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 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.
Filippo Giovagnoli has backed his side to challenge for the league this season.
Last season Dundalk finished a distant 22 points behind Shamrock Rovers in the shortened, Covid-hit campaign.
However, speaking to the media at an FAI-organised press conference to announce Bank of Ireland becoming an Associate Sponsor of the SSE Airtricity League last week, the Italian said the league would be the primary ambition in his first full season at the helm in Oriel Park.
Asked did he feel his side could challenge Rovers this season, Giovagnoli replied: “We have to.
“It’s what we will need to do. We’re going to go to play to win games and try to battle to win the league for sure.
“Last season we had a different approach to the league because when we came in the only objective was to qualify for Europe and we made all the decisions to do that.
“We were doing massive turnovers to save players to play in Europe. This had a big effect and it was difficult but this year is going to be different because our focus is going to be massively on the league.”
While Europe would still be a priority come the summer, Giovagnoli said winning the league would give a greater chance of progression in Europe.
“We want to do well in the league. We want to compete and to win.
“The objective has changed and we have to follow what the club is asking because of course if you win the league then you have access to the Champions League then the year after so everything is always related to Europe because to have exposure in Europe is a massive objective for the club in terms of business and in terms of everything. To have exposure in Europe, I think is important for the League of Ireland but yes the objective is going to be the league.
“Last season we had a big squad but the problem was that at some point we started to play every three days and this was a little bit of a challenge.
“We had a couple of injuries that created some issues, Dane Massey being one, but I hope we’re going to be in the same position as last year because last year we completed all the games that was possible to play. This means that we were competitive until the end in all competitions so I think we did something massive.
“Of course we struggled on the league but it was almost a decision to do that. This year there will be a different approach but we’re going to have time at the beginning to dedicate to the league and then when July comes and we have multiple games we’ll figure it out,” he said.
“I can see us being competitive in every game and being able to win games. I don’t see why not. I think we can challenge the best team in the league without a problem. Of course, it’s not going to be easy but we want to do it for sure. We’re not going to hide. We want to play to win.”