Bond on a Mission
Dundalk Youths manager Ciarán Bond is on a mission to deliver a League & Cup double to Oriel Park to make up for last year’s heartbreaking final-day disappointment against Crumlin United. Bond’s side suffered their first defeat of the season in their very last outing last term, a loss which cost them the league crown. However, now, the Youths are back in business, flying high at the top of the DDSL U18 Super League and in the quarter-finals of the Ferrari Cup.
That last-eight tie takes place at Oriel Park on Sunday morning (kick-off 11am) when Ballyfermot United again make the short trip north, after losing 5-1 at the venue in early February. “I know it wasn’t a 5-1 scoreline but I’d definitely like to think that we could advance,” Bond told dundalkfc.com ahead of the big game, “and get into the semi-finals. We’re going for a League & Cup double. The top eight teams are still left in the cup at this stage so it’s obviously going to be difficult, but with a bit of luck there’s no reason why we can’t do it.
“Especially after last year’s disappointment, it would be good to win the league,” he added. “But it’s not even that; the most important thing for us, myself and Martin Connolly, since we got involved was to compete, and I think we’re doing that. We’re going into the season now with the U20s and the A-Championship team, and we’re looking to compete there also. That’s the most important thing. And then getting players through as quickly as possible to the first-team setup, and it’s going well in that regard. We have four players in the first-team panel now. They haven’t broken into the first team and that’s understandable, but if we can get two or three games out of those boys before the end of the season plus the experience that they’re picking up under Ian Foster, it will stand them in good stead for next year.”
The Youths gained another three points last Sunday without even kicking a ball as they were handed a walkover from their game against Saint Patrick’s Athletic. “I was happy with that,” Bond said, “especially with the other results going for us; Saint Kevin’s beating Crumlin 4-2 and Saint Joseph’s only drawing 2-2 with Drogheda. It leaves us five points clear, they both have a game in hand over us, and we still have both of them to play; one home and one away. The ball is back in our court now, firmly. We have eight games left and we’re in a good position. We had a couple of defeats either side of Christmas but we’ve bounced back well, winning three in a row, and hopefully we can continue that form.” Five of the side’s remaining eight games are away from home, including a trip to Crumlin, but Bond has no worries about that. “We won every single game away from home last year,” he said, “and we haven’t lost a game away from home this year. Our away form is actually better than our home form. And that’s got nothing to do with the pitch!”
Star striker Mark Griffin has been out of action since the end of last year due to a stress fracture of a bone in his foot, but he is now close to returning to the fold, which would come as a timely boost both for the 18-year-old and the Youths’ title challenge. “We’d like to think that Mark will be back if not next week the start of the following week,” Bond said. “It will be a big boost for us in the Youths team and obviously he’s going to be back in full-time training with the first team as well.”
Connolly Looking For The Future
Meanwhile, Dundalk FC Youth Development Officer and A-Championship team manager Martin Connolly says it would be a “fantastic achievement” for the club if the Youths team can go on and capture the DDSL U18 Super League. The Youths have been setting the pace for most of the season and are currently level at the top with Saint Kevin’s but have the advantage of two games in hand as well as a better goal difference. Connolly was speaking ahead of the Youths’ Ferrari Cup quarter-final against Ballyfermot United at Oriel Park this Sunday (kick-off 11am) as they take a break from their title tilt.
“I think it would be a fantastic achievement,” Connolly told dundalkfc.com when asked what it would mean to the club to win the league for the very first time in the club’s history. “I think when you look at the League of Ireland at the moment and the size of squads that club’s have, I think our first aim has to be to get as many of these guys as we can through to the first team. I think the only way you can do that is to have them playing at the highest level of football that they have – the DDSL Super League is that standard, and then you take them through the U20s and A-team and so forth. For all the great players that have come through this club, we’ve never won this league, so for us to do it would be a great achievement.
“The only downside at the moment is that they haven’t had a huge amount of games lately, which has affected them,” he added. “But they’ve played a couple of friendlies and a couple of league games, and because we’ve started coaching the A-team now we can nearly have 11-a-side games in training because there’s that many here training. They have been on their toes, plus the inclusion of Johnny Breen, Nathan Murphy, Mark Griffin and John Smyth in the first team has really given them all a real spurt in the arm, because they all see that if they’re good enough and they apply themselves that they can go straight even from the Youths team to the first team.”
Dundalk were handed a 1-0 walkover against Saint Patrick’s Athletic last weekend and Connolly was happy to secure another three points. “I don’t really mind (not playing), because it’s three points in the bag,” he said. “It’s a game less and it’s a game less travelling that you have to do going to Dublin. I don’t really mind once we got the three points, because with the DDSL we’ve been down this road before where we were told we were getting a walkover and we never did. To be fair to Ciarán (Bond), he insisted on the three points being given there and then. We checked the league table on Monday and we had the three points. It was a great weekend for the club in general, with the first team winning and Nathan, Ciarán McGuigan coming on as subs and Johnny Breen on the bench, and then for the two teams that are closest to us in the Youths league losing points. Our neighbours Drogheda done us a great favour by drawing with Saint Joseph’s and then Saint Kevin’s beating Crumlin was another great result.
“It was a great weekend and we didn’t even play,” he continued. “There are eight games left. St. Kevin’s are three points behind us with a game more played, St. Joseph’s and Crumlin are five points behind us with a game in hand but the game in hand is against one and other, so you’d imagine that something has to give there. The downside is that we have three games at home and five away. We still have to go to Crumlin and we have Joseph’s at home. It will be up to the league when those games are played. We were supposed to play Crumlin a few weeks back and it was called off due to snow, and their pitch is all-weather, a poor standard of all-weather. There’s a long way to go, but the boys are playing really well, they’re applying themselves well, they’re training well and they’re excited at the moment. We just hope that we don’t lose the boys that are involved with the first team for too many games. To be fair to the Youths, they have done great for the last two years.
“Obviously, the ambition is to bring as many players from there through to your first team,” he added. “And then when you’re close to winning that league for the first time ever, you’d like to think that you’re going to have your best team available. But if the call is that they have to go to Ian (Foster) then they have to go to him – that’s it.” And Connolly is hopeful that the quartet of youths now in the first-team setup can make the step up when called upon. “I very much hope so,” he said. “We’ve seen Nathan doing it last year for a number of games near the end of the year. Nathan, who has now played two more games for the Irish Schools in the last few weeks, is a regular coming on for the first team and people probably expect to see him and regard him as a first-team player. Johnny Breen has done brilliant; he has really escalated so quickly. He’s doing great. I talk to Ian regularly about him and he’s delighted with the way he trains and the effort he puts in for a young fella – he’s extremely fit.
“I’m disappointed for Mark Griffin,” the former Dundalk goalkeeper said on the Youths team’s star striker who has been out of action since before Christmas with a stress fracture of a bone in his foot. “I thought Mark had a great chance this year with nearly a full year of full-time training with the FÁS course in Cabra. It’s going to be another two weeks before he even starts training. With Ian short a wee bit of firepower, I think Mark could have really got a sniff. But he’s young and hopefully when he does get fit he will get a chance. Regarding John Smyth, the problem is that he hasn’t really been around the first team so far because he’s still at school. When he finishes school, he’ll be in training. He’s a good lad. The one thing about him is that he will give you 150% in every single game he plays. The area that he plays in he could be under pressure because it’s probably Ian’s strongest area, around midfield and on the left. But if we didn’t think that he could help or influence Ian in any way then we wouldn’t have suggested him to Ian. I would hope that he’ll have an important part to play, even with the A-team this year.”
McDonnell to sign
The club were hopeful that Michael Coburn would sign for the A-Championship team but he joined Shelbourne on Thursday. However, Stephen McDonnell will put pen to paper as soon as forms are available. The 18-year-old impressed again in a reserve friendly defeat by Bohemians at Oriel Park on Thursday night, as did his central midfield partner and guest player, Sam Stewart, a brother of ex-Linfield and Derry City star Thomas. Dundalk led at the break thanks to an Eoin Murphy header following a pinpoint cross from Gary Clarke, but Bohs fought back well in the second half and scored two superb goals either side of a number of fine saves from Donal Greene. “We hope to finalise Stephen McDonnell very soon,” Connolly said. “The only problem that we have is that there seems to be a shortage of forms in the FAI to get his name on paper. I would be very much looking forward to working with Stephen. All Stephen wants to do now is play football. I know his father well and I know a lot about Stephen; I would have worked with him in the Emerging Talent programme before he went to Scotland and he’s a cracking lad.
“What I’ve noticed about Stephen since he came back is that he is very withdrawn,” he added. “The problem that comes with young players coming home from the UK is that sort of rejection feeling that they have, and it’s very important that you get them out of that as quickly as possible. I think all Stephen needs to and wants to do is play football, so hopefully we can get him in as quickly as possible. His range of passing and his ability on the ball is second to none. In the friendly against Shelbourne last week, he scored a free-kick from the edge of the box after five minutes – it was a brilliant strike – and he was the best player on the pitch. I wouldn’t have any worries about him playing in this league, but I don’t think that Stephen will figure in the first team for a while. The first thing that he needs to do is get back playing and get used to playing against adults and senior football.” Connolly also feels that the former Quay Celtic youngster will be good enough to return to the UK at some point. “I would think he would be, but I think the next six to eight months will be important to him,” he concluded. “We’ve already seen that if you do well in this league that there are endless possibilities.”
Our build-up to Sunday’s cup match continues on Saturday when we will have views and news from Youths manager, Ciarán Bond.