The new league season might be more than a month away still but Dundalk striker Patrick Hoban has already stirred up the rivalry with Shamrock Rovers by questioning the validity of the title they won in a shortened campaign last season.
While the Lilywhites finished a distant 22 points off the Hoops in the 18-game Covid-19 curtailed season last year, the striker said he did not know if he could personally have celebrated Rovers’ achievement, likening it to “being top of the table in June.”
Speaking to the club website about the forthcoming 36-game campaign which gets underway for Dundalk with a trip to face Sligo Rovers on March 20th, Hoban said: “It’s a proper league, isn’t it? You’re telling me that winning the league after 18 games is winning a league? It’s not. It’s like being top of the table in June and saying ‘we won the league’. Come on. Let’s be realistic here.
“Before we went into the games last summer I said it was ridiculous. I could not see myself, if we had won the 18-games last season, celebrating like we had won the league, especially after winning three before that. I just couldn’t do it.
“I saw last year’s league as a chance to win a Champions League spot and we didn’t do that. We finished third, and although we qualified for Europe, it was still disappointing, but this year we have to try and retain what’s ours which is a 36-game, proper league.”
Hoban is currently looking to overcome an ankle injury sustained in the final league game of last season at home to Sligo Rovers which saw him miss a number of Europa League matches and the 4-2 FAI Cup final win over Rovers.
“It’s probably the worst injury I’ve ever had,” he told dundalkfc.com
“I knew straight away when I did it. I was running full pelt and collided off the ‘keeper. I knew by the way I landed that it was bad but I didn’t think it was going to be as bad.
“I was in a bit of shock when the results came back but I had the surgery and it’s not something that’s going to stop me. Fitness-wise, I’m ahead of schedule on the pitch but in terms of trying to get the full strength back into the ankle, I’m not quite there yet.
“On Tuesday, I had my hardest run so things seem to be progressing well and touch wood, it won’t be too long before I’m back on the pitch and playing games.
“If we had started this month, I probably would have pushed myself too much to try and get back and that could have led to a setback and me being out for even longer. Now, I have a bit more time to get ready which is good for me,” he said.
Meanwhile, Shamrock Rovers sporting director Stephen McPhail told Off The Ball at the weekend that Stephen Bradley’s side would be using Hoban’s comments as motivation.
“I think Patrick knows who were the best team last year and the most consistent team. I think he is playing a bit of mind games there.
“That will be hung up on the wall,” said the former Leeds Utd midfielder.
McPhail added: “He has obviously done well in his career and he has got to recover from a bad injury as well so I’m sure he is just trying to get fit and trying to get in their team more than try to smoke up our side of things but we’re fine.
“We’re trying to concentrate on ourselves, having a good pre-season and getting back playing.”
Dundalk and Rovers will meet in Tallaght Stadium for the President’s Cup final on March 12th with the first league meeting between the sides pencilled in for match day three in Tallaght on April 2nd.
Shamrock Rovers captain Ronan Finn says he doesn’t know exactly what to expect from Dundalk this season but still expects the FAI Cup winners to be challenging the Hoops for honours on all fronts.
Speaking to the media at the announcement of SSE Airtricity’s renewal of the sponsorship of the League of Ireland for the next two seasons last week, Finn was asked about who the biggest threat to Rovers would be this season.
While he said it was hard to judge Dundalk this season given he was not familiar with many of their signings to date – Albanian goalkeeper Alessio Abibi, Faroese centre half Sonni Nattestad, Latvian full back Raivis Jurkovskis and Norwegian striker Ole Erik Midtskogen – the former Lilywhite star said he fully expected Filippo Giovagnoli’s side to be there or thereabouts when it came to the top honours.
“It’s a hard one to judge because Dundalk are recruiting externally outside the league so you don’t know what they’ll be like,” said Finn.
“It’s maybe hard to gauge the calibre of player. I’m sure they’ve no doubt done their homework and are signing really good footballers so you’d expect them to be challenging on all fronts as well.
“St Pat’s I think have been building over the last couple of years and undoubtedly they’ll be pushing and will want to challenge for honours. Then Bohemians will be there again.
“Like I said over years and years, in this league if you don’t respect your opponents then you’ll get turned over. We genuinely respect everyone. We do the same amount of homework for Milan as Finn Harps. That’s the level of detail that the manager goes to and when you let them standards slip he tells you.”
The 33-year-old admitted last December’s 4-2 FAI Cup final defeat to Dundalk at the Aviva Stadium was a real blow but said it would be the driving force for Rovers when they returned to pre-season training this week.
“The chance to do a double was on the cards and we desperately, desperately wanted it,” said Finn.
“We had gone the season unbeaten and had been playing some really good football but we never for a second underestimated Dundalk because they’ve been there for years and are a talented, talented group. So for us it was a really hard one to take.
“On reflection, we probably didn’t play our best game but we played quite well and sometimes football just doesn’t work out the way you want it to. It was a blow, a real blow. Doubles are very hard to come by but that gives us the aim for this year. That has to be the plan, to go and try to achieve success – league titles, cups – it’s all part of what is on the menu for the football club. It wasn’t an easy one but that’s the beauty of football, you go again and that’s the target.”
As well as Daniel Mandroiu and Chris McCann, Rovers have added former Dundalk stars Sean Hoare and Sean Gannon to their ranks for the 2021 season and Finn is delighted with the business carried out so far by manager Stephen Bradley.
“Sean Hoare and Sean Gannon have been serial winners with Dundalk so I think the recruitment has been good.
“We’ve got to a stage within the group where you don’t need to sign eight, nine or 10 players because the group is strong but it always needs improving and I think that’s what the manager has done.”
Indeed, Finn admitted to playing a part in convincing Sean Gannon to return to Tallaght Stadium after seven seasons at Dundalk despite the possibility he could provide direct competition for him personally, given he occupied the right wing back berth throughout last season.
“I spoke to Sean. He’s someone I’d have been very close to throughout the years. I played with Sean 10 years ago and always got on great with him and again at Dundalk he was someone I travelled up and down withs so we naturally always had a good relationship.
“The opportunity to get Sean into the football club on the back of Rhys (Marshall) leaving was such a coup for the club because he has been such a stand out player in the league. I played with Sean for years so you know what you’re getting and the quality that he has.
“Then, from my own point of view, not necessarily (is he coming to take my place). Naturally you want to play every game. When it comes down to it, is he my direct competition? I don’t know. Maybe he is but I’ve played a lot of my career in the middle of midfield or behind the striker but that’s down to the manager. I’ll let him deal with that but, for me, to have Sean at the club is a real plus. It’s a real good signing from the manager,” said Finn.
Dundalk sporting director Jim Magilton has confirmed he tried to keep Sean Gannon at the club prior to his departure for Shamrock Rovers before Christmas but has backed Cameron Dummigan to fill the void he has left.
Magilton had previously worked with Gannon during his spell as assistant to Michael O’Neill at Rovers in 2011 when the full back was breaking on to the scene.
While Magilton’s arrival at Oriel Park came too late to dissuade Sean Hoare from departing for Tallaght, the former Southampton star said he did speak to Gannon. While it was not enough to prevent the 29-year-old from leaving for the league champions, Magilton said he wished Gannon well in his future endeavours.
“Sean Gannon has been a top, top player in this league. Obviously it’s a disappointment (that he has left) but Sean is at an age where he felt he had to make a decision. He made that decision and now we have to get on with it.
“Players leave but he made a massive contribution to this football club and should be applauded for that. We wish him well. I have no airs and graces about that. I really like Sean. I saw him at the start of his career and now he’s really coming into his prime.
“At 29, you’re in the best psychological place in your career because you’ve come through a lifetime. Personally, I wish Sean well.”
While admitting Gannon’s departure w as a loss, Magilton said Cameron Dummigan – another player he has worked with in the past – had the potential to rival Gannon for the title of the league’s best right back next season.
“Cameron Dummigan was a right footed player playing left back last season. If you look at him and how he finished the season, you could argue he finished the season stronger than Sean.
“He’s a naturally right footed player so he could easily slot in and play right back without any shadow of a doubt and could potentially be the best right back in the league. He could give Sean Gannon some real competition for that.”
Magilton said he understood why fans were so upset by Gannon’s departure but said now was not the time for panic.
“There’s no need to panic but that was in recognition of Sean’s contribution to the football club on the back of his decision to leave. You have to respect that but now it’s up to us as a coaching staff and recruitment team to try and get a player in of equal standard.
“Of course, that’s difficult because of the standard and consistency that Sean has shown over many years,” he said.
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.”
One of Ronan Finn’s last games for Dundalk was in the Aviva Stadium in the FAI Cup final three years ago.
On the day the current Shamrock Rovers captain produced a man of the match display but still saw his side lose out to Cork City after Sean Maguire’s scuffed finish in the last minute of extra-time sealed a 1-0 win for John Caulfield’s side.
That victory would eventually lead to Cork winning a double the following year and Finn is hopeful that victory on Sunday for Rovers can have a similar impact as they look to close the gap on Dundalk further next season.
“I’ve been back three years and I feel like we’re building something to go and challenge Dundalk in the league and that’s the ultimate aim – for us to overtake Dundalk and for us then to go and become the league champions and grow from there to start to build our own legacy.
“Dundalk have been great over the last few years and been so consistent. We feel we’re starting to bridge the gap in terms of the quality that we have in the side. Dundalk are deservedly champions but the games we’ve played against them tend to be very tight and I can’t imagine the Cup final will be any different. I think it will be a cagey affair but a good game because there are a lot of good players on show.”
Finn regularly gets stick from Dundalk fans over comments he made following his departure about Rovers being the biggest club but he said he has huge respect for his former employers.
“That’s football. If you weren’t getting stick you’d be wondering why so I nearly take it as a compliment that I get a bit of stick because it means my time there meant something to them.
“I was under no illusion that Dundalk at that stage when I left were a superior team. I knew that but I also knew from playing at Rovers just how big a club they are. That’s easy for me to say because I played there. That’s no disrespect to anybody else and I hope I’m not causing offence by saying it but the opportunity of success and to be part of what the club is building was never going to happen overnight and I was aware of that but I think at this stage three years down the line we’re getting there.
“Dundalk have an established team and have continued to add to it as well because the success means players want to sign for them but we just need to keep going. I think the gap is getting smaller. We dropped off at a stage of the season and let Dundalk pull away but I think with the brand of football we’re trying to play it was never going to happen overnight but we believe in what we’re trying to do and come the cup final we’re really looking forward to putting a showcase on.”
Finn feels this Rovers side need a win on Sunday to be classed as a good team though.
“We always wanted to be in with a chance of the league this year. We dropped silly points at a certain stage of the season and in fairness to Dundalk they just kept on being consistent and kept on getting results but this is a chance for us now to get a massive piece of silverware.
“I think people across the country would respect us in terms of how we play but I think we have to win something to be recognised as a really good side. We do get plaudits for some of our play and how we keep the ball but that counts for nothing if you don’t have anything to show for it at the end of the season. You want a medal and this is an opportunity to showcase our performance and then have a medal at the end of it.
“Like I say, it’s not going to be an easy task because Dundalk are a very good side of course but it’s a chance for us to put our name out there and then build on it. Success breeds success and confidence. You want to win more and kick on so Sunday is a big opportunity for us to show where we want to be and then hopefully it can lead to a lot more but there’s a big task in front of us.
“We can’t just be a nearly team. You’ve got to get the job done. You’ve got to find a way. When we’ve played Dundalk this season they’ve either found a way to win or found a way for us not to win, whatever may be the case. That comes through that bit of experience maybe but I think we’ve come on so much from last season in terms of the games we’ve won and the football we’re trying to play but like I say you have to have something to show for it.
“We need medals. There’s no point in being a technical passing team if you’ve no medal at the end of it and ultimately that’s what we want. That’s what the manager wants, that’s what the fans want and that’s what the players want. You want to be able to look back at the end of your career and show your kids your medals. That’s the goal for us. We’re making progress but now we need to go to the next level,” said Finn.