When Stephen Kenny was appointed manager of Dundalk FC ahead of the 2013 season, simply assembling a squad and keeping the club afloat were the main objectives.
With nine games to go in his first term in charge at Oriel Park, Kenny's primary task now is to manage expectations. Dundalk are the Irish Premier Division's surprise package and sit just a point shy of league leaders Saint Patrick's Athletic FC. The team that only avoided relegation last season by winning a play-off, have emerged as genuine title contenders. Consider the fact their average age is 24 and they were largely assembled through free transfers, and Kenny's achievements appear all the more impressive.
Wind the clock back 12 months and supporters were, in the words of their manager, "packing bags in supermarkets and organising fund-raisers to keep the club alive". Those same fans are today saving their pennies for a possible European trip next summer.
On a personal level, Kenny's success is no less eye-catching. Dismissed by Shamrock Rovers FC midway through the 2012 campaign, the 41-year-old has since taken his new side 13 points clear of his old employers. "There is such euphoria and passion about this club just now," said the manager. "It is a club with a great history which spent seven years in the First Division, so there was a lot of apathy over the last few seasons. This group of players has emerged and reawakened the passion for football in Dundalk."
The men on the pitch, though, prefer to lay praise at the boss's door. A championship winner with Bohemian FC in 2003, Kenny's eye for talent has been key to reinvigorating Dundalk. Players such as Pat Hoban, Mark Rossiter, John Dillon, Darren Meenan and John Sullivan, all released by their previous clubs at the end of last term, have played major roles. Kurtis Byrne and Richie Towell, meanwhile, are flourishing on home soil following stints in Scotland.
"Most of the credit for what we have done is down to Stephen," veteran defender Rossiter, the only player over 30 in the squad, told UEFA.com. "He had to assemble a side over four weeks, but he's taken a team from the bottom to the top of the league." Byrne, a Dublin native thriving in Dundalk, was also quick to acknowledge Kenny. "His man-management is excellent and he's helped a few of us, including me, to turn our careers around," he said.
The questions remains, however: can Dundalk sustain their form and win their first title since 1995? "Definitely," said Hoban. "I always say: 'What's the point in finishing second?' I always aim as high as possible. There is a belief there and I don't see why not."
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