The cliché what a difference a year makes is bandied about a lot in football these days but applies quite well to the League of Ireland at the moment, particularly where Drogheda United are concerned.
As the beginning of the 2011 season neared, the Claret and Blue were preparing for a year mired in the Airtricity First Division and a great sense of uncertainty surrounded the club and its precarious financial situation. While there has been nothing lucky about the club becoming a far more financially stable entity (this has been down to hard work and dedication), good fortune is the primary reason they started the 2011 season in the Premier Division, and managed to avoid relegation come its conclusion.
Sporting Fingal were a club that appeared to be going from strength-to-strength. Having been established in 2007, the North Dublin side gained promotion to the Premier Division after less than three years in existence. That success was quickly topped by winning the FAI Ford Cup in late 2009 in a 2-1 win over Sligo Rovers. All was rosy in the garden until the financial backing of Gerry Gannon disappeared. Sporting disbanded with immediate effect. Drogheda were the surprise choice to replace them in Ireland’s top league.
The Boynesiders were prime relegation candidates and if it was any other year, they may well have gone down. But fortune played its hand once again and the fact the league also contained a Galway United side who would finish the campaign with a solitary win meant Drogheda avoided the drop.
Fast forward four months and the Drogs find themselves in joint second position in the league with three wins and a draw from their opening five games.
Sitting in the press area in Hunky Dorys Park last Friday night it was hard not be impressed as the hosts thoroughly outclassed Derry City. It was equally difficult not to question how such a dramatic turn-around could occur, and so quickly.
I had sat in the same press area only months previous and watched Derry hammer Drogheda United 3-0. The hosts failed to register what could be considered a clear goal-scoring chance in 90 minutes. Derry tore apart the Drogs’ defence at will. A certain James McClean grabbed two assists and the man of the match award on the night.
While it could be argued Derry have undergone a lot of change since then ( they no longer have either of the goal scorers from that night or the man who assisted them on the books anymore), Drogheda’s revolution has been for the better and has resulted in a whole new air of positivity at the Louth club.
Last Friday night, they attacked with menace, defended in numbers and passed with a confidence and an assuredness that was simply not at the club last year. The crowd was livelier than it had been last year – and it’s easy to understand why.
The credit for the turnaround should go to Mick Cooke. He was appointed manager just before the 2011 season kicked-off. Commentators questioned the wisdom in leaving the safety and security at Monaghan United who looked good for promotion, to go to a Drogheda United side many believed could go in only one direction.
Those commentators must have felt a great sense of vindication as Drogheda picked up a pathetic two points from their opening 14 games. I know. I was one of them.
But Cooke was in it for the long haul and knew things would eventually come right. The mid-season acquisitions of midfielders Peter McMahon and Lee Lynch and winger Gavin Brennan were master strokes. I remember in particular one game against Shamrock rovers (who of course wentgo on to win the league) when Drogheda bossed the game for long periods and were desperately unlucky to lose 1-0 on the night.
Despite the defeat, it was another example of how far Drogheda had come under Cooke.
This season Lynch and McMahon have moved on. But in their place Cooke has managed to recruit most of his midfield from Monaghan – the Brennan brothers Ryan and Sean – as well as local hero and former club captain Declan ‘Fabio’ O’Brien. The results speak for themselves.
While it is perhaps unlikely that the club can continue its top of the table push, the improvements that have occurred at Drogheda United both on and off the field are unquestionable. Another tired cliché is that when things are going well, there must be something in the water. Whatever it is on Boyneside, it’s going down a treat.
Sam joined Extratime for the 2011 season and is now the site's features editor. He is based in Dublin and covers all the clubs in the capital. He is also prone to the odd Drogheda game. If you would like to contact Sam, you can reach him at email@example.com.