THIS BANK HOLIDAY weekend, the Premier Division’s top two teams go head-to-head – not once, but twice.
With just a single point separating them, leaders Sligo Rovers host second-placed Drogheda United tomorrow evening and a win for this season’s surprise package would see them overtake the Bit O’Red at the league’s summit.
Then, barely 43 hours later, the sides meet again at Hunky Dorys Park in an EA Sports Cup semi-final.
“It adds something different having to play them twice in such a shot space of time,” Drogheda’s Declan ‘Fabio’ O’Brien told TheScore yesterday. “There’s not enough recovery time in between and it’s a bit of a shambles.
“The second game will suit us as we don’t have to do the travelling.”
The Louth club have been one of the success stories in the Airtricity League this season. Not much was made of their their title chances when the campaign kicked off back in March and, in an interview last week, manager Mick Cooke admitted that his aim was a mid-table finish.
However, with 18 games played, they find themselves in an pretty favourable position.
“We’ve punched above our weight,” says O’Brien. “No one expected us to do what we’ve done at the start of the season. I thought we could probably hit a top four spot and we’re looking good to qualify for Europe at the moment.
When I saw the group that Mick had assembled, I thought we might get a top four. We needed to strengthen in July and we probably did the best business out of everyone.
“There’s a lot of quality in squad. Winning six on the bounce is a great achievement and I don’t think it has been done in the last couple of years. It is no fluke, it’s done to hard work.”
While they have played as a unit without any star players, O’Brien singles out a couple of team-mates whom he feels have excelled.
“Gavin Brennan has been awesome. If you seen him against Derry and Shelbourne, he’s one of the best players in the league. Then Derek Prendergast and Alan McNally have been class at the back. There’s still a long to go and nothing has been won. though.”
At the start of the year, the 32-year-old striker returned to the club he spent six years with, winning a league title, FAI Cup and Setanta Cup, before departing for rivals Dundalk in 2009.
After stints with St Patrick’s Athletic, Valletta of Malta, Athlone Town and Monaghan United, the Dubliner was enticed back by the current managerial team and has repaid them with 11 goals. He also scored his 100th League of Ireland goal in May.
“I don’t know if I would have (rejoined) had it not been for Mick (Cooke) and Robbie (Horgan). They are both very professional and that is the way I like to do things. I’m really pleased with how the season has gone personally.
“I’m well on the way to 20 goals with the number of games left, which is brilliant, but it’s all down the team.”
On how the club has changed since his first spell, he adds:
It’s the same old place but the whole structure of the club has changed. They’re doing their business smartly now and not spending above themselves.”
O’Brien’s switch to Dundalk was taken badly by some sections of Drogs fans, who possibly made him scapegoat for their financial trouble at the time. The player himself doesn’t let it get to him.
“I still see a good bit of bad blood and negativity at times (from fans) but I’ve no problem with that. I didn’t do anything that any other player wouldn’t. I was a victim but I didn’t cry about it and just got on with playing football. I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep about it.”
With the first of two huge games for the club coming up tomorrow, O’Brien explains that they’ll keep it tight as they have done all season.
“It’s a massive game. Everyone else has probably been talking about it more than us and we’ll just go out the same as we did against UCD last week. We’ll try keep a clean sheet and score a goal but Sligo are obviously a very good team.
Looking beyond this season, O’Brien, who spent much of his career as a full-time professional but now works as a personal trainer, believes he has a valuable contribution to make for a couple of years to come yet.
I’ll playing as long as I’m adding to the team and there are no immediate plans to finish up as I’m playing as good as I was at 25. I’m all about health and nutrition and the job goes nicely with the football as you can look after yourself and get to the gym regularly.”
When he does eventually hang up the boots, however, he sees himself in a coaching role.
“I’m doing my UEFA B licence and it’s definitely something I’d like to get into.”