Stephen Kenny’s impressive champions setting the bar high for their rivals

Dundalk’s third title in a row and their displays in Europe prove they are one of the best ever

Every manager who has ever successfully guided a team to a league title then stuck around to see if they could defend it must have challenged his players to somehow find the hunger within themselves to do it all again. Few could even aspire to generating the sort of reaction that Stephen Kenny has with this Dundalk team.

As they celebrated this third straight title at Oriel Park last night, the manager already has his eye on other prizes.

The club will look to complete a second straight double when they take on Cork City at the Aviva on Sunday week and there is still the matter of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League.

By Irish standards, Dundalk are not so much breaking new ground on that front at this stage as uncovering whole new continents and who now would dare to write off their chances of conquering another one or two before they are done.

READ MORE

On the home front, they have certainly been unstoppable. Under John Caulfield, Cork City have gone back to the drawing board twice in order to push them harder, higher, further but Kenny and Co keep clearing the bars the southerners set for them. Two years ago they won the league with 74 points, a better performance than either St Patrick's Athletic or Sligo Rovers before them and 12 months later they scored more, conceded fewer to improve on that total by four.

They may not quite match that this year but given the challenges they have faced on other fronts there has been significant progress nonetheless. Cork City beat them twice in the league and went to Oriel Park a fortnight ago in the sort of form that seemed to suggest Dundalk might finally have met their match.

The home team won impressively in the end, though, and what was left of the title race since has largely been a matter of the champions charging unchallenged up the home straight to admiring applause from the stands.

Backroom team

Europe, in particular, has clearly shown that, under Kenny and with the support of the exceptional backroom team he has assembled, the team amounts to far more than the sum of its parts but that is not for one moment to question the array of individual talent it contains. The Soccer Writers’ Association Player of the Month award has become something almost to be passed around the Oriel Park dressing room while the PFAI’s team of the year has been dominated by the club’s personnel for the past three seasons.

This year, Daryl Horgan and Pat McEleney have been amongst those to attract most attention and there is a strong sense that both may depart when the season is done. Kenny has shown himself well capable of replacing his departing stars, though. Two years ago Pat Hoban was the joint leading scorer in the league and last year Richie Towell was up there on his own. Both left on a high but somehow never seemed to be missed.

This year David McMillan has led the way in terms of goals scored and might yet top the chart himself. If not, then Cork's Sean Maguire is the man most likely to eclipse him. As it happens, the 22 year-old was at Oriel Park this time last year but struggled to get a look in. He has had an exceptional season at Turner's Cross since moving and looks to have a terrific future ahead of him but, even after all that he has done, there has been none of the grumbling you would expect really that letting him go was a mistake.

Tighter defence

City have had the tighter defence this year too but Dundalk have won the league the way Kenny would have wanted to, one suspects, scoring more goals and winning more games even if they lost a few – more than in the previous two campaigns combined – along the way.

They have, by the league's standards, exceptional quality is just about every department with the likes of Dane Massey, Sean Gannon and John Mountney establishing their top-level reputations at Dundalk while those who had already established themselves, like Ronan Finn and Stephen O'Donnell have copper-fastened their reputations, thriving as Kenny looked for ever more from them.

Then there is Chris Shields whose style Kenny suggested the other night meant he resembled something from another era.

He had looked to be a part of Dundalk's past when the Dubliner arrived while Robbie Benson was recruited last winter and though he has not always been a first choice he already looks like a key part of their future. Both players were outstanding against Zenit St Petersburg on Thursday evening.

Cut above

Though it was lost, that game showed what a cut above their peers this team really is; the courage and conviction they showed to take on a team assembled for some €145 million on their own terms.

They were not quite good enough but there is no shame in that; they were not outclassed either technically or tactically in a game they sought to win not wing.

They will, as Kenny said afterwards, only be better for the experience, something that should be of concern to Maccabi and AZ but will sure worry Cork as they try next year to finally reach the summit, much as Sligo did in 2012 after a couple of seasons caught in Rovers’ slipstream.

The difference, though, is that Michael O’Neill left Tallaght and Kenny oddly enough arrived for an ill-fated spell that was ended far too prematurely. This time it seems he may be sticking around; good news for Dundalk and Irish football; not so great, perhaps, for the rivals.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times