Where do Dundalk stand among all-time greatest?

Where does this Dundalk side rank in the pantheon?

Where do Dundalk stand among all-time greatest?

With the curtain about to come down at the end of another SSE Airtricity League of Ireland campaign, the ovations will once again be ringing around Oriel Park tonight to mark Dundalk’s second successive season as champions.

Bray Wanderers will want to spoil the party, of course, but in contrast to the knife-edge tension of this time last year — when Cork City arrived at Dundalk’s home with hopes of claiming the title — Stephen Kenny’s side have the luxury of knowing that the end game comes with the trophy already comfortably in the bag, their lead over City ahead of tonight’s match a roomy 11 points. And they know, too, that they remain on course to do the double, as they prepare to take on their closest rivals of the last two seasons in a mouth-watering FAI Cup final match-up at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday week.

Nobody in the game disputes that Dundalk are worthy champions. By common consent, they are the fastest, fittest, and most fluent side in the land, their clear superiority at domestic level evident too in their admirable Champions League endeavours in the summer when, after a superbly composed away performance which clearly caught their opponents by surprise, they ended up just one goal shy in the second leg of knocking out BATE Borisov, a club which currently retains hopes of progressing from a group containing Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, and Roma.

That might have been Dundalk punching above their weight, of course, but in the context of the Irish game, it merely added to a growing body of evidence in support of the view they deserve to be regarded as one of the all-time great League of Ireland sides.

Like so many others, Damien Richardson is a big admirer of this Dundalk team, but the former League of Ireland player and manager, and current RTÉ analyst, still thinks they have work to do to merit favourable comparison with the likes of ‘Coad’s Colts’ in the ’50s, the Shamrock Rovers six-in-a-row cup side of the ’60s — in which Richardson himself featured in ’68 and ’69 — and, again, the Hoops team which won four league titles on the bounce in the 1980s.

Other candidates for the pantheon might include the Shelbourne side which defended its league title and enjoyed a celebrated Champions League run in 2004, and Richardson’s own thrilling Cork team which won the league the following year.

However, as Richardson points out, Shels and City subsequently succumbed to the kind of financial meltdown which not only cut short their potential for further success but actually brought both clubs to the brink of extinction. For him, true greatness is all about sustaining success at the highest level.

“This Dundalk team, there’s no doubt it’s hugely talented, but I think if it’s going to be considered one of the great teams of League of Ireland football it has to have three or four years of consistent success,” he says.

“If they win the double — although I’m not convinced they will — they will set themselves on the threshold of becoming one of the great teams. But, even then, they will still have to do more over the next couple of years.

“And the next step may be outside of their control. In that Rovers team of the ’50s, a lot of players turned down big moves to England because of the maximum wage. In the ’60s very few went too – when I went it was a rarity. The same in the ’80s and ’90s. So the biggest test for Dundalk will be people coming knocking on their door.

“I’m sure some of the present players have had their doors knocked on already. It’s far more challenging in the modern era of League of Ireland football to keep a team together because of the attraction of full-time football in England.”

In assembling his team in the first place and then imbuing it with an enlightened philosophy of how the game should be played, Stephen Kenny’s achievements to date are deserving of “real credit”, Richardson believes.

“On two fronts in particular: One, his ability to build a team of players that have improved tremendously. And, two, the freedom he has given them to develop. As a manager I love that — the confidence he has in his players. He encourages them to express themselves and then, more than most managers I know, he allows them to take their development to the next level.”

Richardson also hails the players for buying into the project. The quality of star performers like Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan might be self-evident but the willingness of all on board to go the extra mile has also been a striking feature of the Lilywhites from first game to last.

“Every club has fitness coaches and sports scientists now but they can only do so much,” he says.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the dedication of the players doing what they have to do on a daily basis. And the Dundalk players do this. They’re all quite disciplined about their fitness regime. They obviously have a good fitness coach at the club but the players have followed it through. In fact, without a shadow of doubt, Dundalk are the fittest team I have seen in all my years in League of Ireland football. And in that sense they’re probably better than any League of Ireland side that has come before them. And they deserve huge credit for that.”

And now, after beginning in challenging circumstances for both manager and team just three years ago, a story of shared redemption has led Dundalk to the brink of a famous double.

“I know from personal experience on both sides — in chasing a double and thwarting others in their quest for the double — the great difficulty that doing the double presents,” says Richardson.

But if Dundalk do prevail — would that be another telling marker that they’re on their way to becoming a team for the ages?

“Yes, I would agree 100% with that. This cup final will be a huge test for both managers and both sets of players, over and above getting their hands on the lovely bit of silver. For Cork to win it would mean more recognition for them as a very good side. But for Dundalk it’s about taking another step — a giant step — towards greatness.”

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