The build-up to the 2023 SSE Airtricity League of Ireland campaign gathered pace this week as the Dundalk squad returned for pre-season training.

We sat down with Lilywhites head coach Stephen O’Donnell on Tuesday afternoon for an update on how things are going.

DFC: Stephen, the fixtures were announced before Christmas with UCD the visitors at Oriel Park on the opening night…
SOD: Yeah. It seems a little bit away at the minute but it won’t be long until we’re here talking about the lead-up to the game. First and foremost, it’s great to have a home game to start off with. The atmosphere at Oriel Park will be brilliant on the first night. UCD did really well in the playoff to beat Waterford and stay up. They’ve lost a few players during the off-season but whenever you think UCD will be a bit weaker, they always seem to produce a few diamonds. We dropped five points against them last season and we’re well aware they have players who can do damage but it’s great to have that first game and a marker to look forward to. We can’t wait for it but there’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before that.

DFC: The players were back on Monday. How has it gone over the last couple of days?
SOD: It’s been a little bit different this year because the players were in over the off-season in blocks. It’s not like the way it used to be in that the first day of pre-season was the first time you’d see lads in six or seven weeks. We’ve all had regular contact with each other through November and December so it was just a continuation of that. Obviously, we’re back properly now and there are no breaks in between. It’s been very good, the application has been great, and all of the players are on the right path. The ones that had injuries and niggles carried over from last season are doing well with their rehab and the ones that were on the pitch have been working very well.

DFC: Are you expecting any of the injured lads to miss the start of the season?
SOD: No, all things going smoothly, everyone should be good to go. Over the course of pre-season, we will get more and more bodies back and we’ll obviously add a few additions.

DFC: You mention new additions. Can you understand the fans getting a little bit anxious because we haven’t added any new players thus far?
SOD: Obviously, in an ideal world we’d like to have bodies in for the first day of pre-season but am I willing to sacrifice quality in order for that to happen? No.
We could have had bodies in by now, without a shadow of a doubt, but would they be players who I believe can improve us and take us on this season? Again, the answer is no.
Things can take time. It’s a tricky enough market we’re in but we just have to be patient. There are a lot of people doing everything they can behind the scenes to make things happen but I’m not willing to shoot the gun too early and be very unsure about a player just for the sake of getting a body in. That’s where we’re at. We’re trying very hard and hopefully, we’ll have lots of news to announce in the coming days and weeks.

DFC: It’s been relatively quiet around the league as a whole over the off-season…
SOD: Yeah, I think that’s a reflection of where the league is at. Clubs eye the League of Ireland as a good market now so good players with decent age profiles are being snapped up. That leaves the pool of talent smaller.
You also have a couple of squads that are well set, they might only be making one or two additions every off-season. For the rest of us, there might be a big turnover at times. We’re trying to get to a level where we are stable again, where we can tie down everybody we want to tie down and only have to make the odd addition or two. I think this is the natural follow-on from last year when we had such a big turnover of players and so many loans. Logically, it’s going to take more than one or two windows before you have a settled squad of 17 or 18 players who are under long contracts and you build from there. That takes time.
What we shouldn’t forget is that we already have a very good spine and core of first-team players at the club. We’re in a really healthy position in that department. I’m well aware that numerically, and from a quality point of view, we do need to add to the group, but I’m delighted with the calibre and the standard of players we have here. It’s just about adding to that now. I’m like the supporters, I’ve got itchy feet myself to get bodies in the building because it brings a bit of bounce and freshness to the squad whenever you sign new players. Everybody is eager to see what they are like and it adds to the group. We have a really good group, full of character, personality and good people and that’s crucial too. We want to bring in the right calibre of people, first and foremost.

DFC: Finally, in terms of pre-season friendlies, how many are you hoping to play before that game with UCD?
SOD: We’ll have five. The Jim Malone Cup is due to take place two weeks before the season starts, as opposed to the week before. Drogheda United requested that and I had no issue with that. The venue is still a bit open but because the game in 2022 took place at Oriel, I’d assume it will be at Head In The Game Park this year. We have four other games in and around that which will be announced soon.