The news that Chris Shields has signed a new long-term deal with the club will feel like a welcome boost for Dundalk fans ahead of Friday's visit by Shamrock Rovers but Vinny Perth's priority will be the very short term. Failing to beat the league leaders at Oriel Park will leave the champions with a lot of ground to make up on a side that does not seem likely to suffer too many setbacks. Losing to them would be a massive blow.
After three straight wins, Dundalk don’t look to be in that bad a place right now and there was much talk from the management team at Belfield on Monday of the team starting to show signs of getting back to itself. Maintaining their improvement at a time that Rovers should be ever so slightly unsteady in the wake of Tuesday’s tumultuous defeat to Bohemians will be of critical importance, though.
The return of Shields and Patrick McEleney in recent weeks has helped but the latter has yet to rediscover his best form and that may be a factor in Michael Duffy, his terrific goal on Monday aside, not having hit previous heights either.
Both should be motoring in a few weeks, by which time Robbie Benson will be back too but lose to the leaders now and they will be under an awful lot of pressure by then.
As it stands, they are four points shy of where they were at the same stage last season with the difference primarily accounted for by a few costly goals conceded.
Rovers, though, have been transformed with almost twice as many points earned after 13 games. They have scored just one more than at the same stage of last year’s league but have halved the rate at which they concede. The confidence flowing through the side was prior to Tuesday’s setback was obvious and if they can convince themselves that they were simply victims of an injustice the other night then that may be unaffected.
They suffered a serious blow at just about this stage last year, however, with defeats by Dundalk and Bohemians followed by another loss to Bray then a draw at home to Limerick. With Trevor Clarke and Lee Grace suspended, this game will be a real test and despite Stephen Bradley's assertion that "Oriel Park holds no fear for us", they might well lose. However, judging by their wider performances, it is difficult to see Rovers shedding points against weaker sides the way they did until last summer and the concern for Perth is that their most obvious title rivals now look a significantly better side than Cork were last season.
Rovers' captain Ronan Finn insists that having a big follow up to the loss the other night provides a perfect opportunity to refocus: "It's great," he says, "because Dundalk are such a good side that you know straight away that you have to switch on and be ready to play."
Dundalk have issues of their own with Daniel Kelly a doubt now too and Seán Murray still struggling but it will be close to 10pm before we know for sure whether the timing really served the Dubliners quite so well. A repeat of the scoreless draw the two sides managed in March would surely be enough to have them travelling home happy.
The even bigger transformations in terms of form, of course, have been at Bohemians and Cork. In terms of Keith Long’s side, about the only unchanged aspect of their record is that they had also beaten Rovers twice by this point in the proceedings but the Dubliners have 26 points compared with 12 as they welcome Waterford to Dalymount Park.
Long has much the same squad to choose from while the visitors are again without Kenny Browne, Dean Walsh or Kevin Lynch. Karolis Chvedukas is ruled out too on this occasion and Bastian Hery is a doubt.
John Caulfield, meanwhile, hopes to have Daire O'Connor, and Karl Sheppard available to start as Cork head to Derry in the hope of securing what would be a first win in seven league games. Ally Gilchrist is a doubt for the hosts while Dave Webster is suspended for St Patrick's Athletic as Harry Kenny's side look to maintain their recent improvement at home to UCD.
Harps have the usual list of injury absentees as they go to Sligo and Ollie Horgan admits confidence is low but it is the sort of game they need to conjure something up in if they are to have any real hope of saving themselves.
Limerick’s troubles have deepened, meanwhile, with the consortium that had been looking to take control taking a step back. Talks had been ongoing with Pat O’Sullivan but spokesman Donal Magee said in a statement on Thursday: “We feel the terms and valuation put forward to us are unworkable and our belief is that the valuation of the club is unreasonable.”
Fixtures (7.45pm unless stated).
Premier Division: Bohemians v Waterford, Derry City v Cork City, St Patrick's Athletic v UCD, Sligo Rovers v Finn Harps, Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers (8pm).
First Division: Bray Wanderers v Cabinteely, Shelbourne v Galway United, Wexford v Athlone Town.