2023 Season Review: Dundalk
Team: Dundalk FC
Head Coach: Stephen O’Donnell
Top Scorer: Patrick Hoban (14 league goals)
Stadium: Oriel Park
Highest Attendance: 3,761 (v Shamrock Rovers in March)
Lowest Attendance: 1,846 (v Cork City in September)
Star Player: Archie Davies
Arriving at Dundalk from National League outfit Aldershot Town, the 25-year-old right back was the most consistent operator in the Lilywhites defence last season.
Playing in front of a home crowd which had witnessed the league's most decorated player (Seán Gannon 2014-2020) and the versatile Lewis Macari in 2022, a high bar had been set for the right full position.
Former Brighton Academy prospect Davies didn't disappoint with seven assists (joint second highest in the league) and the second highest average number of progressive runs in the division (Shamrock Rovers’ Neil Farrugia claiming top spot here) earning him a place in the PFAI Team of the Season.
His incredible consistency- starting every match bar the 5-0 victory over St Patrick's Athletic and playing 90 minutes in 33 games (being subbed with less than 15 minutes remaining in the other two) - meant he was one of the first names on Stephen O’Donnell's starting XI every week.
Honourable mentions should also go to Greg Sloggett whose repositioning to centre half during the latter end of the season saw the Meathman add another string to his bow, while Pat Hoban broke Joey Donnelly’s long standing scoring record for the club as he finished second top scorer in the league.
Andy Boyle had a season disrupted by injury but Dundalk remained unbeaten during his last eigh starts for the club (seven wins and a draw), showing how important the 32-year-old remains for the club a decade after his first arrival.
Best Young Player: Ryan O'Kane
Not a tricky one here as O'Kane, who turned 20 during the year, was the only teenager to feature regularly for Dundalk throughout the season - appearing in 34 of the 36 league games and racking up 1,720 minutes. His three goals came in wins over Drogheda United, UCD and Cork City - incidentally John Martin also scored in all three games.
Cootehill youngster Senan Mullen suffered an early season injury which delayed his first team debut - eventually coming in September’s 5-0 victory over Cork City. The Oriel Park faithful will be hoping to see more from the Republic of Ireland Under 19 international in 2024.
To assuage any negative undertones regarding a lack of teenage kicks for the club, it should be recognised that a number of players in their early 20s gained valuable first team experience throughout the season - Hayden Muller (21), Wasiri Williams (22), Yohannes Yli-Kokko (21) and Sam Durrant (21) all played more first team football in 2023 than previously in their career.
Best New Signing: Archie Davies
It would be remiss not to give Davies this award too, given it was his first year at the club.
However, ex-Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday winger Sam Durrant - who arrived during the summer transfer window - showed enough promise to be rewarded with an extended contract while his highlights reel included a mazy dribble and goal against Cork City.
Hayden Muller slotted into a number of defensive positions throughout his first campaign in Louth and acquitted himself well - netting the winner in the FAI Cup against Shamrock Rovers as well as recording 2,451 out of a possible 2,970 league minutes, one of the highest figures posted in the Dundalk squad.
On loan Finnish midfielder Yohannes Yli-Kokko was another who featured regularly throughout the season before returning injured to parent club HJK in advance of the season's end. His all action style brought an energy to the Dundalk attack and his willingness and persistence was regularly appreciated by the home fans throughout his 28 outings.
What we expected they would do:
After narrowly missing out on second place in 2022 - goal difference separating the Lilywhites from Derry City in the runners up spot - our staff writers felt that Stephen O’Donnell's troops would battle it out for the coveted third place and European qualification but ultimately fall narrowly short to St Patrick's Athletic and finish fourth.
What they actually did:
2023 was a strange campaign at Oriel Park. With a host of new arrivals, time was always needed to embed them into the squad.
However, this never happened and the midseason departures of Wasiri Williams and Rayhaan Tulloch coupled with injuries to first teamers Daniel Kelly, Paul Doyle, Andy Boyle, Robbie Benson and mid-season arrival Darren Brownlie meant that the consistency needed for successful campaigns never materialised.
There were significant highs (1-0 win over Shamrock Rovers) and lows (4-0 defeat to Galway United) in both the FAI Cup and league (a 5-0 home win over St Patrick's Athletic was followed a few games later by a 4-0 defeat to Shamrock Rovers at the same venue) while the league’s inconsistency meant European qualification was achievable until the final game of the season.
Off the field, issues around ownership clouded some positive displays and compounded the darkness of defeats - especially towards the latter end of the season when the takeover talk was noisiest.
Ultimately, costly autumn defeats away from home to Shelbourne and St Patrick's Athletic were the lost points which saw the Lilywhites finish in 5th position.
What they need to improve on for next year:
Having already tied down Sam Durrant this off season, with himself and the aforementioned O’Kane alongside the mercurial talent of Daryl Horgan there's an attacking platform to build on. However, with it appearing likely that Pat Hoban will depart the club a new number nine is needed.
If Dundalk are to build on the forward based cornerstones laid this season they will need to eliminate the early concessions which marked their 2023 season.
Even though they were the club who eked out the most points from losing positions, these were often positions they didn't need to find themselves in - memorable Oriel Park victories over Drogheda United (3-1) and Cork City (2-1) saw dominant displays punctuated by defensive errors which were ultimately overcome.
However, this wasn't always the case - defeats in Turner's Cross (1-0) and Dalymount Park (3-2, after battling back to 2-1 having conceded first) are evidence of this.
Furthermore on this point, establishing a consistent defence has been the cornerstone for success over the years and Dundalk need to ensure that the futures of key positions, including goalkeeper and centre half, are tied down early in the off season - easier said than done with questions regarding ownership still at play on the Carrick Road.