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26 Sept 2022

O’Donnell showing traits of prioritising experience over talented youthful prospects at Dundalk

The Commentary Box: The Gerry Malone Column

O’Donnell showing traits of prioritising experience over talented youthful prospects at Dundalk

Dundalk head coach Stephen O'Donnell before the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Dundalk and Shelbourne at Casey's Field in Dundalk, Louth. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

Dundalk’s nightmare season continued last Friday night as they were deservedly dumped out of the FAI Cup 3-2 by Waterford FC at the RSC.

It was the same old story as it has been for the past 7 weeks with the Dundalk defence now conceding 13 goals in their last six games. It gets worse when one sees they have lost four games out of their last six.

They are awful statistics and clearly show how Dundalk’s form has turned from a side that a few weeks ago believed they could win the league to a side that looks like a team that are in the relegation zone and heading for the First Division.

Manager Stephen O’Donnell made five changes from the side that were beaten by UCD the previous week. Amazingly, Ryan O’Kane was dropped to the bench. Darragh Leahy too was another player who amazingly was dropped. Sam Bone, David McMillan and Runar Hauge were also benched.

Brian Gartland who has bravely fought injury for the past two years played only his second game of the current season. Brian was making his 250th appearance for Dundalk. Sadly, it was not a landmark Brian will savour and he was withdrawn early in the second half.

Robbie Benson also returned. But he has been hit with injury in recent months and as Stephen O’Donnell confirmed after the game, he was not fully match fit. John Martin also started for Dundalk, scoring a marvellous goal against his twin brother Paul in the Waterford goals.

Paul Doyle also returned but was replaced after 39 minutes with another injury and replaced by Sam Bone. Waterford had two Dundalk born brothers on their team. Tumise Sobowale and Timi Sobowale.

Let me make it clear. There can be no excuses from Dundalk about the result. Waterford were by far the better team and but for Nathan Shepherd it would have been six from the Blues. Instead, a late goal by Keith Ward gave a totally false impression that this was a close game. It was not.

Waterford were much better than a Dundalk team whose season is badly unravelling. Before Friday night, Dundalk had two routes to Europe. The cup route door to the Europa Conference League was closed firmly in their faces by 9:45 on Friday night.
Dundalk have six games left to get into Europe by clinching third place in the league. four of the games are at home, two are away.

The last game is away to Derry City, who could easily be going for the league title that day.
Stephen O’Donell kept his team in the dressing room for an hour after the game. As the media waited for Stephen to come out for his regular post-match interview the three journalists from the national media departed after 50 minutes.
They made their way back to Dublin.

The Dundalk media were going nowhere. Finally we spoke to Stephen who spoke for 15 minutes on his assessment of the game and rumours that he had actually decided to depart Dundalk following a supposed meeting with the board of Directors at Oriel last Sunday week.

I asked him about this midway through the interview with the other two Dundalk reporters beside me. It had to be asked as reporters are lucky enough to act as a link between the club and supporters, letting them know what is happening.
I asked the manager had he informed the board at a meeting the previous Sunday that he was departing. Stephen said that not only was the story untrue, but there had also been no such meeting.

It was good to get that cleared up.
I believe that Stephen O’Donnell has done a very good job as manager, and I took no pleasure in questioning the man about his future with the club. I asked him that given his team’s massive slump in form in the past seven weeks, was he under pressure as manager at the club?

Again, frankly and openly Stephen said he was gutted with the Waterford result and other recent results. But he reminded us that he had warned reporters that Dundalk would go through a bad period at some stage in the season.
I do not think though he ever thought it would be a total collapse in form. I again made sure to ask the Dundalk boss was he going to resign, given the recent massive dip in form by the team.

Other managers in the past who I have asked the same question would have reacted very differently than this manager. He looked calmly towards the Dundalk media and said he was not resigning.
I again followed up by asking him would he be staying on as manager next season. Again, the Galwegian turned to me and said that he would be remaining at Oriel next season. I was glad to hear Stephen saying this.

It at least puts to bed the remarkable false speculation hitting the town of Dundalk the previous week over his future.
O’Donnell would not discuss what his hour-long post match meeting was about. I would not have expected him to have said anything but that.

To me the players’ heads are down and the confidence that has been evident for much of the season in this team, is now at a very low ebb. Players are regularly being played out of position, mainly due to others being out injured.
And sadly, because of a lack of depth in the squad, players are being rushed back having just recovered from injury, only to maybe pick up an injury again.

This is no one’s fault that the players are out injured. I’ve said numerous times that the Dundalk backroom medical, physio and strength and conditioning team are the best in the country.
Is the manager making mistakes? Yes he is, but he will learn from them. Last Friday week he made three substitutions against UCD at Belfield at the one time. A time when the team were well in the game.

To me it was a panic move that backfired totally and allowed UCD in for two goals that won the game. Before those late goals went in, O’Donnell also took Ryan O’Kane off. He was Dundalk’s best player by far.
The manager made a big mistake then and another one on Friday night by not starting Ryan. When he was brought on as a substitute, it was far too late. Dundalk were well out of the cup and Waterford were on their way on to the last four.

I asked Stephen why he left Ryan out of the starting 11. He said it was because he had decided to go with experience. As the previous week he said Ryan had played a lot of games and he needed protection.
I just can’t understand this as had Ryan started it could have maybe won the game for the Lilywhites, particularly after they went ahead. I can only assume Ryan was fit, but the manager mistakenly left him out.

Darragh Leahy is also a top-class player. He did not deserve to be left on the bench for so much of the game. To be fair to the manager, maybe the only reason he was, was that he was carrying an injury.
I watch the subs bench every week. Up to last Friday Brian Gartland has been on it every week, but never used. Having two sub keepers on the bench is ridiculous. Another player could be brought in instead possibly from the under 19 team.

But the manager just has not considered this. Mayowa, a young man with a great future, was let out on loan to Dungannon Swifts.That to me was the wrong decision as Mark Connolly, who was on loan until the end of June, departed for Derry.
Mayowa is a centre half who maybe could at least have played some role in covering up the huge cracks that have developed in the team since Connolly’s departure. I’ve had this out with the manager already.

He said Mayowa needed games and was being wasted on the bench. I said fine but he could be playing now as Connolly was gone. He stressed Mayowa would not be in his team this season, even with Connolly gone.
You don’t drop a talent like Ryan O’Kane in a cup quarter final and you should not be saying that a young player like Mayowa would not be in your team, even with Connolly gone.

All this leads me to a question. Does the manager believe in experience over youth, even when the younger player is clearly much better than the older experienced player?
I realise Stephen O’Donnell does know what a talent he has in O’Kane. But to leave him out over more experienced players just does not add up.

Players were also played out position on Friday night. This has been happening too regularly. Greg Sloggett was played out on the wing at the start, but should have been centre midfield. He was ineffective in that position.
Ryan O’Kane was played in the centre of midfield and also the wing. This is his position. Bringing him into the game when Waterford had the game won was really not the thing to do.
Dundalk can still make Europe. But the manager will need to show all his skills of leadership, motivation and communication to get this side back on track.

They have lost their confidence. Their heads are down. O’Donnell must also try to return to the pattern of as little change as possible to his team. No more making three substitutions at one time, or playing a number of his players out of position.
This has to stop. The side needs stability and consistency. If the manager can do this, then Dundalk can qualify for Europe. The owners must also meet with Stephen and decide on his budget for next season.

He must be given the money needed to bring in top quality players. If they don’t, I fear for the future.
In the first division teams like Waterford, Galway and Cork are getting good financial backing. Waterford’s owners have great ambition and can win the play-offs and get promotion.

Such is the potential finance that will be invested, should they make the Premier Division they will be a major force.
Stephen Kenny got the players he wanted while at Dundalk. That was because he got the money needed from the owners. This was because of success in Europe.

I’m not saying the owners must break the bank at Oriel to bring in top players. But they have to realise that if they are not prepared to spend top money of any kind, they will not secure success.
They would not spend the money needed to keep Mark Connolly.
This was a major mistake and could mean the club will lose €500,000 straight out because they were not prepared to push the boat out just a little bit more than they did.

Dundalk have conceded 11 goals in 5 games. Connolly’s new team have conceded no goals in the past five. Stephen O’Donnell started the game with three at the back too on Friday.
Within minutes he reverted to five at the back, three at midfield, with two up front. This formation was also changed later again.

Dundalk led in the game after Paul Doyle scored on 13 minutes.
Waterford were caught offside in the Dundalk Half. Paul Doyle floated a free from just inside the Dundalk half.
Paul Martin, the Waterford keeper looked to have got a hand to it as the ball struck the crossbar and then the post and struck the net.

The goal was against the run of play. Waterford levelled on 31 minutes when Junior’s cross into the Dundalk Box was headed back out by Greg Sloggett. The ball came to Shane Griffin who drove the ball to the net.
Sam Bone needlessly gave away a free on the left-hand edge of the Dundalk box three minutes from half time.

The Dundalk defence failed to clear Pheonix Patterson’s cross into the box. Darragh Power drove the ball home from 14 yards.
The game was over as a contest when Pheonix Patterson shot to the net with a powerful effort on 65 minutes.
Keith Ward got a late goal in injury time for Dundalk. But the game was long over by then. There were over 3,600 people in attendance.

Dundalk’s hopes of making it into Europe via the league does not inspire a lot of confidence.
The team just seems to be falling apart. Last Friday was Stephen O’Donnell’s 100th game in charge as a manager.
Dundalk have now only not reached the cup semi-final on two occasions over the last 11 years. But Waterford totally deserved the win.

The owners and management at Casey’s field must keep their nerve. But continue to play like this and they don’t deserve to win a place in Europe.

Have a safe week. Please remember to be careful out there. And look after yourselves.

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