By Ronan Murphy
Just 14 months ago Dundalk were a club in crisis. Manager Sean McCaffrey was worried that the club may not last until the end of the season, after being forced to slash their wage budget in half from around €5,000 a week. A week later, he was sacked with the club languishing in 10th position. Interim manager Darius Kierans steadied the ship somewhat, but the Lilywhites only evaded relegation by winning a playoff against Waterford United.
Friday evening's trip to Richmond Park to take on St Patrick's Athletic finds the Louth club in a very different position from a year earlier. Former Derry City and Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Kenny took charge at the start of the season, and has transformed the club into genuine title contenders - a win over the Saints will see them move three points clear at the summit of the table.
Speaking to the Dundalk Democrat before his dismissal, McCaffrey spoke of the difficulties he found himself under. "It's a chicken and egg situation," McCaffrey revealed. "The club hasn't won a trophy in 10 years yet they expect us to come in and be top of the league with a crowd of teenagers.
"You're not going to win an awful lot with a young squad like we have; what you're trying to do is establish a style of football, stay up, keep it solid and try to add to it next year."
However, Kenny has done so much more than McCaffrey envisaged since taking the reins at Oriel Park. Working on a limited budget, he has added talented young players to an already youthful squad, and shaped them into one of the most exciting units in Irish football.
Last season, Kenny was dismissed after falling below expectations at Shamrock Rovers, but this year, he has exceeded all of them at Dundalk. The first meeting of the two sides ended in a scoreless draw, while a second clash at Tallaght Stadium saw the Hoops run out narrow 1-0 victors. However, Kenny finally got the better of his former employers in August as Dundalk recorded a 3-1 victory thanks to two goals from top scorer Pat Hoban.
Hoban was an unheralded signing for Lilywhites when Kenny drafted him in from First Division side Mervue United at the start of the season. Now he has 12 goals in the league, all from open play. Hoban has much in common with many League of Ireland players, having moved to England to chase his footballing dream, before returning home after failing to breakthrough.
The 22-year-old was on the books of Bristol City for a year, while teammate Richie Towell was a Celtic academy player who now finds himself back in Ireland despite a successful loan spell at Hibernian. While the money in Britain is much better than in the League of Ireland, the standard of football is still high - with local rivals Drogheda United having held Malmo scoreless at home. By comparison, Towell's former club Hibs were defeated 7-0 by the Swedes when they visited Easter Road.
A win over St Patrick's Athletic on Friday evening could propel Dundalk to a first league title since 1995, but like most teams who perform above expectations, they may see all their best players leave at the end of the season in search of a bigger payday. Kenny's old club Shamrock Rovers splashed the cash by bringing in Libyan international Eamon Zayed as well as signing Richie Ryan from Dundee United, and always look to bring the biggest domestic stars to Dublin.
However, if the Lilywhites can continue their current form, which has seen them rack up eight successive victories, they will have definitely put the financial worries of a year ago well behind them. They may no longer be the crowd of teenagers that McCaffrey spoke of, but with their on-field performances, Dundalk are drawing crowds of teenagers to Oriel Park week after week.