St Patrick’s Athletic boss Stephen O’Donnell admits that his side will have to score more goals if they are to improve on last season’s sixth-place finish in the Airtricity Premier League.
A key factor, though, in whether the Dublin club can claim a place in Europe for 2022 looks set to be how young Liverpool goalkeeper Vitezslav Jaros settles into a season-long loan at Inchicore.
O'Donnell has added plenty of experience to his squad with the likes of Paddy Barrett, John Mountney and Ronan Coughlan all knowing the league inside out and possessing the sort of quality that the manager hopes will help bring a wider consistency. But with 17-year-old Josh Keeley, promoted from the underage set-up in the close season, providing the only competition as things stand, Jaros probably needs to find his feet quickly in "men's football".
The Czech teenager’s credentials are good and he had featured for the Liverpool first team in a pre-season friendly and made a handful of appearances in the under-23 side before coming to Dublin.
O’Donnell has been impressed but in what will be a very different environment there are clearly no guarantees.
“Everyone’s been impressed with Vitez since he’s come in training but he’s a 19-year-old and goalkeeper is an unforgiving position,” said the manager at an event to promote a renewal and expansion of the club’s sponsorship deal with security firm Manguard Plus.
“Like with any keeper, there’s going to be mistakes made; no keeper goes through the season without making mistakes but he has a good stature, he’s a good size, technically he’s very good . . . he ticks a lot of the boxes required to be a very good goalkeeper so we’re excited by him, and he’s enjoying it, he settled in really well.”
For every player in this position (the club also has midfielder Alfie Lewis and striker Nahum Melvin-Lambert on loan from West Ham and Reading respectively), proving he can play at this level can be an important stepping stone in his wider career progression, one that might hopefully end with a regular place in a Premier League club’s first team.
For the Irish club, though, there are both risks and potential rewards, with the latter including the potential for other, much wealthier clubs to see a side like St Patrick’s as one that can play a positive part in development of their talent.
“Yeah, exactly,” said O’Donnell. “Originally, when you declare your interest, obviously the parent club has to have an interest going the other way; they have to see that it could be a good developmental move for someone like Vitezslav.”
With the teenager, that process involved a lot of conversations over Zoom between opposite numbers at the two clubs teasing out how the move might work.
“You’re basically assuring the parent club that the player is going to get the same training, the same coaching and same schedule as they would over at Liverpool with the cherry on top being that they’re going to play men’s football and first-team games.”
There will, he says, be ongoing contact between the two clubs through the season, most obviously involving goalkeeping coach Pat Jennings and Chris Coburn, the strength and conditioning coach, at this end. And although O'Donnell acknowledges that there are all sorts of clauses in other such deals, there are absolutely no guarantees in this one.
“Parent clubs want their players to go and play in games, that’s ultimately the reason they let players go out on loan moves. But they’re realistic, they [the coaches] are at clubs themselves and they know it’s done on performance; that a football manager obviously picks players on merit, that’s what I say to any player we sign. There’s no guarantee of playing, it’s just about getting them in the door and then them showing what they can do.
"So, I'd be more concerned if they [Jaros and Keeley] weren't showing me good quality. There's no point in having a senior keeper if he hasn't got good quality. It's a young league and, okay, goalkeeping is a different sort of department but you look at James Talbot. When Shane Supple retired he came in and did well and that's the league we are in; it's a great platform and a great breeding ground for good young players."