Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth believes his side are in a better place than this time last year to try to retain their league title.
Despite the departures of Dean Jarvis, Stephen Folan, Jamie McGrath and Robbie Benson at the end of last season, the Lilywhites have strengthened with the acquisition of Darragh Leahy from Bohemians, Greg Sloggett from Derry City, Cammy Smith on loan from Dundee United, former Manchester City trainee Will Patching and Serbian winger Stefan Colovic.
Those signings, coupled with a more settled pre-season, has left Dundalk as favourites to land their sixth title in seven seasons this year and while Perth is well aware that there is plenty of tough tests and hard work ahead, he feels the squad couldn’t be in a much better place ahead of this Friday’s league opener against Derry City at Oriel Park (kick-off 7.45pm).
Perth only took over the reins officially from Stephen Kenny 13 months ago leading to a rushed pre-season last year but he feels now that he has a season under his belt in the top job that he is better equipped to continue Dundalk’s spectacular success of recent years.
“I learned huge amounts from last season but I think ultimately what fills me with confidence is that the squad is in a much better place,” he said.
“The stability of the off-season meant that we had the players in here before Christmas doing testing. We didn’t have that last year. That means that we’re in a much better place now than we were at this stage last season.
“The players are certainly fitter than they were before but ultimately we start again on Friday on zero points so we’re not getting ahead of ourselves either.”
It was 2017 when Dundalk last opened their season with a win, ironically in a year which they didn’t win the league. That said, Perth feels he won’t be getting too concerned if his side fail to beat Derry this weekend.
“We’ve always had a big amount of turmoil at the start of every season but I don’t think this is the same as previous years.
“From that point of view I’d like to think we’re set up to have a better start this time around I don’t care if we start like we did last year as long as we win the league with five games to go again. That’s ultimately all that matters.
“We will have our ups and downs but ours just came at the start of last season.
“I think sometimes people look back at previous years with rose tinted glasses because in many years when we’ve won the league we’ve had dark times. Even the first year we went into the last game of the season trailing Cork because we only managed a draw down in Bray. That would be a crisis if we did that now but ultimately our standards are so high now that we have to have the floodlights on for every single game.”
While many expect this season to be a two horse race for the title between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, Perth feels the overall strength of the league has improved over the off season and expects it to be as competitive as ever this season.
“There’s no doubt that the league has improved in terms of the quality of teams,” he said.
“Finn Harps are probably the best example in that regard because they’ve really added strength in depth into their group.
“The league and all the teams in it would appear to be in a better place in my opinion. There’s better structures in so many clubs so it will be a competitive league.
“On paper people will say it’s between us and Rovers but Bohs have really added to their squad again and have two players for every position. We’ll see if they’re ready to kick on again. Also Derry and Pat’s have the ability to kick on too.”
While Friday’s opponents Derry have added a number of players unfamiliar to League of Ireland fans, such as defender Danny Lupano, midfielder Moussa Bakayoka and striker Tim Nilsen, Perth feels Dundalk have a few new tricks up their sleeves as well.
“The same can be said of Cammy Smith, Will Patching and now Stefan Colovic. They’re players that our opponents won’t know much about but you get that every season.
“The world has got so much smaller now and Derry will have done their homework. These guys won’t have been signed on the basis of a YouTube video. Derry will be very strong and Declan has a great ability to galvanise a team and a community so they’re tough opponents but so are we.”
Perth has yet to taste a league defeat at home since taking over as first team coach 13 months ago but he feels the side’s away form will be just as key if Dundalk are to retain their title of champions come the end of October.
“We’ve been strong in Oriel for many years now. Like anything you’ll have the odd blip or bad night but our away form for me was the key last season.
“I know we lost away to St Pat’s and Sligo in that bad run but some of our away wins were the difference for me when people didn’t expect us to win.
“Our win away in Sligo was probably our best all season but because it was on a Saturday night and there wasn’t many media there it was by-passed. Another big win was against Waterford on a Monday night but again these get overlooked.”
They all add up, however, and Dundalk will need similar results this season if they’re to finish top of the pile once again. You wouldn’t back against them.