Dundalk FC U19 manager and Youth Development Officer Martin Connolly says that his side’s success over Shamrock Rovers in the Enda McGuill Memorial Cup quarter-finals at the weekend was an “outstanding victory for this club”.
The young Lilywhites have enjoyed a fine season in FAI National U19 League Northern Division and are sitting just behind Finn Harps with four games to go.
But they were faced with their toughest task yet on Sunday when they took on Rovers, who are currently chasing Cork City in the Elite Division, at Sacred Heart’s ground in Tallaght.
Dundalk came through in fantastic style as Chris Reilly’s magnificent strike in the dying seconds of extra-time saw them clinch a semi-final spot against Bohemians, after Bob McKenna’s two penalties in normal time had been cancelled out.
That goal ended Rovers’ nine-match unbeaten run while extending Dundalk’s to seven games, with Connolly and assistant manager Mick Neville unable to contain themselves at the final whistle.
“It was a massive win,” Connolly told dundalkfc.com.
“Bearing in mind we’re working off a squad of 18 or 19 players, and we had to request to get the Youths team game off on Sunday to enable us to have a full squad.
“From the previous week, Glen Trainor and Garreth Brady were injured. We had Peter Thomas back and Kevin Loughran started, having played his first full game for the Youths the week before.
“Apart from that, Shamrock Rovers are without doubt the biggest club in this country, and it’s no different when you go down to U19 level. They have the pick of the majority of players in Dublin.
“We have put together a team in a couple of months, and it’s an absolutely outstanding victory for this club.
“You’re playing Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght, it’s a cup match and they’re the red-hot favourites. You know that you’re going to be up against it and you know that you’re going to have to soak up pressure at stages.
“You’ve converted two penalties and then they get a penalty. There were 20 minutes left in normal time and you know that it’s going to be backs-to-the-wall stuff.
“But the boys responded outstandingly.
“Craig Hanlon, who has made a few errors during the season but has been brilliant for the last couple of weeks, really stood up to the test. Peter Thomas made his first-team debut last week and he was at a different level on Sunday as a centre-half.
“I could talk all day about all the boys – they really stood up to the test.
“Anyone who was at the game that seen the camaraderie and the bonding between the players – some who only met each other six months ago – would say these guys really want to play for Dundalk Football Club.”
Asked if he really believed beforehand that Dundalk could overcome Rovers, Martin added: “Mick went to watch them the week before and he was confident that we could have a go at them.
“When Mick tells you that, you sit up and take notice.
“To be fair to all our boys, they went out with a really positive attitude. You could sense in the dressing room before the game that they were really up for it.
“Some of it wasn’t pretty football and some of it was real cup tie football, where it was backs-to-the-wall stuff.
“Cian Byrne twice in the game threw his body on the line in the penalty box and blocked the ball with his chest. It was outstanding stuff.
“We believed that we could beat them.”
In the end, Dundalk were spared the torture of a penalty shootout, for which Connolly had prepared.
“I had my list of penalty takers written out,” the 43-year-old said.
“After the game, I forgot to say it to the boys but I text them last night to see if they would have taken one.
“I know it’s easy after the event but every one of them said they would have taken one.
“Bob wanted it to go to penalties because he wanted another hat-trick! But I don’t know if the others were really that keen.
“Craig was playing well, and the five players I picked I knew were confident guys and they wouldn’t have had a problem taking a penalty.”
Connolly, though, is aware that his side must beat Bohemians in the last four to make the victory worthwhile.
“Amid the celebrations, you still have to keep a calm head,” he said.
“What can happen is you beat Shamrock Rovers and that’s it – that’s your cup final.
“What you’re hoping now is that we can use it as a springboard. It’s another massive game in the semi-final against Bohemians, who are another good side.
“But we have no fear of them. If there was a fear, it was stepping into the unknown, if you like, against Shamrock Rovers because at the moment they’re the second best team in the country at this age group.
“Judging by the performance we got from our lads, these players won’t fear anybody.
“Also, we’re still in contention for the league, so we don’t want to lose sight of that either.
“Hopefully, the boys learn. We’re carrying a lot of injuries, but we’ll give them time to heal and we’ll move on to the next one.”
Dundalk are not back in action until Saturday week when they host Monaghan United, where they will continue their bid for the league.
And Connolly knows their cup win will give his players even more confidence.
“Absolutely. These are fellas that, before we took them, a lot of Dublin clubs wouldn’t have looked at,” he said.
“We’re lucky enough to have got them. But they have proved that they’re good enough for any club, not just us.
“We consider ourselves lucky to have them at this football club.
“You also have to remember that they’re not all guys who have come to us. From last year’s Youths team, Cian Byrne, Karl Martin and Mark Leavy are with us. Locally, we have Ben McLaughlin, Conor McDonald, Kurt Murphy, Michael Osobe – we didn’t go out and bring in 20 new players.
“We took in players because we felt they were a certain quality that would add to the team and add to the club long-term.
“I think that’s what has happened.
“We can’t take our eye off the ball in regards to the league. We have Monaghan on Saturday week and everyone associated with this club knows how difficult we find it to beat Monaghan, at any level.
“Monaghan would see themselves as a banana skin for us to stop us in our tracks.”
The game against Monaghan is set for Oriel Park on Saturday 10 March at 2pm.