Dundalk boss Shane Keegan feels his side couldn’t have asked for a much tougher start to the season than the one the fixture computer has thrown up.
After Saturday’s trip to face a Sligo Rovers side who were the most in-form side apart from Shamrock Rovers after the league resumed after its Covid-19 enforced break last summer, the Lilywhites are set to face a Finn Harps side who also finished last season in impressive fashion.
After that is a return trip to Tallaght to face the champions on April 2nd followed by the visit of last season’s runners-up Bohemians to Oriel Park on April 9th. This will be followed by three further games in quick succession at home to St Patrick’s Athletic on April 16th, away to Derry City on April 19th and at home to Drogheda on April 23rd.
For a side who traditionally start slow, on paper at least the start to the season couldn’t be much tougher.
“It’s about as tough as you could ask for as a start because you’re playing all the rest of the top half of the table teams pretty much straight off the bat,” said Keegan as he looked ahead to the start of the season this weekend.
“It’s definitely as tough as it gets not only in terms of the opposition but if you look at April and, particularly if the Harps game gets pulled and re-fixed, there’s already a date in the calendar for when it could get put back in and that’s April 13th I think which would then mean that we would end up having seven games in the month of April which would be a really tough test so early in the season to be cramming in that many games.
“Looking at it from a physiological point of view, you’d like the bodies to be a little bit more wintered before they have to go through that amount of games but at the same time if we can get everybody back fit, which we are working towards, we do have pretty good strength in depth and you’d hope you’d be able to cope with it in that sense.”
First up for Dundalk is a Sligo side who, despite losing last season’s top scorer Ronan Coughlan to St Patrick’s Athletic, have strengthened with the acquisitions of Greg Bolger, Colm Horgan, Jordan Gibson, Walter Figueira, Robbie McCourt and Romeo Parkes to name but a few with local youngster Johnny Kenny also proving majorly impressive in pre-season.
Speaking about Liam Buckley’s men, Keegan said he feels they’re not an opponent who can be taken lightly.
“They’re a decent side,” he said.
“They’ll have to have expectations of doing very well this season. I’ve watched them once or twice already in pre-season and they’re very well balanced. They’re starting to look more and more like a Liam Buckley side.
“I think the second half of last season was the first time you’d have looked at them and started to see his imprint on them. What I’ve seen in pre-season they look even more like a Liam Buckley side now than they ever did.
“I think Greg Bolger’s recruitment is probably the key one in that sense. Colm Horgan has gone in there as well. I had Colm at Galway and he’s another fella who is very comfortable on the ball. I think they’ll be a team who will try and have as much a monopoly on the ball as possible. They’ll be really steady.
“No more than any of us because we’ve lost players and Rovers have lost players but the big one for Sligo is how they cope with not having Ronan Coughlan because he did have a very, very good year for them last year, there’s no doubt.
“It’s between Romeo Parkes and John Kenny to fill that void and obviously John Kenny, in particular, has set things alight in pre-season. If they manage to get that part of it right they’ll be a great side.
“I think in the first two thirds of the field they’ll be as good as anything around but if they manage to get the final third right as well then they’ll be a serious outfit,” said Keegan.
The last time Dundalk faced Bohemians in the FAI Cup they went into the game as underdogs, just as they will at Dalymount Park on Friday night.
On that occasion back in September 2012 the Lilywhites were on a 13 match run without a win in the league with serious question marks over the club’s future both on and off the field.
If the problems now are nothing by comparison to eight years ago, Dundalk will be hoping for a similar outcome in Phibsborough on Friday.
Like now, Bohs were tipped to advance to the last four but it was Darius Kierans’ side who would prevail thanks to a stunning 75th minute free kick from local man Marc Griffin that curled up and over the wall past a helpless Greg Murray.
Eight years on Griffin still remembers that goal vividly.
“I actually have the picture of the free kick sitting on my fridge,” he laughed when speaking to The Argus this week.
“I was lucky enough to score some good goals for the club but that free kick was definitely one of my favourites because it was such a big goal getting us to the Cup semi-final.
“I think a few of us were missing for the game against Pat’s in the semi-final so we didn’t really get a real crack at it. I think it was 3-0 in the end as far as I remember but to beat Bohs was a nice lift at that time because that was when we were struggling and things weren’t great at the club.
“Wardy (Keith Ward) had just signed back for them. They had Pico Lopes and Aaron O’Callaghan was in charge and had them playing nice football. We were definite underdogs at that time so it was a great win. We weren’t expected to get anything out of it so it was great to get the result.”
Griffin, a title winner with Dundalk in 2014, would go on to play for Bohs the following year under Keith Long in 2015 and he has great memories of his time at Dalymount.
“That was a proud memory and I have my medals hanging up,” he said of the 2014 campaign in which Dundalk also won the EA Sports Cup.
“I’ll never forget that and some of the boys I met are still my best friends to this day so it just tells you everything you need to know about that group.
“I absolutely loved it at Dalymount as well. I love Bohs. After Dundalk, they’d be my second favourite club.
“They’re just a great club from top to bottom. The fans welcome you and can’t do enough for you. Some of the players I met there as well I’m still friends with like Derek Pender, Keith Buckley and Pico. I’d still speak to them regularly.
“They were just implementing a lot of the stuff they’ve been praised for back when I was there and they’re reaping the rewards for that now. I’m happy to see them back up where they belong. Longer has done some job there. His first year was the year I was there but he’s done a great job. He’s had a turnover of players each year but he just seems to get better ones in.”
While the side of 2012 defied expectations to reach what was the club’s first semi-final since winning the competition a decade earlier, the current side has arguably underperformed at times this season. Griffin though has backed Filippo Giovagnoli’s side to come good on Friday night as they bid to reach what would be a sixth consecutive Cup final.
“We live in a town that’s quite fickle and people forget where we came from. The fans can be disastrous at times but the things the boys have done for themselves and the club is monumental.
“They’re winning trophies every year and made the group stages of the Europa League twice now. A lot of them have big accolades to their name too. Like Pat Hoban would be a good friend of mine and he’s Dundalk’s all-time top scorer. That is some achievement.
“It’ll be a tough game because Bohs are good this year and Dundalk have been a bit indifferent. Dundalk will miss Pat Hoban as well if he’s out but I’ve full faith in the boys.
“I think they know this year that they’ll have to push for a trophy. It has been a tough year and the season being broke up the way that it was didn’t help Dundalk. I love both clubs but I think Dundalk will do it on Friday.”
Griffin, who has most recently been lining out for local side Muirhevnamor, is hopeful that a move to play in New York can still come off having been postponed due to Covid-19.
“I’m 30 next year so I don’t know if the contract will still be sitting waiting for me.
“I might still have a chance to go for the second half of the season in February so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed.”
He’ll also have them crossed that someone in a white shirt can repeat his feat from 2012 and book Dundalk’s place in the last four.
A couple of years ago I did a piece with current PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness looking back on his career.
A large part of that conversation centred around his time at Dundalk.
Below is his memories of April 7th 2002 when a relegated Dundalk shocked Bohemians to win the FAI Cup with a 2-1 victory at Tolka Park.
Garry Haylock’s double on the day either side of half time cancelled out Tony O’Connor’s 40th minute opener as Dundalk clinched what was their ninth Cup success at the time.
While few gave Dundalk a chance beforehand against a Bohs side containing the league’s top goalscorer Glen Crowe and other star names such as Colin Hawkins, Simon Webb, Mark Rutherford, Trevor Molloy and Kevin Hunt, McGuinness felt the Gypsies’ arrogance proved their downfall.
“I remember playing Bohs towards the end of the season and we drew 1-1 but I remember Liam O’Brien made a few derogatory comments from the line. I spoke to him after and he said he didn’t mean the way it sounded but I wasn’t happy at the time with the comments made.
“There was an arrogance about Bohs then and there was an arrogance about them when we got through to the final.”
Preparations for the big day went far from according to plan but according to McGuinness, the haphazard nature of the preparations actually helped Dundalk pull off one of the biggest FAI Cup shocks for some time.
“What I remember about the FAI Cup final and the day itself is that we had met at the Regency Hotel in the car park. I was good mates at the time and still am with James Keddy. James would go on to win our player of the year and was a very important player for us. He got a couple of great goals that year, including two against Bray and one cracker against Finn Harps in the quarter-finals. He was a top class player but I just remember pulling the car in to the car park and Garry Haylock was there. He had stayed in the hotel and he said ‘I’ve bad news, James is out’. He had failed a fitness test that morning.
“I was trying to ring him because he was one of the main reasons I had come to Dundalk and I was devastated for him. He didn’t want to answer his phone though. I spoke to him afterwards and he said I just wanted to stay out of the way because I wouldn’t have been any good to anybody. It was devastating for him.
“Then the coach came. I thought we were having food there at the Regency but we ended up heading out to, I think it was the White Sands Hotel in Portmarnock.
“One of the directors of the club owned something out that neck of the woods but at the time the Port Tunnel was getting built and the traffic was absolutely horrendous. When we drove out there, we had our team talk and everything else. I always remember David Hoey finding €100 on the ground as well. The team was named and John Ryan wasn’t in the team and I remember him walking off. We were standing there at that stage waiting on the bus but what had happened was that Des Denning and the rest of the board had a meal in town prior to the game. They hadn’t accounted for the traffic though on the way back and we were dead late. I remember thinking we were in serious trouble.
“By the time it came and got us to the ground, Bohs were out warming up. We had seen the Cat and Cage packed with Dundalk fans, which was great for us, but we weren’t even stripped at this stage. Looking back at it though it was the best thing that could have happened because there was no time to think about anything. We had no nerves or nothing. Everything was that quick, it was just in, out, have a look at the pitch, back in and get your kit on. There was no time to worry about anything.
“The thing that stuck in my head when we arrived was that a few of the Bohs lads had dyed their hair blonde. They were obviously bored the night before in the hotel because they had stayed over or they thought it would be a stroll in the park, that they just had to turn up. It was used by Martin Murray then in his team talk.
“The place was packed with Dundalk fans too, it was at least two to one if not more. The other thing is when I went out on the pitch the referee came between me and Donal Broughan and said don’t forget this is my day today as well. It then dawned on me that he wasn’t going to screw anybody over, it’s his day too and he wanted to have the best final he could have because he may never get another one. Then I said to myself I may enjoy it too because I may never get another one and subsequently it ended up that it was the only final I ever got to.
“All those things just took a lot of the weight off my shoulders. The rest is history then. We played really well and won the cup.”
Shamrock Rovers have been the opposition for three of the key moments in Darragh Leahy’s career to date so it is perhaps fitting that Stephen Bradley’s side will once again provide the opposition this Sunday for a game which could be the 21-year-old’s competitive debut for Dundalk.
It was against the Hoops that Leahy made his League of Ireland debut for Bohemians in a 3-1 win at Dalymount Park on February 16th 2018.
He would also go on to score his first goal at senior level against the Hoops when he pounced for a memorable 99th minute winner at Tallaght Stadium the following April.
Perhaps less memorable, but it was also against Rovers that Leahy made his last appearance for Bohs when they lost 1-0 courtesy of a Graham Burke goal at Tallaght Stadium on August 30th last year.
An injury playing for the Republic of Ireland U-21s in Sweden the following month brought an end to Leahy’s 2019 but having joined Dundalk just before Christmas, the left back has been making a good impression in his handful of outings to date.
Now he is hoping to land his first piece of silverware this Sunday when Rovers travel to Oriel Park to contest the President’s Cup final (kick-off 3pm).
Of course, you want to win every game and especially when there’s a trophy up for grabs,” he said when asked if he wanted to win the game.
“I’m really looking forward to that. We’ve two games next week so hopefully after that we’ll be flying for the President’s Cup final.”
When the Rovers link in his career was put to him, the Swords man couldn’t help but raise a smile.
“We beat them 3-1 that night (on my debut) and as you say there was the 99th minute goal. I don’t think that will be forgotten about any time soon,” he grinned.
“It’s obviously going to be a tough game, especially after the Cup final last year, but that’s behind us now and we just want to push on now and look forward to winning more silverware.”
Leahy feels he has settled well in his new surroundings and insists he is getting back to his best after his lay-off towards the end of last season.
“It’s been good,” he said of his first month with his new team-mates.
“The lads are all bang on and make you feel welcome straight away. I feel like I’ve settled in straight away and I’m just glad I’m back now playing games and getting minutes under my belt.
“I hadn’t played since last September so it was tough but I’ve been in with the physios and they’re both top class. They’ve got me in good condition and I’ve fit straight into the group. The minutes in pre-season are the most important so I’ve just been glad to get a few under my belt and hopefully now I can push on and get more.”
Leahy said the recent pre-season trip to Spain, where he featured against CFR Cluj and CSKA Moscow, was beneficial both from a playing perspective and in fitting in with his new team-mates.
“The two oppositions we played were top class so that was a very good experience but it was a great team bonding week. I got to know the lads so much and I’ve just clicked with them straight away. It was really good to have because now everyone knows each other really well.”
Now Leahy is just looking forward to the season getting going with Sunday’s President’s Cup final a real appetiser for what lies ahead.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
“It has been a very long off season, especially with being injured from September and being out for a while but the games are going to come thick and fast now so I can’t wait for that.”