With Europe around the corner, what Vinny Perth wouldn’t give to have a fully-fit Stephen O’Donnell in his prime leading the side out and bossing the midfield.
The former club captain might have hung up his boots after a career which saw him play 25 European matches but he could still have a huge say in how the Lilywhites do in this year’s Champions League or Europa League.
Having taken on the role of opposition analyst for Dundalk at the start of the year, the 33-year-old will play a pivotal role in helping the League of Ireland champions prepare for next month’s first qualifying round tie with Riga FC.
While the rest of the squad were enjoying their mid-season training camp in sunny Spain, O’Donnell was in the Latvian capital on Friday to watch Mihails Konevs’ side move three points clear at the top of the Virsliga table courtesy of a hugely impressive 6-1 win over third placed Spartaks Jamala.
Speaking to The Argus on Sunday evening, O’Donnell admitted to being impressed by the Latvian champions.
“They won well,” he said.
“They’re a decent, well organised, fit and physical team so it’s going to be no easy game but we’d have confidence in ourselves also.
“Definitely, it’ll be a very competitive game. We’d have no arguments regarding the pitch etc because it’s a newly-laid pitch. I think it has only been down for a couple of games and the surface looked very nice. It’s a nice little ground and looks a good place to play.”
While not looking to give too much away on Riga, O’Donnell said he was hopeful of seeing them at least one more time before the first leg in Oriel Park on July 10th in the hope of noticing the “subtle little things” that can be so crucial at this level.
“You won’t be getting any tactical stuff off me but it was good to see them live.
“You can watch games on video etc but you might see subtle little things live whereas the camera only follows the ball when you’re watching on a computer. You might see subtle little things like movements so it’s important to go and watch a couple of games live.
“More often than not any league champions are going to be strong and Riga are no different. I think they’re unbeaten in eight now in their domestic league but we’re on a run similar or better than that ourselves. It’s definitely going to be a good test and I hope to get out there to watch them another time before we play them so we’ll have our homework done and we’ll be well prepared.
“They have a good depth in their squad. The city is nice and it’ll be good for our supporters. The stadium is in the city so it’s within walking distance if you’re staying in a hotel in Riga. It’s only about a 15 minute walk to the ground so it’s a good place to be going to play because the pitch is immaculate and it’s a nice little ground.”
O’Donnell played in Riga himself 11 years ago as part of a Bohs side who bowed out of the Intertoto Cup on goal difference to FK Riga. The Galway native said he remembers very little about that experience but is hopeful of a better outcome for his Dundalk side this time around.
“I played there years ago but I can’t really remember much about it now as it’s 10 or 11 years ago.
“I think they’ve amalgamated a few teams since so it’s a different opposition as such but they’ve won the league last year and are top of their league this year so they’ve a similar enough profile to us because they’re on a good run as well so they’ll be going in confident to the game.
“There will be nothing easy but we’re a very good side also. It’s definitely a tie that all the lads are and should be looking forward to but before that we’ve a big week next week with Rovers and then Waterford and Derry. Confidence will be really sky high if we can get three good results there,” he said.
With a possible trip to Albania to face FK Partizani or Azerbaijan to meet Qarabag on offer for the winners, O’Donnell said he would make up his mind on which game to take in when Dundalk are in action, with either BATE Borisov or Polish champions Piast Gliwice awaiting the losers.
“A lot will depend on our first leg result,” he said when asked where he would be while Dundalk are in Riga.
“We can make plans after the first leg. You just have to go with the view how you think the second leg is going to go.
“You can’t be in two places at once but hopefully I’ll be going to either Albania or Azerbaijan but first things first we have to get our house in order and get fully prepared for Riga and we’ll see where that takes us.
“You don’t need any incentive to win these games because you’re in the Champions League now.
“We know from 2016 the fortune it can deliver in regards to footballing experience and going to play such big clubs. We know what awaits us if we do our business right, if we’re professional and give ourselves the best chance. We know it’s achievable but we also know it requires a lot of hard work and discipline and maybe a little bit of luck as well.
“It doesn’t really matter who we got in the next round because you were always going to get a good club so it’s not really about the team, it’s about what you’re going into – another phase of Champions League football.
“If you asked players what is their favourite time of the year I think they’d say in and around this time where they get to play in Europe. You’re now entering the mid to business end of the league also so it’s an exciting time. The boys have had a great week over in Spain and they’ll be coming back chomping at the bit.”
Before all that is a crunch meeting with Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght on Friday night but O’Donnell is confident the players will be up for it after a good week of training in Spain.
“It’s a big game,” he said.
“Whenever first and second come up against each other it’s always a big game. Rovers are a good team. They’ll probably be a bit disappointed with their result against Bohs before the break but they’ll be thinking if they go and maybe get a win it’ll be right back almost neck and neck in the league.
“It’s always a big game when we play Rovers and Friday will be no different but the lads have had great preparation having been away in Spain. Hopefully there will have been no injuries and they’ll come back refreshed and raring to go. They can really put the foot down now for the second half of the season,” he said.