In the latest of our 2018 League of Ireland Premier Division previews, we take a look at last season’s runners-up, Dundalk.
After three seasons of league dominance, Stephen Kenny’s Lilywhites finally relinquished control in 2017. A similar fate befell them in the FAI Cup final wherein they lost to Cork City for the second year running, and while they did win some silverware in the form of the EA Sports Cup, Kenny will be determined to get his side back to the pinnacle of Irish football where both he and the new owners feel Dundalk belong.
Aside from that aforementioned takeover by American-based investment company PEAK6, Kenny has once again had to contend with star players leaving the club in pre-season. It’s a problem that the manager has become accustomed to every season but is no less frustrating for it.
One of Dundalk’s biggest strengths, even after the loss of McEleney, is a strong midfield. With a carousel of talent including Stephen O’Donnell, Chris Shields, Robbie Benson, Georgie Poynton and John Mountney (in addition to new signings Karolis Chvedukas and Krisztian Adorjan), with the likes of Dylan Connolly and Jamie McGrath pulling the creative strings ahead of them – and with McEleney now in England, much of the creative impetus now falls on Michael Duffy.
The former Celtic winger enjoyed a strong first season at Oriel Park, and will only go from strength to strength this year if he continues on the same career trajectory. The 23-year-old scored eight league goals last season and will be pivotal to the Lilywhites’ success in 2018.
Key New Arrival(s)
With last season’s top scorer David McMIllan departing for pastures new, much will depend on new signings Ronan Murray and returning hero Pat Hoban to fill the void and score the goals that will bring the title back to Oriel Park.
Murray scored 13 goals in 2017 for a Galway United side that were ultimately relegated to the first division, while Hoban fired in 34 league goals for Dundalk during his previous spell at the club, including 20 in the league-winning 2014 campaign.
How Kenny incorporates the two new forwards into his starting eleven will be an interesting prospect, particularly if McEleney’s departure facilitates a more traditional 4-4-2 formation – or indeed it could be a case of Murray playing as a wide forward (as he did at Eamonn Deacy Park last year) with either Michael Duffy or Dylan Connolly on the other side and Hoban leading the line.
It’s an interesting dilemma for Kenny to ponder on.
Dundalk’s midfield is a strong one, but also a crowded one. In that regard, while it might be tough for Georgie Poynton to cement a first-team spot under Kenny in 2018, the fact that he was brought back from his loan spell from Bohemians to sign with the deposed champions for this season shows how highly Stephen Kenny rates the 20-year-old.
Poynton, a former captain of the Dundalk U19 side, will have picked up a world of experience working under Keith Long at Dalymount last season and will be a better player for it. The former U19 international will be well aware of the challenge ahead, but big things are predicted for the youngster’s future and hopes are high that he will make an impact in the current campaign.
One to Watch
2017 was an eventful year for Dylan Connolly, but not always for the right reasons. The winger’s brilliant early-season form in Bray Wanderers’ unlikely challenge for the European places earned him rave reviews and a mid-season move to Oriel Park, but things haven’t quite yet clicked for the 22-year-old.
With a full season behind him, however, expect that to change. Much of last season’s pressure will have been removed from Connolly’s shoulders and with that freedom, he stands a brilliant shot of not only replicating the form he showed with Bray, but improving on it.
Dundalk have had to cope with the losses of important players such as Hoban, Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan, Ronan Finn and Andy Boyle in recent years, and if last year is anything to go by then it could take them a bit of time to adjust to the departures of McMillan, McEleney and Niclas Vemmelund.
Murray and the returning Hoban will be an intriguing prospect, Stephen Folan and Dean Jarvis add resilience and depth and the arrivals of Lithuanian international Chvedukas and former Liverpool youth player Adorjan add an element of the unknown to proceedings.
A positive start is absolutely essential, and they will be strong favourites to defeat Bray in their opening league game, but their first two away matches are against Shamrock Rovers and Derry, and that could pose a problem – especially if Cork City hit the ground running.
The pressure of defending ‘their’ title may not be upon them anymore, but the pressure of playing second fiddle poses its own set of obstacles and challenges.
Pundit Arena Prediction: 2nd
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