AT THE AIRTRICITY League launch back in February, captains and managers were quizzed by the media on who they fancied for the 2012 Premier Division title.
While few were looking beyond the two Rovers, Shamrock and Sligo, a club which didn’t get too many mentions that day was Drogheda United.
Yet, 17 games into the current campaign and the 2007 winners sit just four points adrift of Sligo in second spot.
Under Mick Cooke, the Louth club have quietly gone about their business and, earning maximum points from their last five games, have become the league’s surprise package. And although he admits being a little shocked at how well things have gone since taking over last year, Cooke believes they were underestimated in some quarters.
“I don’t think the media looked at the squad we had,” the former Monaghan United boss told TheScore yesterday.
“The players I brought in, particularly ones from Monaghan, were used to winning games albeit in the First Division. Then we added experience with the likes of Derek Prendergast, Paul Crowley and Fabio O’Brien.
My target was to finish mid-table, sixth or seventh. But it’s going well from week-to-week. The players need to take credit for how hard they’re working.”
Unity and work-rate have been two of the foundations on which the Drogs have built their excellent run. Even when they went down to ten men against St Patrick’s Athletic two weeks ago, they refused to panic and ground out a 2-0 victory.
Another late goal from Gavin Brennan, one of three brothers at the club, secured a terrific away win at Tolka Park last Friday night and Cooke says it’s no surprise their fitness is shining through after a tough pre-season schedule.
“I’ve got a squad of 22 players and none of them are sitting back. The training is very competitive and everybody wants to be in a winning team. The nucleus of what we’re doing now is down to the seven gruelling weeks pre-season we had thanks to (assistant manager) Robbie Horgan and (fitness coach) Gerry Kelly.
“When we down to ten so early against St Pat’s, the work ethic was very good. It proves how good our fitness levels are.”
Drogheda go into this weekend’s round of fixtures knowing a win at home to bottom side UCD coupled with a Sligo defeat (away to Pat’s) on Sunday afternoon would put them just one point behind the country’s top side. But can they actually win their first silverware in five years?
“It’s a great chance for this group of players,” says Cooke. ” I believe only one player in the the squad, O’Brien, has won anything in this division and it’s a great opportunity with 13 league games to go. We’re also in a semi-final of an EA Sports Cup and we’ve still got a chance in the FAI Cup.”
As ever, it would be foolish to look beyond the next game and Cooke is keen to praise the work of Martin Russell with the Students despite their lowly position.
I believe we’ve only beaten them once in the last seven or eight games. We don’t take anyone for granted. They will be formidable opponents and, knowing Martin, his team will be set up well.
“They like to play attractive and so do we so it should be an enjoyable one for the fans.”