It’s doubtful if you can bet on who you think will win the annual PFAI Player of the Year awards at the end of the season but if you did would your money be on a Dundalk winner? Perhaps not.
There’s little doubt that Vinny Perth’s side have been the outstanding performers in the League of Ireland this season with the EA Sports Cup already in the bag by the time they wrapped up the league title with four games to spare against Shamrock Rovers on Monday.
Currently on a 29-match unbeaten run domestically, they are just 180 minutes away from a domestic treble but whether they go on to reach the Aviva by beating Sligo Rovers on Sunday or not is somewhat irrelevant given that a number of clubs have already cast their votes on their perspective candidates for Player of the Year. Even if the new league champions leapfrog the hurdle posed by Liam Buckley’s side at The Showgrounds this weekend, all votes will be in by the time the FAI Cup final takes place on November 2nd, just six days ahead of the awards.
Admittedly, a Dundalk man will always be biased but it seems somewhat bizaare that the club could potentially win a treble, break clean sheet and points gained records and not land any of the big personal honours come the season’s end.
It would be surprising if no one from the Lilywhites was at least nominated for the various honours of Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year or Manager of the Year but would you really back any of the potential candidates there to win?
In the build-up to and aftermath of Monday’s 3-2 victory over Shamrock Rovers there has been a broad discussion about whether this Dundalk side has got the credit it has deserved.
Dundalk assistant head coach Ruaidhrí Higgins is one who doesn’t think they have and he admitted it was “strange” that a season that could end with five trophies at Oriel Park (the Presidents’ Cup and Unite the Union Champions Cup included) could also see the side miss out on individual honours – not that that would bother him!
“It is strange but at the end of the day when we all turned up in pre-season together the main goal was to win as many trophies as we can as a team and if you get individual awards along the way then brilliant but it would be strange if we didn’t have any player picking up an individual award,” he said.
While much was made of the new managerial set up at the start of the year, a clarification with the PFAI determined that despite having the role of head coach, Vinny Perth is indeed eligible for the Manager of the Year award which his predecessor Stephen Kenny won in five of the six seasons since its inception in 2013.
Higgins feels that regardless of whether he picks up that particular honour or not, Perth deserves huge praise.
“He puts in an awful lot of work. He works 24/7 and deserves huge credit.
“There’s no doubt about it, he had huge shoes to fill. Stephen Kenny is possibly the greatest manager this league has ever seen. In my opinion, himself and Jim McLaughlin are out on their own. Vinny was under huge pressure, there’s no doubt about that, but he has answered the questions and gone on to win another league title.
“He can be very proud of the work that he has done, as well as everyone in the backroom team and every single player in the football club.
“The sacrifices that the players and the staff make, people don’t see that. We’ve gone Friday-Monday, Friday-Monday, Friday-Monday, Friday-Monday and in Ireland Sunday is a family day. Our staff and our players haven’t had family days now for months and people don’t see that. They’re here every Sunday. We report at 9.30am and they don’t get away until 3pm or 4pm and people don’t see that. It’s a huge credit to everyone involved but we’re all in it for the one reason and that’s to be successful.
“That’s why we can enjoy nights like this together and be proud of the work we’ve done so far but there’s more work to do.”
That work centres around a drive for a treble. As a Derry man, Higgins said it would be particularly sweet for him to end Derry City’s tenure as the only side to have completed the modern domestic treble 30 years ago.
“I had a few texts after the League Cup final from Derry supporters. I’m from the area so I know what it means to the people of Derry and they don’t want us to win the treble for obvious reasons but we’ve two done and if we manage to pull it off it would be a monumental effort from everyone.
“It would be amazing because it doesn’t happen anywhere really but we’ve a massive game on Sunday. The Showgrounds will be rammed. It would be great if we took a massive travelling support to try to help us over the line on Sunday.”
Regardless of what happens in The Showgrounds or potentially the Aviva Stadium afterwards, it has been an unbelievable debut season for Dundalk but Higgins admitted there were doubts early on after their stuttering start that culminated with them falling 13 points behind Shamrock Rovers, albeit with games in hand, after a 2-1 defeat away to Sligo on April 12th.
“Of course there was doubts,” he said.
“I’m not going to stand here and lie to you and say I knew we were going to turn it around but as each week went past and we kept picking up points the belief grows.
“The big performance for me was 3-1 win away to UCD when we went 1-0 down. Obviously we had won the Bohs game and we had beaten Finn Harps here on the Friday but the performance in UCD was exceptional and we kicked on from that moment. I think that spearheaded us on and we continued from strength to strength from there.
“From that day in Sligo when we were probably, and rightly so, written off from every single angle the response from everyone involved has been incredible and I think everyone in the club deserves this.
“People made a big deal of three people going into the management team but if you look through the league there’s three people in nearly every team but people just jumped on it here but anyway that’s not for tonight. The players have to take huge credit.
“After that Sligo game there was a refocus and a shift in mentality and we’ve gone on from strength to strength and to go 29 games domestically unbeaten is nothing short of incredible and the players deserve all the credit for that.”
It remains to be seen if any individual honours will fall their way but Higgins is confident there are many more to come for Dundalk.
“A lot of the players are at their peak age now, 25, 26, 27 and 28, and there’s no reason why they can’t go on for another few years and hopefully continue the success,” he said.