The 8th of December 2016 signalled the end of a gruelling season for Dundalk. Ten months and 52 games later they again established themselves as the dominant side in Irish football after a phenomenal year.
The Lilywhites successfully defended their league title, making it three in a row – only the third team to ever do so.
There were question marks over how they could push on from their historic 2015 campaign – the season in which they captured the domestic double and even scooped the RTÉ Sports Team of the Year award for their efforts.
Yet their remarkable turnaround since Stephen Kenny took over in 2013 continued last year as they captured the imagination of the Irish public by becoming the first side to ever win a European group stage match, beating Maccabi Tel Aviv during their Europa League campaign.
But what has been the key factor to Dundalk’s success? Was it their standout individual performers? They fared well despite losing 2015 Player of the Year Richie Towell to Brighton last season.
Was it their near-impenetrable defence? Cork City actually conceded fewer goals than the champions last season.
What can’t be disputed, however, is the Lilywhites’ elite level of fitness.
When Kenny took over the club they were in turmoil, surviving a promotion/relegation playoff in 2012. A complete overhaul was needed and as part of the staff changes the 45-year-old brought in Graham Byrne as the side’s fitness coach.
Having previously worked in the league with Bohemians, Byrne was part of the backroom team that helped the Gypsies bring home two league titles in a row in the late 2000s, but has admitted that he was frustrated by the restrictions placed on him in the role.
And that is where Dundalk are different. Byrne was given free rein as the team’s fitness coach.
“Stephen Kenny is really passionate about (fitness). He’s given me so much of an input. He has obviously found that it is a very important part of the game,” Byrne told Pundit Arena.
That is the type of manager that Kenny is: one who trusts his staff to deliver on whatever department they are employed, and Byrne believes that fitness work has been vital to Dundalk’s recent domination.
“In sports science, it is widely acknowledged that the fittest teams are the best teams. There is definitely a link between fitness and success.”
For Byrne, he didn’t see reason in the champions resting on their laurels after scooping the domestic double last season.
“We were renowned for being the fittest team in the league, so it was about us getting as fit as the European teams this year.”
He certainly isn’t wrong about Dundalk being the fittest team in the league. The Louth side scored over half their goals in the second half of games this season and became notorious for netting late winners.
Their fitness work hasn’t gone unnoticed by other teams in the league either, with Sean Heaney of Shamrock Rovers saying he has noticed the considerable difference between Dundalk and other sides he has faced.
“The first thing you notice is when you are in the tunnel is how big they are compared to us,” the 20-year-old told Pundit Arena.
“I’m a centre-half and I’d consider myself one of the bigger lads on our team and I stand beside (Brian) Gartland and (Andy) Boyle and they are twice the size of me.”
And when asked about what the general consensus is in the Shamrock Rovers dressing room about why Dundalk have been so dominant in recent years, Heaney says:
“They’re better than everyone because of whatever they do in the gym. I don’t think it’s players because all them players (Kenny) brought together were seen as average players in the league.
“So it’s something that the manager is doing, it’s something that you can see. They’re bigger than everyone, they’re fitter than everyone so I think it has to be their training.”
The difference in the level of training between the two sides is quite sizeable, with Shamrock Rovers only hitting the weights room once on a game week while the players are encouraged to do their own gym work outside of training hours, which Sean admits:
“Half the boys I don’t think do. They’ll do it maybe once or twice a week but the likes of Dundalk every day they’re doing it as a team, not as individuals, so you have to do it. They’re made do it.
“You’re in a group so you can’t be slacking off whereas with us you might be thinking ‘that’s me for the day’. I think that’s the big difference between us and Dundalk at the moment.”
In comparison, the Lilywhites will be in the gym three to four times a week with training plans tailored for each player.
“They’ll be working on their biggest flaws,” Byrne explains.
“[For] some of them it’d be their strength, some of them it might be injury prevention, some of them might be working on their endurance… everyone has got different things. It’s individualised every month, every week and every day.”
One of the remarkable features of this Dundalk side is that they suffered very little injuries throughout the season.
“The priority for me would be injury prevention exercises,” says Byrne.
“It’s about monitoring the load and not overdoing it, you don’t want lads fatigued going into a game.
“The last thing you want is a player missing from a game because he overdid it in the gym, that’s the worst case.”
Emmet Malone of the Irish Times, who has been covering League of Ireland football for close to 30 years, highlighted the importance of their continuous clean bill of health.
“They have a good panel of players, a good bench – a stronger bench than most of the other (teams) – yet the key group only really extends to 13 or 14 players, who he almost always has the choice of playing because they do suffer so few injuries. So that’s one thing that’s huge for them.”
But where do Dundalk rank amongst Ireland’s greatest ever sides?
The turn of the millennium was possibly the golden era for the league with more professional teams than ever before and comparisons are always drawn between Dundalk and previous three-in-a-row winners Shamrock Rovers and Waterford, with both teams winning their trio of titles in different eras.
For Malone, though, Dundalk’s European performance are what sets them apart from the rest.
“(Shamrock Rovers and Waterford) never achieved anything like what Dundalk have done in Europe and I think that is absolutely the key indicator that this is probably the best League of Ireland side of all time.”
The chasing pack have been left far behind, all except for Cork City who have experienced success by beating Kenny’s men in the FAI Cup final in 2016 and have been runners up in the league in each of the three years the Lilywhites have reigned supreme.
Malone believes that every year Cork have ‘raised the bar’ in terms of their own performance only to be outdone by Dundalk, and Heaney thinks that there may be plans in place for the side to replicate Dundalk physically.
“I think Cork are trying to catch up with them physically. You can see that from the boys last year, and there are a few big boys in their team.”
Dundalk now have reached a crossroads in what has been a highway to success, with Cork seemingly edging ever closer they now represent a major threat to the Lilywhites’ league chances next year.
And with the Louth side losing two of their key players in Andy Boyle and 2016 Player of the Year Daryl Horgan to Preston North End as well as Ronan Finn to Shamrock Rovers it is hard to see how they can be adequately replaced.
Yet the club has earned an estimated €6 million from their European adventure so it’s possible that Dundalk’s dominance may well continue long into the future.
Darragh Culhane, Pundit Arena
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