Dundalk captain Chris Shields insists his side “only have ourselves to blame” for their worst start to a season since his first at the club back in 2012.
However, the midfielder has challenged his side to bounce back in style when they travel to face reigning league champions Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night.
A 2-1 defeat to Finn Harps on the back of the opening day draw away to Sligo Rovers has piled early pressure on the Lilywhites ahead of a daunting run of fixtures which will see them face Rovers, Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic in their next three matches.
While it might be early in the season, Shields is well aware that the spotlight on Dundalk will grow further if they fail to win in Tallaght this weekend but despite a disappointing defeat to Harps on Friday – Dundalk’s first against the Donegal side since November 2007 – the 30-year-old feels another battle with Rovers could be the perfect game to help his side bounce back.
It’s a big game no matter when it comes in the season but it is just coming so early,” he said.
“I’m sure it will be the perfect game to bounce back because you can’t afford to put in another performance like that.
“We have no choice but to move on. There’s no point in wallowing in self pity going into a big game like that next Friday. We just have to get on with it on the training ground this week,” he said.
Asked would it take time for some of the new players in the squad to gel, Shields said: “Hopefully not because we don’t really have time on our side.
“You see the lads tonight and that’s their competitive debut and they’ve had an impact. Ryan (O’Kane) is only 17 and Chino (Jesus Perez) has only come over from America. He’s in a total different setup than he is used to but he has made an instant impact and hopefully more lads can be like them and kick on.
“It’s hard, we were missing Sonni. Although we’ll be missing Sonni again now for the ridiculous red card. It’s classic FAI, really looking after the suspension’s list. We were also missing Raivis. The lads are on international duty but we have a squad there and we should have been winning that game.”
Shields said he felt Foley’s second goal, which he thought was offside initially but was actually on, hurt Dundalk at a time when he thought his side were getting on top in the game.
“It kind of just took the wind out of our sails conceding the second goal because I thought we were well on top and we were starting to turn the screw really well.
“I think Ryan O’Kane was having a good effect when he came on, the same with Chino (Jesus Perez) when he came on for his debut and then their goal is just like a sucker punch.
“If you lose any game in this league especially Finn Harps at home then you’re going to be disappointed.
“Finn Harps are Finn Harps and they’re really good at what they do. Ollie and Hegsy probably don’t get enough praise for what they do within the budget that they have. They set up well and the way we expected them to set up and we’ve given them a goal coming up to half-time and it was a bad time to give a goal like that away,” said Shields.
Dundalk face being without Patrick McEleney for up to a month after the midfielder picked up a new injury in training last week.
The Derry man had faced the media last Wednesday ahead of Friday night’s game against Finn Harps – which the Lilywhites lost 2-1 – and had spoken about his desire for a run in the side after an injury-disrupted couple of seasons.
However, it is understood that the midfielder pulled a hamstring in training on Thursday which will rule him out of this Friday’s crunch match against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght Stadium (kick-off 7.45pm, live on RTÉ Two), as well as potentially several other games.
Speaking about his injury problems last week, McEleney said: “It’s been bad. It’s no secret that I had a bad year with injuries last year but I’ve come back really well and I’ve had nothing so I’ll be doing my best to stay injury free.”
Asked was there one injury he could trace his problems back to, he said: “I broke my foot in the first game against Sligo in 2019 and it was just one after another after that.
“When I came back from that I played about 20 odd games in a row and then in the FAI Cup semi final away to Sligo later in the year I slipped and tore my hamstring. It just seemed to be one thing after another. It was just so stop start. “I did manage to play in most of the big games last year but if I can stay injury free, it will be so much better.”
The 28-year-old had also spoken of his desire to contend for the PFAI Player of the Year award last week having been runner-up to Seani Maguire in 2017.
“The year when I came second in the Player of the Year, I had one injury that season. The next year I had the Player of the Year award as a target but that’s when I had all of the breakdowns and injuries and it was the same the following year.
“It is one of my targets, though, and I know what I can do when I’m injury free. I’m my own biggest critic and I don’t doubt myself if I can say injury free.”
McEleney won’t be Dundalk’s only absentee against Rovers with Sean Murray and Ole Erik Midtskogen remaining sidelined and Sonni Nattestad – who became the first Dundalk player since Joey Donnelly in 1936 to score on international duty for the Faroe Islands in their 3-1 defeat to Austria in Vienna on Sunday – facing a two match ban for his red card in the President’s Cup final earlier this month.
Despite being away on international duty for Friday’s defeat to Finn Harps, Dundalk were dismayed to discover that the clash with the Donegal men wouldn’t count towards the defender’s ban so he will also miss the visit of Bohemians to Oriel Park on Friday week, April 9th.
Team manager Shane Keegan said: “I just can’t wrap my head around it. Surely it has to be one or the other. Either the game gets called off because of it or, if the game isn’t called off, then one of his suspension games gets used up. I just cannot wrap my head around it but it is what it is and there is no point whinging about it now.
“I don’t really have a problem with him missing the Shamrock Rovers game; the problem is with him missing the Bohs game the following week. That’s the real kick in the gut but you have to be careful what you say here.”
In better news for Dundalk, injured pair Daniel Kelly and Val Adedokun will hope to step up their return to first-team affairs this week while Brian Gartland could also come into contention having been an unused substitute against Finn Harps on Friday.
As exclusively revealed by The Argus Dundalk also completed a move for South Korean winger Han Jeong Woo last week with the 22-year-old making his debut by playing the final 10 minutes of the defeat to Finn Harps.
Keegan said he and Ryan O’Kane were the two positives to take from the defeat.
On O’Kane, the Laois man said: “I thought he was absolutely when he came on.”
Keegan said it hadn’t been his intention to use Han so soon but was pleased with his early promise.
“It was necessity. He’s had one collective training session and yet I think you saw why we’re kind of excited about him as well. By that stage we had McMillan and Hoban on the pitch so you’re looking to get as many crosses into the box and he’s got a sweet left foot. I thought he put in a couple of fantastic deliveries so there are positives there to take away but we need to build on them and we just need to find another three, four or five gears because it is in us.”
Keegan also admitted in his programme notes for Friday’s game that the club were hopeful of bringing in former Valencia midfielder Wilfried Zahibo but that deal is unlikely to be completed in time for him to face Rovers.
On the 27-year-old, he said: “With Wilfried, we’re pretty much there and now it’s just about trying to get everything boxed off.
“He is the complete central midfielder and he would give us a tremendous presence. Some players have brilliant technical ability but might not have the same physicality while some have tremendous physicality and aren’t quite as technical. Wilfried ticks both boxes and is the complete midfielder so hopefully we can get it finalised in the near future.”
Meanwhile, Dundalk last week announced two new commercial deals with local businesses RockSalt and XXI Ice coming on board as sponsors. RockSalt, who have outlets in Blackrock and Earl Street in Dundalk, are the club’s new official Good Food Partner while XXI Ice, who are based on Clanbrassil Street, have become the official Premium Hand Rolled Ice Cream partner.
Dundalk are likely to wrap up the signing of a new midfielder ahead of the start of the new campaign this weekend.
It is understood that Central African Republic international Wilfried Zahibo has agreed terms for a move to Oriel Park.
The 27-year-old French-born player has most recently been plying his trade in the MLS where he was named in the 2018 MLS All Star team following a successful debut season at New England Revolution.
A free agent since departing Houston Dynamo at the end of last year, Zahibo has previously played in France for Ajaccio and also in La Liga for Valencia where he made his debut under Gary Neville.
The 6ft 2in midfielder, who was raised in Guadeloupe, also has four caps for his country who are captained by Atletico Madrid’s Geoffrey Kondogbia.
Fluent in English, French and Spanish, Zahibo has already agreed terms with Dundalk with the deal expected to be finalised soon.
It may be a couple of weeks before he is available for selection, however, as it is understood he is returning to France before coming to Ireland with isolation periods in both countries meaning that a possible debut in Dundalk’s league opener away to Sligo Rovers this Saturday (kick-off 6pm, live on WATCHLOI) is out of the question.
Another French-born player could also be signed by the club this week.
As exclusively revealed by The Argus last week, Irish U-19 international Tom Gaston is arriving on trial.
The 20-year-old French born defender came through the ranks at his home town club Bordeaux without making a first-team appearance before spending time at the Portland Timbers in America last year.
He has played four matches at underage level for Ireland under Jim Crawford in recent years with Ireland winning all of them without conceding. Among the high-profile team-mates he would have played with include Adam Idah, Jason Knight, Aaron Connolly and Will Smallbone.
While he was born and grew up in France, he is eligible to play for Ireland through his Dublin-born mother.
A third goalkeeper also is also on the agenda with Shamrock Rovers youngster Alex Moody training with Dundalk this week while the club could also be set for a return to the South Korean market for a new winger having missed out on Han Eui-gwon recently after the 26-year-old failed to secure a work permit.
Asked about the possibility of new arrivals, team manager Shane Keegan refused to comment on the speculation, saying: “I can’t really say a whole lot on it outside of the fact that if there are players who are out of contract and who are gettable for us and as a group we feel they’d improve the squad then the club have said that they’re willing to give us the backing to make it happen if we feel a suitable player is out there.”
With the spotlight already on Dundalk over their coaching structure, Shane Keegan is well aware that the club must challenge for the title this season as a bare minimum requirement.
Last year a disappointing league campaign saw the Lilywhites finish 22 points off new champions Shamrock Rovers in what was a curtailed 18 game campaign.
This year getting the crown back is Dundalk’s top priority and Keegan is well aware that nothing short of a title challenge will suffice.
“It would be crazy if you said anything else,” said the Laois man.
“The position that both ourselves and Rovers are in now you can’t be anything but aiming to go and win the league title.
“Last year you’d have said at the start of the year that if we finished as far off the league title as we did then it would have to have been a very disappointing season but then you look at everything else that went on and I won’t say the season balanced out but we had a lot to be happy with and positive about too.
“About the only way we could have got to the end of the season with some smiles on our face was to achieve what we achieved both in Europe and the FAI Cup but now I think the focus is very much on retaining the league title.
“Of course, we’ll still be trying to do other bits and pieces as well and do well in Europe and try get another Cup run but trying to retain the league crown has to be the number one priority that’s for sure,” he said.
Dundalk’s recent dominance of the Malone Cup continued at Head in the Game Park on Saturday as they made it six wins in-a-row in the annual match against neighbours Drogheda Utd.
While the trophy to honour the late Jim Malone is undoubtedly the least significant of the various pieces of silverware Filippo Giovagnoli’s side will challenge for this season, this result at least ensured that the shortened two game pre-season ends with a 100% record.
It’s now on to the President’s Cup with Shamrock Rovers on Friday before the league opener away to Sligo Rovers eight days later.
While this game threw up a few positives to take into those two matches, it left plenty of food for thought as well.
For while Dundalk look like they’ll score plenty this season, for now at least, they also look like they’ll ship a few goals at the other end too.
Given five of the starting 11 on Saturday weren’t at the club last season and Val Adedokun’s total number of first team minutes up to the end of last season was seven, perhaps it’s not surprising that there are a few things to be worked out.
Some of those kinks weren’t helped by new goalkeeper Alessio Abibi coming for and completely missing a Jake Hyland corner after just five minutes which his side were lucky to scramble clear. The Albanian is under the spotlight more than most right now and he again looked somewhat rattled two minutes later when he had to punch away a cross from James Brown under pressure from Chris Lyons.
With Darragh Leahy playing in an unfamiliar left centre back position and Adedokun showing signs of early nerves, Drogheda targeted this area early on with Lyons popping up with the lead goal on 20 minutes when he got ahead of Andy Boyle to nod Brandon Bermingham’s cross past Abibi.
Dundalk were perhaps unfortunate to be behind at that stage. Sam Stanton was denied what looked a stone wall penalty eight minutes earlier after being felled in the box by Dane Massey with Ryan O’Kane dragging the follow up chance across the goal and wide.
The 17-year-old, who followed up an impressive debut against Bohemians a week earlier with another fine showing here, then delivered a peach of a free kick into the box on the quarter hour mark for Boyle to attack but the centre half somehow failed to find the target with what was a fantastic chance.
O’Kane would have a big role to play in Dundalk’s equaliser on 25 minutes though. After a good link up with Adedokun, he drove into the box before being fouled by Luke Heeney. David McMillan then made no mistake from the spot to send David Odumosu the wrong way.
Tim Clancy’s side almost restored their advantage within a couple of minutes when Daniel O’Reilly played Bermingham in behind Adedokun but his shot was touched into the side-netting by Abibi.
Adedokun, another teenager from the club’s academy, grew into the game after a shaky start and popped up with his first goal for the club on 37 minutes to give Dundalk a 2-1 lead at the break. Stanton did superbly well to release Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe on the right with the former Derry City star’s cross finding its way to Adedokun who controlled with his left foot before firing high to the roof of the net with his right to ensure the home side led at half-time.
Ronan Murray, one of three former Dundalk players starting for the home side on the day, received some advice at half-time to target Abibi based on his position. Within 15 seconds of the restart he would fire just wide but on 52 minutes he would level for his side in spectacular fashion with a superb free kick. While the goalkeeper’s position and setup of the wall were questioned, Murray’s free kick flew to the top left hand corner and suddenly it was game on once again.
Drogheda could and probably should have taken the lead two minutes later as the visitors defence fell asleep. Another Murray free kick saw him disguise a shot only to pick out Lyons in acres of space on the left but his pull back to O’Reilly was blazed over by the centre half.
That scare aside, the introduction of Patrick McEleney saw Dundalk begin to dominate the game and it was the Derry man who conjured up the winner fo his side on 68 minute when he delivered a superb free kick in from the right that Greg Sloggett, from nearby Gormanston, headed past Colin McCabe. If Drogheda had cause for complaint it would be that it looked like Junior had stood on the ball rather than was fouled for the free which led to what proved to be the winner.
Dundalk had plenty of chances to add to their lead after that with Leahy scuffing wide, Junior heading over from a Raivis Jurkovskis cross and McCabe making three good late stops to deny Patrick Hoban twice either side of saving a free kick from Junior.
There was plenty of promise shown from Dundalk once again with Jurkovskis once again looking very useful, Stanton showing good glimpses of his potential and Junior looking like an astute signing.
The flaws at the back, which were also evident in the 2-1 win over Bohemians a week earlier, will need to be ironed out though.
The President’s Cup might be a glorified friendly but it’s a chance for Dundalk to lay down a marker. Let’s see what sort of statement is made.
Drogheda Utd: David Odumosu (Colin McCabe HT); James Brown, Daniel O’Reilly, Dane Massey (Jack Tuite 60), Conor Kane; Luke Heeney, Jake Hyland (Killian Phillips HT), James Clarke (Ryan O’Shea 60); Brandon Bermingham (Jordan Adeyemo 60), Chris Lyons, Ronan Murray (Mohamed Boudiaf 72). Subs not used: Hugh Douglas, Darragh Markey, Sam O’Brien, Charles Mutawe.
Dundalk: Alessio Abibi (Peter Cherrie 60); Daniel Cleary, Andy Boyle, Darragh Leahy; Raivis Jurkovskis, Sam Stanton (Greg Sloggett 60), Chris Shields, Val Adedokun (Jesus Perez 65); Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe, David McMillan (Patrick Hoban HT), Ryan O’Kane (Patrick McEleney HT). Subs not used: Mayowa Animashun, German Giammattei.