Stephen O’Donnell: Waterford United could break New Firm’s stranglehold

Dundalk skipper Stephen O’Donnell doesn’t miss a beat when asked to nominate a dark horse contender for the new SSE Airtricity Premier Division season which kicks off tomorrow night.

Stephen O’Donnell: Waterford United could break New Firm’s stranglehold

And his choice might come as a surprise to many.

“Waterford,” he says without any hesitation, bucking the traditional consensus that promotion to the top-flight tends to bring rather more in the way of challenges than rewards.

“(Izzy) Akinade is a big signing, always a real handful. (Bastien) Hery from Limerick is a real good player. They’ve signed a couple of good foreign boys as well.

“In this league, if you add four or five players of real quality, it’s not such a huge, massive step from the top of the First Division to the top of the Premier Division. I mean, they were a Premier Division team in disguise in the First Division last year and now they’ve added to that so, yes, I think Waterford will be strong.”

Midfielder O’Donnell has been at the heart of the great Dundalk-Cork City rivalry which has dominated the domestic game for the last four years but in 2018 he doesn’t expect the top two to have it all their own way.

“I probably would have felt it was a two-horse race over the last few seasons when I would have seen our main threat as Cork but this year it’s going to be a very competitive league,” he says.

“You have Rovers there, you’ll have Pats, Sligo seem to have signed well. Waterford, as I’ve said.

“The gap has definitely closed between ourselves and Cork, there’s no doubt about that, but overall I think the league is going to be very tight this year. With 10 teams rather than 12, there’s more quality players crammed into those teams.

“And because you’re playing each other four times, it’s going to be a war of attrition, much more competitive, and I think there’s going to be points dropped by everybody.”

O’Donnell also believes that, in a bid to keep up with Irish football’s ‘New Firm’, other clubs have had no option but to raise their own standards, on and off the pitch.

“Even just talking about pre-season, the days of coming back into it after not doing a tap in the off-season are gone,” he says.

“You have to come back into pre-season at a good level. Athletically, fitness-wise, the league has gone up. I think at Dundalk we got a step or two ahead of the rest with that one. It hadn’t been that big in the League of Ireland. But we put a lot of emphasis on that and it proved to be one of our main assets in the first year or two. I think Cork set out to catch up with us fitness-wise and have come up to that level. Other teams have as well.

“When you see our teams playing in Europe now, fitness wouldn’t be the main issue. It’s not like Irish teams are dying on their feet in the last 20 minutes playing against better opposition.” Overall, the experienced Lilywhites skipper reckons the league is in a pretty healthy state.

“There’s always been a lot of good players in the league but I think the clubs are more sure-footed now than they have been,” he says. “There’s no real talk of clubs being in crisis or not being able to pay wages — fingers crossed (smiles).

“Hopefully there are no controversies this year and everyone is talking about the good things that happen on the pitch rather than off it because there is a good brand there to promote.” His own club has been making the big headlines off the pitch in the close season, with the takeover at Oriel Park by US investors.

“Behind the scenes, there’s stuff going on to try to improve all aspects of the club and make it a real attractive club to sign for and make Oriel an attractive place to go and watch matches,” he says. “It does give security in people’s minds around the club that’s it’s on a solid financial footing and that it can put down markers now for the long-term future of Dundalk.

“They’ve invested with the target of trying to get regular European football and hopefully the lads can help them achieve that. But, it’s like anything, if we can’t give it to them, you’ll be shipped out and they’ll get people in who can (laughs).

“But it hasn’t really affected the players at all, in the sense that our job is still to go out and get three points on a Friday.” To that extent, it’s the same as it ever was under Stephen Kenny, even if this will be the first season in five which will see Dundalk kicking off the new campaign away not as reigning champions.

“I think we’ve always had a good mentality in the sense that every time we come back from pre-season, our aim has been to win the league,” O’Donnell says.

“Last year we probably weren’t as fresh coming back with the long season we had the year before, whereas this year I think we’re re-energised. With the new faces coming in, I think squad-wise we’ll be stronger this year. But you can’t keep talking about it, it’s up to us to go and prove it.”

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