Despite their struggles since the restart, Michael O’Connor still views Dundalk as the best side in the country.
Nevertheless the 22-year-old will be looking to pile the agony on his home town club on the double this week when Waterford FC visit Oriel Park in the FAI Cup tonight (Tuesday, kick-off 7.45pm) and Friday night in the league (5.45pm).
While the Cup tie is up first, a win for John Sheridan’s side on Friday night would see them move level with the Lilywhites in the table and with the Blues eyeing Europe, O’Connor feels it would set them up nicely for the following back-to-back home games against Finn Harps and St Patrick’s Athletic.
Having played for Dundalk early in his career, O’Connor knows that a wounded Lilywhites can be a dangerous animal but he’s determined to ensure that the woes of Vinny Perth’s side continue for at least another week.
“I don’t know if it’s a good time or bad time to get them,” he laughed.
“You could say it’s a good time given their recent results but at the same time you could go there and you could be in for a real game but I think it’s a good time to get them at this time.
“The results haven’t been going their way. They’ll be looking to react but it’s up to us to keep them down while they’re down.
“You always want to play against the best and it’s going to be great for us going down there because we’re full of confidence since we came back from the break.
“We have four points from two games and I know it’s the Cup game first, which we’ll be looking to win, but the main focus is on the league and getting into Europe.
“It’s going to be a tough test but if we can get a result there, you’d be looking forward to home matches then against Finn Harps and St Pat’s. With all due respect to those sides, if you can beat the best team in the country there would be no reason why you can’t beat Finn Harps and Pat’s.”
In the opposition dugout this week will be new Dundalk assistant Alan Reynolds, who coached O’Connor at the RSC up until his departure for Oriel. O’Connor was full of praise for his old boss but is equally excited about Waterford’s prospects after a rocky few months for the club at the height of the lockdown.
“Rennie was brilliant for me on and off the pitch,” said the Irish U-21 international.
“He has done numerous things for me that I really can’t thank him enough for. I think he made me better when I came to Waterford. He respected who I was and what I had done but when he left it was difficult. We didn’t know if we were coming or going or what was happening. We weren’t getting any word on anything. It was crazy times but the appointment of John Sheridan has been brilliant.
“He’s a fantastic manager and he has obviously had a fantastic career. He’s only going to bring experience to the group and we can see that already in the short space of time that he has been here. We’ve made a few signings as well with Daryl Murphy and a few others coming in and they’ll be brilliant for us.”
Amongst those new arrivals is another former Lilywhite, Kurtis Byrne, who won league titles under Stephen Kenny in 2014 and 2015.
“I would have been only breaking through when he was at Dundalk but Kurtis is another great signing,” said O’Connor.
“He’s had a great career and was part of the early winning years at Dundalk. He’ll only help the squad.”
The striker is also looking forward to the prospect of a potential strike partnership with former Irish international Daryl Murphy.
“Having Daryl back, who is a local lad, is absolutely brilliant and I can’t wait to get going with him,” said O’Connor, whose older brother Ciaran won an Irish Cup final with Glentoran recently.
“It’ll be double trouble up top I think when he comes back.
“It’s an exciting time for Waterford now. We’re in a really good position and if we beat Dundalk we go level with them with a game in hand. That would be fantastic for us and put us in a right good position but we just need to capitalise on it now.”
O’Connor, who joined Waterford FC on a permanent basis last month after an initial loan spell from Linfield, had feared missing the trip to Oriel Park having picked up a serious looking ankle injury in a friendly with Shamrock Rovers II before the restart but made his return to action in Saturday’s 0-0 draw against Cork City at the RSC. Now he is looking to face a double header at a venue “just five minutes down the Ecco Road” from his house.
“I’m back a lot sooner than I thought,” he admitted.
“They said eight weeks initially but all the rehab was going really well and I feel good.
“For myself personally going to Dundalk, I’ve a point to prove and I’ll be looking to do that.
“I think people thought we’d be in a relegation fight but we’ve done well and if things go our way I can’t see why we can’t make a push for Europe,” he said.
Despite his local links, O’Connor has often suffered verbal abuse on his returns to Oriel Park with the likes of Shamrock Rovers but he says he’ll miss the crowd not being there this week.
“I’m sure I’ll get one or two comments this week but returning without fans is difficult,” he said.
“You want fans in the stadium. Obviously there are small crowds coming into stadiums but it’s not the same. Fans make games. Oriel Park does be rocking on a match night and it’s a pity it’s not going to be like that this week but at the same time it can help the likes of ourselves because results can go any way at all. It’s anyone’s league and we’re looking forward to that.
“I’d love to score against Dundalk, especially being from there, but it’s going to be a really tough test for us. We’ve such a small squad but I’m sure it will be rotated between Tuesday and Friday but we know whoever plays will give their all and hopefully we can come out of Oriel with three points and qualifying from the next round of the Cup.”
Regardless of the results this week, O’Connor is confident of a bright future at Waterford despite contrasting concerns not too long ago.
“People are listening to rumours but they don’t know what is going on inside the club,” he said.
“Lee Power was always committed to the club from my end of things and the appointment of John was brilliant. We let players go and we took in fresh stock and it has been brilliant for us so far.
“I know we’ve only played two games since we’ve been back but four points from six has been a great start for us and I really think we can build on it now going to Dundalk.
“Going forward, I think we’ll be okay. We’ll just look after ourselves and take it game by game because it’s such a short season and anything can happen – absolutely anything,” he said.