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Stephen O’Donnell taking solace from Cork's loss of Maguire

Preston star was ‘league’s best striker in last 20 years’, says captain ahead of cup final

“Both teams will be as hungry as each other, it’s just who performs better on the day,” said Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell in reference to his side’s FAI Cup final against Cork City. Photograph: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

The importance of momentum and motivation can all easily be overstated according to Stephen O’Donnell but the Dundalk skipper believes that the significance of Seanie Maguire’s absence from Sunday’s FAI Cup final should not be underestimated with the now Preston player a decisive factor, he reckons, in Cork City’s recent edge over their title rivals.

City took seven points from nine in the league against Stephen Kenny’s side this season and Maguire scored an outstanding hat-trick when the southerners stunned their hosts at Oriel Park by winning 3-0 back in June. Since his departure, they have not managed three again in a league game and O’Donnell clearly believes that the breakthrough required to beat Dundalk will be an awful lot harder to come by with the 23-year-old watching from the stand.

“You can make too much of it,” he says when asked which of the teams will be the more hungry on a day when one is chasing a double, the other attempting to secure a victory and trophy that shows their rivals have not become dominant. “It’s a lot to do with how you do on the day.

“Both teams will be as hungry as each other, it’s just who performs better on the day, it won’t be for a lack of effort if one team loses, it will just be down to what big players perform better and, you never know, a refereeing decision or a bit of luck.

“We’ve been playing a lot better, we are kind of unrecognisable from how we would have been in the first half of the season but it’s on the day. You can’t say that we have the momentum and that will take care of Sunday. It’s about who adapts better, what individuals perform.

Massive blow

“And a lot has been made of Cork faltering but they were always going to win the league. Sometimes the nearer you get to something that you are going to achieve, it can be a case of just getting yourselves over the line.”

Inevitably, though, they have felt the absence of Maguire with their strike rate dropping dramatically over the course of the run-in. “Yeah, his move is a massive blow to them but it would be a massive blow to any team who would lose him,” he says. “He is the best striker that I have seen in the league in the last 15 to 20 years.

“He was obviously a thorn in our side in the previous games. Cork are more comfortable sitting in, breaking teams up – like breaking play up – and then catching you on the counter and a lot of their goals have been on the counterattack against us.

“We would be in possession and pressing and it suited Cork to sit in and be compact and catch you on the break when they had Seanie Maguire. He was a huge man to capitalise on the spaces that you would leave at the other end of the pitch.”

Their style may be largely unchanged but they have lacked that same killer punch in front of goal since Maguire moved on to the Championship. Karl Sheppard leads the line now and though he does not score as many as his former team-mate, Kenny clearly rates him highly enough to want to sign him, with the striker widely expected to move from one of Sunday’s finalists to the other once the game is safely out of the way.     

O’Donnell, though, is more immediately concerned with the likes of Gearóid Morrissey and Garry Buckley, offensively-minded City midfielders who the more defensively-minded Galway man will be aiming to keep quiet.

“This year, they’ve barely missed a game,” he says. “They are both athletically good, very strong runners. Both very physical, good athletes. Buckley chips in with goals, Morrissey gets a few too. They’ve got good legs and do need to be stopped. But if we play to our potential in midfield we’d be fairly confident of getting the upper hand.”

Almost impossible

If they do, Dundalk may well be on the way to an 11th cup success with O’Donnell picking up a seventh significant winner’s medal since Kenny persuaded him to become one of his first signings for the club towards the very tail end of 2012. Even with the pair’s respective records prior to that, it would have been almost impossible to envisage the scale of the change in the club’s fortunes since then or just how much at home the now 31-year-old seems around the place although, he says, the manager did tell him he could expect great things.

“It’s the longest I’ve been at a club and I’ve lived here the last few seasons – first half of this one I probably wished I didn’t with people coming up to you and asking ‘what’s wrong?’ In previous lifetimes, second place and losing the odd game for Dundalk would have been a good season but the success we’ve had here, that’s what it does, you know . . . it breeds expectations.

“But it’s a soccer town – that’s what the manager said when he was signing me. He said if we can manage to get some momentum going here, they’d come out and support us. We’ve big average support now for a town which isn’t the size of a city. You see the kids going around the town in Dundalk jerseys and McEleney, McMillan and Benson on their backs. When I first arrived it was the likes of Man U and Arsenal jerseys.”

And surely there must be a few with the name of the club captain? “A couple all right,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think they like my boring style, though. They like the boys who go past lads.”