Manager: Stephen Kenny
Top Scorer: Patrick Hoban (32 goals in all competitions)
Stadium: Oriel Park
Highest Attendance: 4,117 (vs. Cork City, June 29th)
Lowest Attendance: 1,843 (vs. Limerick, February 27th)
Star Player: Chris Shields
It’s fair to say that the majority of this Dundalk team would be worthy recipients of their player of the year award. One could make particularly strong arguments for either Michael Duffy, for his 25 assists, or Patrick Hoban, who smashed a club record for league goals in a single season. That said, we have selected Chris Shields as the Lilywhites’ most influential player of the 2018 campaign.
One of just two players that remains from the pre-Stephen Kenny era, Shields has, in the absence of Stephen O’Donnell, morphed into what is probably the most complete midfielder in the country throughout the past 12 months. Shields had built up a reputation over the last number of years for being a combative midfield enforcer that put his head where most wouldn’t even dare put their feet.
While that remains an integral part of his game, the 27-year-old Clondalkin native has added so much more this term. His passing range has been quite immaculate all year round and he’s even chipped in with some crucial goals, most notably in the 1-0 win over Cork City at Turners Cross in September. He’s also been, along with both Duffy and Hoban, nominated for PFAI Player of the Year.
Best Young Player: Jamie McGrath
Nominated for the PFAI Young Player of the Year award is Republic of Ireland U21 international Jamie McGrath. The honour of Dundalk’s best young player this season was a straight toss-up between McGrath and Daniel Cleary, who was part of a defence that was breached just 20 times in 36 league matches. We’ve decided to go with the former on the basis of more games played.
McGrath had spent much of season in the number ten role behind Hoban, often keeping both Krisztian Adorjan and Ronan Murray out of the team. McGrath, however, has proven himself to be more than capable out on the right flank in recent months to accommodate Patrick McEleney, who returned from a short stint in English football with Oldham Athletic in the summer transfer window.
A raw talent that had burst onto the scene with St Patrick’s Athletic three years ago, McGrath was signed by Dundalk ahead of the 2017 season. Since then, the 22-year-old has reached peak physical condition, adding to the undoubted technical ability that he had already possessed. Dundalk will have a battle on their hands to keep the Athboy native at Oriel Park should he continue to push on.
Best New Signing: Patrick Hoban
Having returned to Dundalk following what were three frustrating years in English football, many questioned whether or not Hoban maintained the same hunger which earned him that cross-channel move at the end of 2014. However, the Loughrea native has been on fire this year and it’s almost as though he’s come back with a point to prove, more so to himself rather than anyone else.
That spell in England – which saw him represent Oxford United, Stevenage, Grimsby Town and Mansfield Town – couldn’t have been all that bad though, because the 27-year-old has returned twice the player he ever was, recently becoming the first player to hit 29 goals in a single League of Ireland season since the great Brendan Bradley did the very same for Finn Harps back in 1975/76.
This tally, coupled with the 34 goals he scored throughout his first spell at Dundalk, means that Hoban is now just six behind the club’s all-time league record which is held by Joey Donnelly, who scored 69 times between 1929 and 1943. Hoban is poised to break that record next year and it really shouldn’t be too long before himself and Duffy are both included in the Republic of Ireland squad.
What we expected they would do:
At the start of the year, the majority of Extratime.ie reporters predicted that Dundalk would again finish as runners-up, tipping Cork City to win the SSE Airtricity League for the second year running.
What they actually did:
Following what was a relatively slow start to the league campaign, Dundalk went on to have an exhilarating season which included a 13-match winning streak between May and August. That run ultimately spearheaded the record-breaking Lilywhites to a fourth title in five years under Kenny, scoring more goals and points than any other team in League of Ireland history in the process.
As well as lifting the FAI Cup, the double-winners ended up finishing ten points ahead of second-placed Cork in the league and few would have predicted that after scoreless draws in their opening two matches. It’s testament to Kenny that, despite continuously losing key players over the last number of years, this has been the most comprehensive of his four title wins as Dundalk manager.
What they need to improve on for next year:
Dundalk enjoyed a pretty much flawless season on the domestic front, so there’s very little improvements to be made there. The Lilywhites will be keen to have an extended run in Europe next year though, and starting as a seeded team in the Champions League next season, as opposed to the Europa League, could represent a much smoother path for Dundalk to make considerable progress.