Stephen O’Donnell is gradually stamping his personality, tactical awareness, and man-management skills on Dundalk football club.
his is becoming increasingly evident as the season progresses with Dundalk defying all expectations in the manner in which they have sustained their challenge to champions Shamrock Rovers for the Premier Division title.
Yet again, in the week before Friday’s game with UCD at Oriel Park, the head coach was presented with a new challenge in not knowing until the last minute if two of his back four, Lewis Macari and Mark Connolly, would be available for selection.
Adding to O’Donnell’s concern was the loss of top-scorer Patrick Hoban through injury and the unexpected disruption of losing another key attacker, Steven Bradley, in the warm-up before the game.
In those circumstances, the 3-0 win against a very stubborn and well-organised UCD side must have given O’Donnell great satisfaction, especially since the two players in which he placed his trust to replace the injured attackers, David McMillan and Joe Adams, played crucial roles in the win which keeps Dundalk on the fringes of the title race.
Throughout the build up to the game, with speculation rife about Connolly and Macari, supporters were hearing reports that the Board was reluctant to meet that outlay that securing Connolly’s signature would involve, and the move by Stoke City not to extend Macari’s loan, O’Donnell kept his thoughts to himself, never going public to apply pressure on the club’s owners as many other managers would have felt justified in doing in similar circumstances.
O’Donnell could have felt that he was entitled to stress publicly the importance of both players in realising the club’s priority of securing European qualification next season, for he had at his disposal the statistics showing that both Connolly and Macari had played key roles in achieving the joint-best defensive record in the division with Rovers, conceding just 14 goals in 21 games.
Nor did O’Donnell point to the disruption to his preparations caused by the fact that Connolly’s availability wasn’t secured until shortly before the game, or that Macari, too, had to experience a week of uncertainty which can’t have been easy for all concerned in preparing for the visit of the Students.
The loss of Hoban at such a critical period of the season and, for an apparently lengthy spell, must have been weighing heavily on O’Donnell’s mind, for the experienced striker has been central to the team’s attacking strategy since the start of the season – and not only for his goals – while the loss of Bradley just before kick-off was yet another setback for the coaching staff to overcome.
In response to these difficulties which O’Donnell may well feel are part and parcel of management, he refused to panic, showing his faith in his panel of players, with McMillan, in particular, rewarding his head coach with the crucial first goal that almost effectively guaranteed all three points such was the paucity of the visitors’ attacking threat.
Until that goal, scored in the 51st minute with a confident strike, it had been a frustrating season for the club’s record scorer in European football. Confined to a few minutes at the end of each game as Hoban’s relief, he struggled for the sharpness that only gametime can provide when he got his opportunity.
It was evident that the sharpness was lacking when he started against Shelbourne the previous week, and, admittedly, he didn’t silence his critics with a performance that didn’t lack effort but never looked like providing the answer to Hoban’s replacement.
In these circumstances, and given the importance of securing all three points against UCD, O’Donnell may have been tempted to listen to the pundits on the terraces and start with John Martin up front, a decision that would have deflated McMillan’s confidence and forced the player to question his judgement in signing at the start of the season, knowing that he would be Hoban’s understudy.
McMillan’s inclusion has also necessitated altering the team’s attacking strategy for whereas Hoban’s physical strength, vision and touch in the fulcrum of the attack, McMillan hasn’t the same physical presence to hold up the ball, nor the adroit touch to link the play, but instead relies on his ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender, and never shirks in his appetite for work even though the game may not be going his way.
In a forgettable first half, in which Dundalk were trying to adjust to the absence of Hoban, and pitted against a very determined and well-organised UCD defensive structure that saw all 11 players in their own half for most of the time, McMillan got limited opportunities to show his renowned goalscoring instincts.
Both the player and the game needed a goal and, thankfully, it arrived six minutes into the second half when Dundalk considerably upped the tempo of their play from the start, with Daniel Kelly, crucially, moved to the right flank, and, thus, getting the room which he didn’t have in the first half to supply the cross after a brilliant dribble from which Adams got a headed assist at the far post for McMillian to volley to the roof of the net.
It was a confident strike, one that was worthy of the player with such an excellent scoring record, and while it was McMillan’s first league goal since July last, he has had limited game-time in the intervening period, which accounted for his sense of relief mixed with obvious joy when he hit the back of the net.
O’Donnell’s belief in the player was rewarded, and that, plus his first goal, will boost the striker in the coming games for a good goalscoring run will compensate for the continued absence of Hoban.
Equally, the confidence that the head coach showed in Adams to replace Bradley at such short notice was also rewarded, for the Welshman had a hand – well, maybe a head, a foot and, perhaps, a toe nail – in all three goals.
In the first half, when the team struggled, Adams tended to take the safe option when he got on the ball, but this was understandable given his limited opportunities, but it was testament to O’Donnell’s man-management skills that he kept the winger/midfielder on for the whole game, when many felt that he, rather than Kelly, would be substituted when the team went 2-0 ahead.
That decision swelled Adams’ confidence, for together with the move to the right, he started to play his best football, providing the perfect pass for Martin to cross the ball for another substitute, Keith Ward, to slot home the third goal in the final minute.
Kelly, the most improved player in the squad, will have been disappointed to leave the field early, but he, like a number of other players in the squad, are rapidly showing the benefits of the intense individual coaching from O’Donnell and his team.
Another obvious example is Paul Doyle, who is blossoming into a fine holding midfielder, with all the attributes needed for that key role – neat control, passing ability and vision to see a pass, and although he may lack the physical presence of a Chris Shields, he has many qualities that will be nurtured by O’Donnell over the remainder of this season.
The early second goal on Friday night allowed O’Donnell the luxury of giving some of his fringe players, like Sam Bone, who can do a good holding job in midfield, Ward, who always impresses when he comes on as a substitute, Martin, who made a smashing run to set up the third goal, and most of all Ryan O’Kane, who, unusually, got over half an hour in which he again underlined his potential, an opportunity to play.
The management and coaching team have been careful in the manner that they are bringing the very talented 19-year-old winger along, ensuring that he gets sufficient time playing at underage level, and restricting him to cameo roles with the first-team, for the physical demands of playing at the top level means that his talent must be gently nurtured.
Hopefully, with the future involvement of Connolly and Macari secured, O’Donnell and his coaching team can continue the progress they are making with young players – Nathan Sheppard, who kept his 12th clean sheet, Macari, Darragh Leahy, Doyle, Bradley, Adams and O’Kane – and continue to get the best out of the more established players like Andy Boyle, Ward, Robbie Benson and McMillan, who may yet have a major role to play in the season, just as he did two seasons ago in the Cup final.