Stephen O’Donnell was full of praise for the performances of Zak Johnson and Sam Durrant against Waterford, the manager believing it is a sign of battle commencing in the Dundalk squad.

Johnson, on loan from Sunderland, made his club debut at the heart of the defence, coming in for Andy Boyle, who was unavailable through injury. And the 18-year-old impressed as Dundalk secured their first clean-sheet of the season in the 0-0 draw.

At the other end, Durrant was unlucky not to give the Lilywhites their opening victory, twice going close in an energetic display, as he excited the Oriel Park crowd.

It was the 22-year-old winger’s first start since early October and only for a powerful hand from Waterford stopper Sam Sargeant, he would have marked it with a goal.

The pair were the two changes that O’Donnell made to the team that lost 1-0 to Saint Patrick’s Athletic, and he feels their strong showings are early evidence of healthy competition, which he wants to see more of.

“I thought Sam was a threat. You were excited any time he got on it in the attacking third,” O’Donnell told the media afterwards.

23 February 2024; Sam Durrant of Dundalk during the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier Division match between Dundalk and Galway United at Oriel Park in Dundalk, Louth. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

“Sam missed a bit of pre-season, it took him a while to get going but he has trained really well. I thought since the start of the season, the cameos he has come on for, he’s looked sharp.

“He looked sharp last week, he nearly scored a curler against St Pat’s. He deserved a start the way he’s training, and he backed that up – he went and performed like that from the start.

“That’s what we want, that’s what we’re trying to create. When you have the jersey, you give everything to hold onto it, it’s an honour to play for it, and then if you’re not in the team, you train like a demon to get your opportunity to come on, then you get that jersey.

“That’s where the battle, that’s where the competition amongst the players commences. When you breed that culture, it can be really, really driven.”

15 March 2024; Connor Parsons of Waterford in action against Zak Johnson of Dundalk during the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier Division match between Dundalk and Waterford at Oriel Park in Dundalk, Louth. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

On the performance of Zak Johnson…

“The defence did well and kept a clean-sheet. Obviously, Zak making his debut – for a young boy, he’s a real sort of commanding presence. Even the way he trains, he’s vocal and aggressive. I thought he was really good. He deserved his opportunity, it was just a case of when we’d give it to him.

“That’s the way he’s trained and that’s the way he’s gone about his business every day. He’s one of those that really wants it, really wants to go to as high a level as he can. He really, really wants to challenge himself and see where the journey takes him. At 18, that’s really good to see.

“I’m happy with the clean-sheet. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t finish it off. Their ‘keeper made a few really good saves. Even not getting to the point of opportunities, I thought we were in really good positions, and we didn’t capitalise – something definitely for us to work on.

“On chances, on efforts, on dangerous moments, I thought we should have won the game. But there were a lot of decent individual performances and something to build on.”

15 March 2024; Archie Davies of Dundalk reacts after a missed chance during the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier Division match between Dundalk and Waterford at Oriel Park in Dundalk, Louth. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

On creating opportunities…

“I thought we got into good areas and maybe hadn’t the final ball etc. to create really good chances. We can be cleaner in that regard, because I thought it was on to create a lot of gilt-edged chances once we broke their initial press.

“The players are human. The confidence levels of when you’re assertive, you’re on a roll and have a few goals under your belt, you’re not thinking as much.

“We’ve all been there where you’re thinking that little bit too hard. When you’re on autopilot, and playing with real, real confidence, you’re not. That will come, hopefully, but I was happy with the areas we got into.”

15 March 2024; Dundalk head coach Stephen O’Donnell speaks to referee Kevin O’Sullivan after the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier Division match between Dundalk and Waterford at Oriel Park in Dundalk, Louth. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

On the penalty decision…

“I thought it looked like a penalty in real-time. I haven’t seen a replay. It had all the hallmarks of a penalty with Cami (Elliott) coming from the wrong side of the defender and getting a nick. I’d have to see it back, but I thought from the reaction of everyone, everyone was in a similar boat.”

On his words with the referee at the final whistle…

“I just said I don’t know how he took simulation out of that action in regards booking Cami for a dive. That was pretty much it – nothing more than that.”

On the team’s position after five games…

“Obviously, we would be disappointed with where we’re at ahead of this little break. There’s a lot for us to improve. It’s definitely not a mentality of we drew and we’re quite content. It’s the opposite. We want to get to a place where if we don’t win, especially here, it’s real disappointment.”

On the Leinster Senior Cup quarter-final against St Mochta’s and a friendly next week…

“Players will be getting 90s in both, so it’s a good opportunity again to stake a claim and put yourself at the forefront of my mind. You’re going to have to earn your right to play here. That’s the mentality I want.

“We have opportunities for lads to get full 90s under their belts in preparation for Shelbourne the following week.”

Meanwhile, Ciaran McGuckin – on loan from Rotherham United – will join up with the Northern Ireland U21 squad for their away double header.

First up is a friendly against Czechia next Thursday before a 2025 UEFA European U21 Championship qualifier in Serbia the following Tuesday.