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Sunday 26 March 2017

O'Donnell - Dundalk braced for toughest defence yet

Dundalk’s Stephen O’Donnell. Pic: Sportsfile
Dundalk’s Stephen O’Donnell. Pic: Sportsfile

A batch of clubs are intent taking the title of Champions of Ireland away from Dundalk in 2017 and prevent a four-in-a-row for the men from Oriel Park.

But Dundalk midfielder Stephen O'Donnell, already with an impressive tally of five league medals on his CV, expects challenges to come from all areas of the country in the coming season, making it even more difficult for Stephen Kenny's side to retain the title.

While Cork City have pushed Dundalk close in the last two seasons, no one else really put it up to the Co Louth club as there were gaps of 15 points (2016) and 13 points (2015) between Dundalk and the third-placed side in the last two campaigns.

Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley has already admitted that cutting back the 22-point gap between the Hoops and Dundalk from last season is a key aim but with finance and fresh faces in place at clubs like Rovers, Bray and St Pat's, O'Donnell is ready for a tough season where points will be scrapped for to avoid relegation.

"It's going to be the most competitive league of the last few years, with three going down in a 12-team league, I don't see any easy games," O'Donnell told The Herald.

"The so-called weaker teams have strengthened well, so a lot of points will be dropped.

"I see it being very tough, you won't have teams meandering through the last few weeks of the season as they are out of contention for the league but safe from relegation, everyone will be competitive.

Threats

"It should make for a good league but points will be dropped.

"Cork and Rovers will be the big threats. Cork have a similar to squad to last year, Rovers have a lot of new faces. Bray and Pats will be strong, I see Limerick, Derry and Sligo being competitive, Drogheda will be hard to beat in our derby matches, and Finn Harps are much improved on last year.

"Every side will be tough, but Cork and Rovers are the big threats."

It's an annoyance for the Dundalk camp that each season of late the quality of their squad in the wake of player exits, and the players' desire to keep winning, has been questioned. Veteran O'Donnell (31) is not too hung up on the hunger game, though.

"You won't know about hunger until later on in the season when you are in a sticky situation, when you are tested your hunger shows through," admits O'Donnell, previously a league winner with Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers.

"I don't see it being an issue for us as we don't really talk about this 'hunger' thing as a group, it's just a case of playing well enough yourself to stay in the team, we focus on the Friday nights, one game at a time, we don't sit down and ask each other if we are hungry enough to go again."

So how will the champions fare?

"There has been a big turnover of players this season more than other years, we lost a few and signed a lot of new players. Squad-wise I feel we are stronger than last season," he added.

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