Dundalk FC first team coach John Gill is hopeful his side can avoid the injuries which plagued the start of their season last year when they kick-off the 2020 campaign on St Valentine’s Day at home to Derry City.
The Donabate man has admitted that the Lilywhites face a “tricky start” with a meeting with newly promoted First Division champions Shelbourne the side’s first away trip of the season a week later.
They then face old foes Cork City at Oriel on February 24th before rounding off the opening month of games with a trip to Tallaght Stadium to face last season’s runners-up Shamrock Rovers on February 28th.
Vinny Perth’s side managed just six points from the opening 12 on offer in the first four games of last season and, while the hope will be to no doubt build on that, Gill said the most important thing was to avoid the sort of injury problems that impacted Dundalk at the start of 2019.
“It would be nice to get off in the first few games injury-free, which didn’t happen for us last year,” said Gill.
“It’s well documented that we had some awful injuries and serious injuries to Benson and McEleney in the first game and then we lost Shields. It’s only when you look back now in retrospect, what we had to come through in the first three months was really unprecedented but full credit to the players, the staff and the club – including supporters – that we were able to come through that patch.
“We showed probably a different side than we’ve had to show before over the previous six or seven years.”
While most eyes nationally on the opening night is likely to be on the Dublin derby between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers at Dalymount Park, Gill feels his side couldn’t have got a much more difficult start than against a Candystripes side who drew twice with the champions last season, as well as taking them to extra-time in the FAI Cup and to a shoot-out to decide the outcome of the EA Sports Cup.
“They’re the team who caused us the most problems. Not necessarily problems but they gave us some very, very competitive games last year,” said Gill.
“They were really tough nuts to crack, they were well set up and Deccy got a real feel good factor behind the town. Everybody seemed to row in behind them and they were very good. They had a great season and getting European football kind of capped it off for them.
“They’re going to be a tough nut again. I know they’ve lost some players, like ourselves, but he has made some shrewd acquisitions.
“The only good thing is we’re at home on our own patch and our home form is there for everybody to see. It has been magnificent for the last seven years but particularly the last two years. It’s a game we’re looking forward to but we know it’s going to be a very tough test.”
Gill said the matches away to Shelbourne and at home to Cork could potentially be tougher ties than the first league meeting with Shamrock Rovers at the end of the month.
“It’s a tricky start. You’ve got Shels as our first away trip and they’ll be full of beans after being promoted back to the Premier following a long sabbatical.
“They’ve kept the nucleus of the squad they had and added some very shrewd signings like Sheppard. They’ve signed well so that will be a difficult test but it’s a great ground to go to. I love going to Tolka. I know it’s a very dilapidated ground but it has great history in it and it’s a place I love going to because there’s always a great atmosphere. We’ll bring a big crowd to it too.
“It’s Cork after that. Okay, they’re not the Cork that we have known but they’re still going to be a very tough nut to crack. Fenny will have had more time to get his ideas across. It’ll be a very young, vibrant and passionate team so they are three very, very tricky games.
“The Rovers game after that will look after itself, as those games always do. We never fear going up to Tallaght. Our lads like going there. I’m sure it will be a really, really good game but no matter what kind of start we got it was always going to be a tricky one.”
Having briefly met up with the squad before Christmas, Gill said he was excited by the club’s new signings to date, Darragh Leahy, Greg Sloggett and Will Patching.
“The new lads that have come in, Sloggett, Leahy and Patching are three very good players and I think they’ll add to the group.
“They’ve all got different qualities. Leahy is obviously a current U-21 international and he has had a great two seasons at Bohs after being away in England. He’s a very dedicated but quiet lad but I think he’ll definitely bring something to the table.
“Then with Sloggett, in all the games he played against us for Derry last season he had a big influence in them and he scored probably the best goal that was scored against us last year up in Derry in the Cup.
“He brings a lot of energy, physicality and technical ability to the team. After losing Benson a lot of people would have been worried but I think Sloggett is more than an adequate replacement.
“Patching then is a bit of technician. Anybody that has been at Manchester City for as long as he was and was capped at every level up the way by England has to have a lot of quality. Hopefully we can give him the chance to reboot and push on in his career and we probably aren’t finished yet in regards to what we’re looking for. We’re still looking to strengthen in certain areas but all is looking good at the moment.”
Departing the club over Christmas was young defender Dylan Hand, who has signed for Longford Town, while U-19 goalkeeper David Odumosu has moved down the M1 to Drogheda Utd.