Dundalk supporters have been living the dream under manager Stephen Kenny.
Having waited 19 years for the league title to return to Oriel Park, three have come along at once – the latest achieved amidst the greatest run by an Irish team in European competition.
2016 will live long in the memory but all of that is history now and, as the 2017 SSE Airtricity League season approaches, Kenny is focused on the task ahead. Four-in-a-row is firmly in his sights, but it could be his toughest assignment yet.
Success comes at a price and Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle, whose stellar form for Dundalk last season earned both international call-ups, are now plying their trade for Preston North End.
Ronan Finn’s departure to Shamrock Rovers was more of a shock and means that three of last season’s stars have moved on, along with several squad players.
Darren Meenan and Michael O’Connor will play alongside Finn in Tallaght this season, Alan Keane has joined Crusaders and Dean Shiels was released, whilst Ciaran O’Connor (Finn Harps) and George Poynton (Bohemians) have both been sent out on loan.
Kenny’s side has evolved steadily over the years and such a turnover of players is no doubt more than he would have liked, but he has recruited well with predominantly young and hungry players that will re-energise the squad after a short close season.
After impressing last year, Sean Hoare (signed from St Patrick’s Athletic) and Niclas Vemmelund (Derry City) will provide good competition at the back.
Thomas Stewart will provide cover up front, whilst Jamie McGrath (St Pat’s), Michael Duffy (Celtic) and Stephen Kinsella (Everton, on loan) will add further options out wide to the league’s most potent attack, which was top of the scoring charts in each of the last three seasons thanks largely to a spread of goals around the team.
The arrival of Conor Clifford from English non-league outfit Boreham Wood is perhaps the most intriguing signing of all and could prove another Stephen Kenny masterstroke if he can help the former Chelsea youth team captain get his career back on track, just as he did with Richie Towell, who arrived from Bluebell United and left for Brighton and Hove Albion.
Dundalk’s first XI may not be as strong on paper as last season, but their overall squad – in midfield in particular – is stronger than ever and the club have held onto their most important employee in Stephen Kenny himself.
The RTE and Philips Sports Manager of the Year for 2016 has adapted Dundalk’s style of play over each of the last three seasons – with a continued emphasis on positive, attacking football – whilst maintaining a hunger and drive in a squad that is exceptionally fit and continually seeking to improve.
Despite the high-profile departures, they still have bags of experience, with Stephen O’Donnell, Chris Shields, Sean Gannon, Dane Massey, Brian Gartland, John Mountney and David McMillan all present for the full hat-trick of league titles. Ciarán Kilduff and Paddy Barrett played important roles in Europe last year, whilst Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney are primed to kick on in their second seasons at the club.
Dundalk supporters are excited about both, particularly McEleney, who Stephen Kenny has backed to star in the number 10 role this year, having spent much of last season out with injury or doing a job for the team on the right side of midfield.
A much-needed new state-of-the-art 4G pitch at Oriel Park should help Dundalk’s attacking instincts, whilst the enforced away trips for the whole pre-season campaign as the pitch was laid have only added to a huge sense of anticipation in Dundalk ahead of tomorrow night’s opener against Shamrock Rovers.
It is a mouth-watering tie to kick off a tough opening run of fixtures for the champions, which takes them to The Showgrounds in Sligo, Derry’s temporary home in Maginn Park and Turner’s Cross to face title rivals Cork City, all in the first six games.
Forced to rebuild his squad after losing three key players, a fourth league title in a row for Stephen Kenny would eclipse his previous achievements and cement Dundalk’s place amongst the greatest sides that Ireland has ever produced, but it won’t be easy.
Chris Shields and David McMillan have not kicked a ball in pre-season and both will miss the start of the campaign, along with goalkeeper Gary Rogers, currently out with a calf strain, whilst the new-look squad could take time to gel.
The chasing pack have strengthened and Cork City, buoyed by last season’s dramatic FAI Cup Final win, will continue to pose the biggest threat.
But everyone in the league knows that Dundalk remain the team to beat and the Oriel Park faithful believe that Stephen Kenny will deliver yet again.
Key Man: Patrick McEleney
After Ronan Finn’s shock return to Shamrock Rovers, the stage is set for Patrick McEleney to play a starring role in Dundalk’s quest for a fourth consecutive league title.
The 24-year-old’s first season at Oriel Park showed plenty of promise but was frustrated by a run of injuries which allowed just 16 starts in 33 league games.
When fit, McEleney was often asked to play on the right side of midfield to help his team, but Finn’s departure means that will change and, after a positive pre-season, the Derry native looks set to make the number 10 role his own this term.
He certainly has the backing of manager Stephen Kenny, who last week described his “unique” playmaker as the most talented player the League of Ireland has seen in 15 years.
That talent was evident at times on the biggest stage last season, most notably in Dundalk’s historic 3-0 win over BATE Borisov, when McEleney was outstanding for an hour coming off the bench. The man he replaced that night was Ronan Finn. Could that be an omen?
Injury concerns will persist but, if McEleney can stay fit, Dundalk could be hard to stop in their bid for four-in-a-row.
You can follow Dan on Twitter at @danpope.