Stephen O’Donnell gradually expresses his personality, tactical awareness and man management skills at Dundalk football club.
that becomes increasingly apparent as the season progresses, with Dundalk defying all odds in the way they have maintained their challenge to beat the champions of Shamrock Rovers for the Premier Division title.
Again, in the week before Friday’s game with UCD at Oriel Park, the head coach was presented with a new challenge as he didn’t know until the last minute whether two of his four backs, Lewis Macari and Mark Connolly, would be available for selection.
What further worried O’Donnell was the loss of top scorer Patrick Hoban to injury and the unexpected disruption of the loss of another key striker, Steven Bradley, in pre-match warm-up.
In those circumstances, the 3-0 win against a very stubborn and well organized UCD side must have given O’Donnell great satisfaction, especially as the two players he relied on to replace the injured forwards, David McMillan and Joe Adams, was instrumental in the win that keeps Dundalk on the brink of the title race.
During the lead-up to the game, with speculation about Connolly and Macari, supporters heard reports that the board was reluctant to pay the costs involved in getting Connolly’s signature, and Stoke City’s move to repay Macari’s loan. non-renewable, O’Donnell kept his thoughts to himself and never went out to put pressure on the club’s owners, as many other managers in similar circumstances would have felt justified.
O’Donnell might have thought he had a right to publicly emphasize the importance of both players in realizing the club’s priority to secure European qualification next season, as he had the statistics at his disposal showing that both Connolly and Macari had played key roles in achieving the joint best defensive record in the division with Rovers, scoring just 14 goals in 21 games.
Nor did O’Donnell point to the disruption in his preparations caused by Connolly’s availability being assured just before the match, or Macari also having to go through a week of uncertainty, which could not have been easy for all involved in the preparation. of the students’ visit.
The loss of Hoban at such a critical time of the season and, for a seemingly long period of time, must have weighed heavily on O’Donnell’s mind, as the veteran striker has been central to the team’s attacking strategy since the start of the season – and not just for his goals, while Bradley’s loss just before kick-off was yet another setback for the coaching staff to overcome.
In response to these difficulties, which O’Donnell may feel are part of management, he refused to panic and showed confidence in his player panel, with McMillan in particular rewarding his head coach with the crucial first goal that almost effectively guaranteed all three points, as was the lack of attacking threat from the visitors.
Until that goal, scored in the 51st minute with a confident attack, it had been a frustrating season for the club’s record scorer in European football. He was limited to a few minutes at the end of each game as a relief from Hoban and struggled for the sharpness that only playtime can provide when given his chance.
It was clear that the edge was lacking when he started against Shelbourne last week, and admittedly he did not silence his critics with a performance that was not lacking in effort, but never looked like 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 experts on the terraces and start with John Martin up front, a decision that will boost confidence van McMillan and the player to question his judgment when signing at the start of the season, knowing he would be Hoban’s understudy.
The inclusion of McMillan also made it necessary to change the team’s attacking strategy because while Hoban’s physical strength, vision and touch is at the fulcrum of the attack, McMillan doesn’t have the same physical presence to hold the ball up, nor the dexterous touch. to connect the game, but instead relies on his ability to play on the last defender’s shoulder and never shuns his hunger for work, even though the game may not go the way he wants.
In a forgettable first half, in which Dundalk tried to adapt to Hoban’s absence and took on a very determined and well-organized UCD defense structure that saw all 11 players in their own half for most of the time, McMillan was restricted . chances to display his famous goal-scoring instinct.
Both the player and the game needed a goal and luckily it came six minutes into the second half when Dundalk significantly increased the pace of their game from the start, with Daniel Kelly moving crucially to the right wing, thus gaining the space that he hadn’t been able to send the cross in the first half after a brilliant dribble, from which Adams got an assist at the far post for McMillian to volley to the roof of the net.
It was a confident attack, one worthy of the player with such an outstanding score, and although it was McMillan’s first league goal since last July, he had limited playing time in the intervening period, mixing his sense of relief with obvious joy when he hit the back of the net.
O’Donnell’s faith in the player has been rewarded and that, plus his first goal, will give the striker a boost for a good run of goals in the coming games and will make up for Hoban’s continued absence.
Likewise, the confidence the head coach showed in Adams to replace Bradley at such short notice was also rewarded, as the Welshman had a hand – well, maybe a head, a foot and maybe a toenail – on all three goals .
In the first half as the team struggled Adams tended to take the safe option when he got the ball but this was understandable given his limited chances but it testified to O’Donnell’s man management skills that he was the winger. kept /midfielder for the entire game, when many believed he would be replaced instead of Kelly if the team were leading 2-0.
That decision instilled confidence in Adam as along with the move to the right, he began to play his best football, which was the perfect pass for Martin to cross the ball for another substitute, Keith Ward, to score the third goal in the final. within a minute to be dragged.
Kelly, the most improved player on the squad, may have been disappointed to leave the field early, but he, like several of the other players on the squad, is quickly showing the benefits of the intense individual coaching from O’Donnell and his team .
Another obvious example is Paul Doyle, who grows into a fine tenacious midfielder, with all the attributes needed for that key role – neat control, passing ability and vision to see a pass, and while he may have the physical presence of a Chris Shields lacks, he has many qualities that will be cherished by O’Donnell for the rest of this season.
The early second goal on Friday night gave O’Donnell the luxury of handing some of his fringe players such as Sam Bone, who can hold onto in midfield, Ward, who always impresses when he comes in, Martin, who plays a great run to score the third goal, and especially Ryan O’Kane, who, unusually, was given more than half an hour in which he once again underlined his potential, a chance to play.
The management and coaching team have been careful how they bring in the highly talented 19-year-old winger, ensuring he is given ample time to play at the underage level and limiting him to first-team cameo roles, for the physical demands of playing at the highest level means that his talent must be nurtured gently.
Hopefully, with the future involvement of Connolly and Macari assured, 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 make the most of the more established players such as Andy Boyle, Ward, Robbie Benson and McMillan, who may still have important roles to play in the season, as they did in the Cup Final two seasons ago.