defender Sonni Nattestad, who is an inch taller than both of them, in the flesh is something else. They visibly towered over everyone on the field and, if nothing else, Dundalk shouldn’t be bullied or outfought this season.
For all the excitement over that trio and the other new arrivals who featured it was another debutant who had Dundalk fans purring. Ryan O’Kane, grandson of former club chairman Tony, might have starred at underage level for Bellurgan Utd and the Dundalk Schoolboys’ League representative team but it has taken until now, aged 17, for him to make his way to Oriel Park.
New academy manager Stephen McDonnell, who gave the St Mary’s College student his NIFL Premiership debut at just 15-years-old for Warrenpoint Town a couple of years ago, made O’Kane’s capture one of his top priorities following his own return to the club in early January.
There was some excitement at O’Kane finally arriving on a three-year deal but he was always seen as one for the future. He still is but the future might very soon become the present if he continues to produce like he did against Bohs on Friday.
Handed a start having impressed with the first-team in pre-season training, O’Kane gave Andy Lyons – rated as one of the best right-backs in the league – a torrid time, particularly in the first half.
He attempted 16 crosses throughout his 69 minute cameo, delivering six from play, seven from corners and having just three blocked. The teenager, who was most recently on the books of Cliftonville, also had a couple of opportunities to score and while he failed to take either, the sheer threat he possessed was one of the real highlights to come from this game. From Jimmy Dainty to Tony Cavanagh and Brian Byrne to Daryl Horgan, Dundalk fans have always appreciated a good winger. The fact Ryan is a local adds to the excitement about him.
That said, he may have to be patient for minutes. Michael Duffy will return and there is a big step up between doing it in a pre-season friendly and delivering in a crunch league match but he certainly looks to be on he right track.
While O’Kane dazzled, it was another new arrival who probably pipped him for man of the match. If Dundalk fans love a good winger then they also love an attacking full back and, on initial viewing at least, Raivis Jurkovskis seems to tick many of the boxes required to make people forget all about Sean Gannon’s departure.
He made several driving runs from deep throughout, was constantly positive in possession and delivered the most sublime of crosses for David McMillan’s equaliser on 53 minutes.
You could see over the course of his 87 minutes why he is a Latvian international and, without question, he looked the fittest and most match sharp of the new arrivals.
With the others, it was perhaps difficult to judge how good or bad they will be based on this one match. Abibi in goal didn’t have much to do in the first half. There was perhaps little he could do about Liam Burt’s strike to open the scoring on 33 minutes that came about after a blind pass from Greg Sloggett had put his side in trouble.
He did make a decent enough save to turn Tyreke Wilson’s free kick around the post two minutes prior to that but it was a save you’d have expected him to make and probably only looked as well due to the fact he had given himself more work to do as a result of questionable positioning in the build-up.
Given the importance of the goalkeeping position, there will be a particular spotlight on Abibi and Peter Cherrie, who played the second half, but this was a relatively comfortable afternoon for both in the end.
That said, there were a few concerns for Dundalk at the back that will need to be ironed out before the start of the season.
Having initially been totally switched off from a quick free from Keith Ward which almost put Bastien Hery in on 23 minutes, the Dundalk defence were then much too slow in getting out to Ali Coote as he lined one up from range from the resultant short corner. His deflected shot was then unlucky not to find the net having cannoned off the post with Ciaran Kelly unable to turn in the rebound.
Despite Bohs having the more clear cut chances, Dundalk could have rightly felt aggrieved to be trailing at the break. Moments after falling behind Sloggett almost atoned for his earlier error when he slipped O’Kane in but the youngster’s toe poke past James Talbot crept agonisingly to the left and wide.
Talbot would deny the winger again after that having also tipped a superb effort on the turn over from David McMillan on 16 minutes.
While much of the focus was on the new arrivals, McMillan’s performance on the day suggests he is ready to continue from where he left off at the end of last season.
The hat-trick hero from last December’s FAI Cup final almost turned provider for Midtskogen as early as the third minute when he flicked on O’Kane’s corner into the path of the Norwegian at the back post but he couldn’t steer it goalwards.
Midtskogen’s debut lasted just 35 minutes in total. He showed some good touches and hold up play and a willingness to chase things down in that brief spell but using his energy more wisely might help him settle into life at Oriel Park a bit quicker.
His second half replacement Junior, who has the benefit of having played in he league for a season-and-a-half, was more intelligent with his running and made the finish for his 76th minus winner look easy after pulling into space at the edge of the six yard box to steer in Darragh Leahy’s cross with his left foot.
By that stage Dundalk had changed from a wing back system to a 4-3-3 which seemed to suit the home side better. Indeed, two minutes prior to Junior’s goal Patrick McEleney was unlucky not to score when he was played in by McMillan only to be denied by a good point blank save by Talbot.
Keeping the likes of McEleney fit this season could be key for Dundalk as there were spells of Friday’s game where, much like last season, the side looked like missing a bit of creativity to break down an opposition defence from play.
McEleney did improve things while there were tentative signs in his second half showing that Sam Stanton could be a useful asset too. While his range was off at times, understandably so given this was his first match since October 25th last year, he did play a vital role in both of the goals – nicking possession off Hery to start the move which would lead to Jurkovskis’ cross being turned in by McMillan and releasing Leahy to cross for Junior’s winner 14 minutes from the end.
Like any performance, you can pick holes in it but it would be too much to overanalyse a pre-season game at this stage.
What you would say is that coming from a goal down to beat a side who finished ahead of you last season would be a great result if it happened during the season. Yes, there were a few teething problems in terms of familiarity but nothing that you’d be seriously concerned about and the fact that side were able to adjust so seamlessly from playing with three centre halves to a 4-3-3 midway through the second half shows that there is definitely more than one ace up the sleeve going into the new campaign.
There’ll be bigger and tougher tests ahead but, as a starting point, this wasn’t bad.
Dundalk: Alessio Abibi (Peter Cherrie HT); Daniel Cleary, Andy Boyle, Sonni Nattestad (Patrick McEleney 57); Raivis Jurkovskis (Mayowa Animasahun 87), Chris Shields, Greg Sloggett (Sam Stanton HT), Cameron Dummigan (Darragh Leahy 57); Ole Erik Midtskogen (Jesus Perez 35) (Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe HT), David McMillan (Jesus Perez 78), Ryan O’Kane (Val Adedokun 69). Subs not used: Ronan Kilkenny, German Giammattei, Ebuka Kwelele, Enda Douglas.
Bohemians: James Talbot; Andy Lyons, Rob Cornwall, Ciaran Kelly, Tyreke Wilson; Keith Buckley, Bastien Hery; Liam Burt (Robbie Mahon 82), Keith Ward (Brad Rolt 78), Ali Coote; Thomas Oluwa. Subs not used: Enda Minogue, James Finnerty, Ross Tierney.