As a first-night Premier Division fixture, Dundalk versus Shamrock Rovers at Oriel Park on Friday, February 24, won’t be short of heady historical context: The club seeking four titles in a row opening up their bid against the club which achieved that notable distinction in the 1980s.
For Hoops boss Stephen Bradley, the game will be all about the future, not the past.
“I think it’s great we’re playing them so early because they’re the benchmark,” he says.
“They’re at the level we all want to get to. They’ve been the best team for the last three years and they are still the best team, in my opinion. I think we’re close to them. If you look at our squad with the personnel and the characters we have, I don’t think we’re a million miles away, but to say that we will overtake them and win the league next year would be silly. We finished 22 points behind them last year and that’s not good enough. So that needs to be reduced dramatically and we need to be really competitive, and not just fall away.”
Where the new-look Rovers need to improve was somewhat brazenly brought home to the head coach by one of his winter signings, Ryan Connolly, when he joined from Galway United.
“Ryan just tells you what he is thinking, he doesn’t mess about,” says Bradley, smiling.
“We signed him and we were sitting having a cup of tea, and he said he used to love coming to Tallaght. He said, ‘It was easy to play against your midfield, it was easy to play against your team.’
“In the big games last year, the teams we played didn’t fear us. For a player to say that to you, who has played and scored in Tallaght, was an eye-opener, but it confirmed what I thought.”
It also fitted in perfectly with what Bradley and sporting director Stephen McPhail were looking for in their recruitment drive and tallied too with advice that the manager, a former Gunner turned club scout, had been given by Arsene Wenger and Arsenal chief scout Steve Rowley.
Former Rovers boss, now Northern Ireland manager, Michael O’Neill, sang from the same hymn sheet.
“When I spoke to Michael O’Neill and the boss at Arsenal, that was the number one thing they said to me about characters: Take a player with less ability and more character over the others,” reveals Bradley. “I would have spoken to Steve Rowley and a little bit to the manager just for advice at the start, when I was offered the job. I speak to Michael regularly.
“I asked him what he thought when he walked into the Rovers dressing room and why he signed me and why he signed other players, and his big thing was characters that could come here and play. But you know when they’re not in the team that they’re still going to be with you. With me, he knew I wasn’t going to play every game but that I’d do my business right and be good around the dressing room. He said that’s more important than having a good player who is going to whinge and moan every time he’s left out.
“It was good advice and something that stuck in my mind when I was doing my recruiting. If you look, most of the people that we’ve signed have been captains in other clubs.”
Among his new recruits, Bradley sounds like he has particularly high hopes for 18-year-old striker Michael O’Connor who, along with Ronan Finn (if fit) and Darren Meenan, will be in the running to start against their former club, Dundalk, on Friday week.
“The way Mikey has come in, he is a real top player,” says Bradley. “If he keeps going the way he is going, we’ll do well to hold onto him. He is flying at the moment. Ability-wise he is as good as anything in the league, he really is.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved