Dundalk crowned champions again - how the league was won
Vinny Perth’s side overcame tricky start before racing clear of the field
Dundalk’s Michael Duffy celebrates scoring his side’s third goal with Patrick McEleney during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match at Oriel Park. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Trying to compare or contrast different league title successes is a less than perfect business. Yet Vinny Perth might be forgiven for rating this as his favourite among the five that Dundalk have now won in the last six seasons.
There are so many ways in which this season might have gone less well than it has for him and his players and a couple of key moments early on when it looked as though it could all come off the rails. But the 43-year-old has justified the faith he maintained he had in himself when taking on the job, then toughing things out through those opening weeks of the campaign.
There was no shortage of talk back in mid-April when Bohemians came to Oriel Park that if the team lost a third straight game Perth might well have been on his way. As it turned out, a 95th-minute penalty that the champions were very lucky to get gave Dundalk all three points that evening.
It would have been hard to imagine at the time that the last-gasp win would be the start of an unbeaten run in domestic competitions that has yet to end. This win extended it to 29 matches, 23 of them in the league, of which just two were drawn.
Few teams in any league could be expected to compete with that. In the end it just proved too much for a Shamrock Rovers side that looked better again than last year and great on its day, but ultimately not quite consistently good enough over the duration of the campaign to go the distance with the frontrunners.
Perth, of course, inherited an outstanding group of players but he has put enough of his own stamp on things to be able to say that this is no simple extension of the Stephen Kenny era.
It was inevitable that Kenny would cast a shadow over his former assistant when his fellow Dubliner succeeded him. The situation was complicated by the slightly ridiculous rule (given how routinely it has been sidestepped) requiring his role as manager to be publicly obscured due to his lack of the required coaching qualification.
John Gill’s involvement, or at least the circumstances of it, might have posed problems, but the pair give every indication of having worked really well together. If they had not it is genuinely hard to see how the team could have done so well, or both of them could have survived the season.
Perth has also had to cope, though, with the American owners’ attempt to put more of a structure around him. The manager has never complained about the involvement of Andy Burton to help with recruitment and he claimed at the time that he saw the appointment as having the potential to deliver significant returns. But the initiative appears to have delivered little by way of signings that would not otherwise have been made, while it appears to have complicated things for a few of those around already at the club.
There were injuries too, with Pat McEleney and Robbie Benson suffering serious setbacks at the outset and key midfielder Chris Shields among the others to endure a lengthy spell on the sidelines. Through it all, however, the champions pressed on, first closing the lead that Shamrock Rovers had opened up on them, then powering away with Derry City, it seemed, the only side that knew how to stop them winning.
Rovers will reflect on how tight things would still be if they had just been able to split the points from their four league encounters instead of drawing the first then losing the next three – but that is a very big ‘if’.
It will not be much consolation to the Dubliners that Dundalk probably managed all of this without having the league’s best player this season. Their stars, though, most obviously Pat Hoban, who looks set to be the top flight’s leading scorer again, and Michael Duffy, while Jamie McGrath has progressed considerably and a couple of the new arrivals, Seán Murray and Daniel Kelly, made impressive contributions at times.
All told, the team has won more points per game than it did over the course of last season. There have been fewer goals so far but Gannon and Gary Rogers have been constants in a more varied back five that has been significantly tighter than in 2018.
Results in Europe were more mixed and there are those who feel the team should have done better. Sustaining success on that front, however, will be a huge challenge given the budgets of the clubs that Irish sides come up against. They will get another crack at it all next summer, though, because they are, once more, indisputably the best team in this league . . . and by a bit of a distance.