Dundalk FC U19 manager Martin Connolly was “overjoyed” and “as proud as punch” after he watched his players secure a place in the Enda McGuill U19 Memorial Cup final thanks to a 1-0 win over Bohemians at Dalymount Park on Tuesday night.
The young Lilywhites survived a huge scare in the first half as a Bohemians corner appeared to be bundled over the line, but the officials failed to see it, with the visitors going on to seal a narrow victory thanks to Karl Martin’s superb 63rd-minute strike.
In the end, it could have been much more comfortable for Connolly’s side, as they hit the post both before and after Martin’s strike, while substitute Kurt Murphy saw a late shot produce a good save from Greg Murray.
And afterwards, the former Dundalk goalkeeper could not hide his delight, as he spoke glowingly of his players and their achievement.
“I’m overjoyed. It’s a tremendous achievement for the club,” Connolly told dundalkfc.com.
“It’s a tremendous achievement by the group of players that we’ve put together over the last few months.
“I’m delighted for the staff; Mick Neville, Jason McConville and Des Weir, who has put a lifetime into youth football in Dundalk.
“It’s just a terrific achievement, and I’m as proud as punch at the moment.”
Asked if at the start of the season he really believed they could make it all the way to the decider of the National Cup, Martin stated: “We put this team together from scratch and then you’re looking at it as the league goes on, and you say it’s not a bad team.
“We started off well, we got a few wins, and then players were getting recognised with the first team and things like that.
“When this cup competition came about, we felt if the draw was kind to us then we had a chance.
“But we have played two of the best teams from Dublin away from home and we’ve beaten them, and I think that’s a tremendous achievement on its own.”
Dundalk, having received a bye in the opening round, defeated Longford Town 7-1 in the last 16 before beating Shamrock Rovers 3-2 in the quarter-finals.
And with Bohemians now another scalp on their list, Connolly has no fear of either Cork City or Waterford United, who meet in the second semi-final on Wednesday night.
“Cork are winning the Elite Division of the league,” he said, “Shamrock Rovers are second, Waterford third and Bohemians fourth.
“But we’re in the final, we’ll go and enjoy it and we’ll do our best to try to win it.
“I think anybody that was at the game would have to say that we deserved to win it. We hit the post twice.
“We knew going out that Bohs’ strong point was from set-pieces and they would be dangerous from that. They’re a physically big team. I think they threatened us once.
“We had a goalkeeper (Finian Farrelly) making his debut for the club and he was outstanding. Ben McLaughlin, who has played the last three games for the first team at right-back, played left-back and did a very good job.
“Bob McKenna has been suffering with a viral infection for the last three weeks. He played the 90 minutes and he was tremendous.
“Everyone rolled their sleeves up and worked tirelessly for the 90 minutes, and got their rewards.
“It was a great strike from Karl Martin. Karl has played right-back, left-back, right and left side of midfield, and central midfield tonight.
“I’m delighted for him because if he’s had a bad game I’d be the first one to tell him, but I thought he was tremendous again tonight.”
Dundalk challenged for the Northern Division of the U19 League throughout the season but ultimately fell short, with Finn Harps now within touching distance of securing the title.
But for Connolly, he admitted: “I think the Cup is the big thing because it’s a national competition. All the big guns are in it.
“No disrespect to the Northern Division – we have enjoyed playing in it this year – but the better teams were ourselves, Finn Harps and Derry City.
“Also, the fact that the Cup is named after Enda McGuill is a big thing for our club, and we’re delighted to be in the final and representing the McGuill family.”
Dundalk now have two finals to look forward to, after the U18s secured a place in the Ferrari Cup (League Cup) decider on Sunday, while they also have a Leinster Youth Cup semi-final to look forward to on Sunday week, 15 April.
And Connolly, who is also Youth Development Officer at Oriel Park, is understandably delighted with how the season is going.
“People would be very quick to tell us even our first team would have a lot of younger players, but that’s what we have now and we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet,” he said.
“We have brought in a tremendous man in Mick Neville, who has helped us to be able to attract some players from outside the area – among them Chris Reilly, Bob McKenna and Peter Thomas.
“It seems to be working, and we’re going in the right direction.”
Connolly went on to further praise Mick Neville, a winner of six leagues and seven FAI Cups in his time as a player.
“Forget about me,” Martin said. “I’m playing as part of a team from the coaching side of things.
“All I do is learn from Mick Neville because he has got so much knowledge and so much expertise.
“On top of that, he is a gentleman. We have become really good friends, and it’s an experience to work alongside him.”
The final is set for Sunday 6 May, and with two league games left in between, Connolly will soon plan out how he will approach the final.
“With the geographical spread of our players, we don’t get them in all the time for training,” he said.
“Sometimes, the best thing for them is to play, but we’ll have a look at it, we’ll see the time span between the games and the final, and we’ll see what the best thing we can do with them is.
“We also have a couple of players still involved with the Youths team, and, to be fair to them, they have got a massive cup semi-final coming up soon.
“We don’t want to overwork the players either.”
Connolly concluded by thanking everyone who has been ringing him and sending him text messages congratulating him on the win, with the manager stating “it’s a team effort and I’m just delighted for Dundalk Football Club that we’re in the final”.
Everyone at Dundalk FC would like to congratulate Martin, his management team and players on a magnificent achievement.
Photographs thanks to www.sportsfile.com.