Stephen O’Donnell says Dundalk’s current predicament presents his players with an “unbelievable challenge”, but he hopes that their “personality and character” can shine through “when the chips are down”.

Dundalk are rooted to the bottom of the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier Division table with just three points, earned from three draws, after their opening seven games.

They remain three points adrift of near neighbours Drogheda United after a scoreless Louth Derby at Oriel Park on Easter Monday, and now prepare for a trip to third-placed Derry City as their search for a first win of 2024 continues.

Derry, too, have disappointed recently, collecting just a single point from the last nine available, which highlights the competitive nature of the top flight, O’Donnell stating “there’s no other league like it”.

The Dundalk head coach, who oversaw third and fifth-placed finishes in his first two seasons in charge, knows their results this season have not been good enough.

However, he insists their preparation for games will not be influenced by outside voices labelling them relegation candidates, with full focus inside the camp on climbing the league table.

He acknowledged, though, that it is a sizeable challenge for him and many of his young squad who are inexperienced at this level.

“It’s not going to make a difference to how we prepare for games, whether we title it that we’re in a relegation scrap or not,” O’Donnell said. 

“Three points from seven games is obviously not ideal. We’re not happy with that. We know we need to get points on the board, we know we need to start winning matches. That’s the way I’d see it. We’re bottom of the table at this minute in time, and we’re looking to move out of there and move up the table.

“I’m frustrated. I see it as a massive challenge as well. Can we turn it around? I stand by what I said last Friday. Over time, it will become clearer, but I see it as a huge challenge.

“It’s an unbelievable challenge for the group of players as well. For a lot of them, this is their first first-team football and it’s Friday-Monday, pressure games, derbies, a lot at stake.

“For the core of our squad, it’s all new to them as well. It’s great experience for them. We’re where we’re at but I also think we have scope to improve. We have to improve, we know that. No way am I settling for where we’re at, obviously not.

“There’s no other way of describing it – it’s a massive challenge.”

On a possible lack of confidence due to results…
“I thought against Shelbourne, we didn’t play like a team that was lacking confidence in our play, I didn’t think we did against Waterford either.

“In the first half against Drogheda, we played a little bit tetchy, a little bit scratchy, a little bit stiff. In the second half, I thought we played a little bit freer.

“Of course, a win would lift everyone. But I don’t see a team, a squad or a dressing-room that’s down on their knees from a morale point of view.

“You’re not going to get handed a win. You’ve got to earn your right to win games, so we’ll get ready and go up the road on Friday.”

On learning about people in this situation…
“You learn a lot about everyone. That’s what football does. In a normal way of life and normal jobs, you might not get to see what’s underneath the bonnet with a person’s character, but with football, it strips you bare, there’s no hiding place.

“It’s a pressure cooker situation. Everyone’s job, my job, all the players’ jobs are in the public domain, it’s going to be judged. That’s pressure. You see where people are at without a doubt.

“I think that’s the brilliant side of football as well. To achieve, it is all about personality and character, and what you can bring to the table when the chips are down or when you’re under pressure.”

On the Drogheda game…
“It was a bad game all-round quality wise in the first half. I thought we were better in the second half. I thought we forced them into making that challenge (for the red card) in the sense that we had a good foothold in the game.

“You’d like your chances in the last 20-25 minutes when they to go down to ten men, but we just couldn’t capitalise. We got into dangerous areas, but it just wouldn’t fall for us.”

John Mountney returned to the starting XI in the Louth Derby against Drogheda United at Oriel Park. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

On creating chances and striker availability…
“I thought as the second half went on, we posed a threat. Jamie Gullan was playing there on one leg, in fairness to him. He’s not had a training session, his ankle is still quite big, but he threw his body out there.

“We’re short in the front area with Cami Elliott being injured and Ciaran McGuckin came back with a niggle from international duty. He aggravated it a bit when he came on against Shelbourne. Eoin Kenny has been struggling as well with some sort of virus over the last month or so.

“Jamie strapped up and played. I love that in a player. I can’t ask any more from him in that department. Full credit to him because, by right, if we had bodies there on Monday, he wouldn’t have been available.

“When they went down to ten men, I thought we got in enough dangerous areas. We probably didn’t work the ‘keeper enough on the whole.”

On another home clean-sheet…
“I thought the two young players (Mayowa Animasahun & Zak Johnson) were brilliant, a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old, as centre-halves.

“It’s not easy stepping into a derby obviously where we’re at right now in the league table, off the back of Friday which was a quick turnaround for Zak.

“I thought the two of them were exceptional in everything that they had to do. I thought they were really polished in positional play and aggressive when they had to be, winning their headers. They can be really happy with themselves.”

On the defence in general…
“I thought we were very good against Rovers in that department. Galway was a disappointment, Sligo was an abomination in that sense.

“After that, we’ve not been giving up many chances. We’ve played seven games now, we’ve been quite solid in that department in the majority of games.

On Archie Davies’ red card…
“It’s just silly on Archie’s behalf. He’s going to miss the game on Friday now. I can understand the frustration it’s so near the end of the game, it wasn’t a foul, but you can’t react like that especially when you’re on a yellow card already.”

On John Mountney…
“He was very good in his first start in 18 months. Credit to him, after two cruciates, to come back in that condition and to slot in. He gave us that bit of manliness and leadership. He should be delighted with himself. It’s just about building that and layering that up now.”

“He’s our biggest personality. That’s what people sort of don’t see. He’s been here since the get-go, since 2012. He’s just a great example for every player to look at.

“I don’t know is heartache too strong of a word, heartache is like a bereavement or that, but in footballing terms, to do back-to-back cruciates at 29/30, that would end most lads, but he stayed plugging away, when you think of that journey, nine months each, especially the second time you do it, you know the journey you’re going to have to go on to get back to a competitive level.

“But he’s come back – his markers, his speed and everything like that is still what it was pre the first cruciate. He’s a credit and it’s great for him to be back and come back, touch wood, unscathed, and play well.”

On Derry…
“They’re all tough games. You go through the whole card every week, it’s a pick’em with a lot of them. Every game is hard to pick. There’s no other league like it. Last year was pretty similar, and this year every game is literally a cup final.

“It’s whoever takes moments. I don’t think there’s any team creating a plethora of chances. Any game I watch, the first goal is obviously huge in our league. Any game, there’s not much in it – we saw that against Shelbourne last Friday and again against Drogheda.”

On three of the next four games being away from Oriel…
“For anyone, they’re all tough games, home or away. There’s no fixture that I look at that’s especially harder than another, or that’s an easy one. There’s none of them. That’s where it’s at. We treat every game the same. They’re all going to be really tough games.”