Life may be a little rough at Easter Road at present, but for former Hibs pair Kurtis Byrne and Richie Towell, it doesn’t get much sweeter.
In their first season with Irish outfit Dundalk, the duo sit second top of the Airtricity League, just one point behind Dublin-based St Patrick’s Athletic, and are dreaming of a glory double, having made the last eight of the FAI Ford Cup.
Today, although St Pat’s enjoy a game in hand, 23-year-old striker Byrne admitted hopes of a League and Cup double are high. “At the start of the year we were being quoted 125/1 by the bookies to win the title,” he recalls. “In fact, we were tipped to be down the bottom fighting relegation.”
While Byrne and his team-mates have taken the League of Ireland by storm, there’s no surprise around Oriel Park as Dundalk, managed by former Dunfermline boss Stephen Kenny, have slowly but surely mounted a challenge, pitching themselves into the forefront of the race with a 2-0 win over champions Sligo Rovers.
They followed that up with a 5-3 victory over a Limerick side containing another ex-Hibee, Danny Galbraith, as they reached the quarter-finals of the cup for the third year in a row.
Byrne said: “We’ve maybe surprised a few people, but Stephen Kenny is a great manager. He has brought in a whole new team, but there’s class throughout the team. We started to play well straight away together and we have not looked back since the start of the season. The whole team has done well, but Richie has been fantastic for us in central midfield, outstanding in every game.
“Beating last year’s champions Sligo was a big, big result for us and we are now just one point behind St Pat’s. They have a game in hand at the moment, so that gap could, of course, increase to four points. We play them at their place, Richmond Park, on September 20, which should be a massive match for both clubs, but there’s no point starting to talk about that game and what it might mean to both sides because so much might happen between now and then.
“We’re away to UCD in Dublin on Friday night. They are a good side, so it will be tough going, but hopefully we can get another three points and keep up the pressure on St Pat’s and hope they slip up. We’re happy with the position we are in so it’s a case of just making sure we don’t slip up ourselves and hand them a further advantage.”
Much has been made of the fact Dundalk play on a plastic pitch, but that, Byrne insisted, was simply an excuse for sides who have failed to win at Oriel Park. He said: “There’s been a few complaints about it, but we actually have the best away record in the league, so it shows we can play on both types of surfaces.
“Personally playing on the astro is fine by me. It’s 11 v 11, the same surface for both teams and I wonder if there would have been so many grumbles had other teams been winning on it.”
Byrne’s double against Limerick took his tally for the season to 11 and the former Norwich City and Ross County hitman is happy with his contribution so far.
He said: “Getting into double figures was my aim at the start of the season so I’m happy to have reached that target. It was particularly good to score twice in the win over Limerick. They were the only side we hadn’t beaten. We’d drawn and lost to them in the league, so there was a little bit extra satisfaction in the win. It was also good to catch up with Danny, who I played with at Hibs, although he was probably less pleased to see me score two goals against his side.”
Byrne is enjoying being back in his homeland, having originally left for Norwich before joining Hibs where he helped the Easter Road outfit’s Under-19 side to a glory League and Cup double, scoring last-gasp winners against Motherwell and Rangers to lift the two trophies in the space of a memorable few days in 2009.
Insisting he doesn’t see going back to Ireland as a step backwards, he said: “I’d been away from home for about seven-and-a-half years and I thought the time was right to come home. After being released by Hibs, I went to Ross County and helped them win the First Division and promotion to the SPL. But for whatever reason I didn’t get a chance and went out on loan to Brechin City, which I enjoyed.
“Then last December the chance arose to come to Dundalk. I can’t say I really knew of Stephen Kenny, I was only 17 when he was at Dunfermline, but he’s won trophies wherever he has gone in Ireland. He gave me a call and told me he was rebuilding the team and I liked what he had to say and agreed to join. We’re virtually full-time, we train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thurdsay, match-day is Friday and then we are in one day over the weekend. Summer football was a bit strange at first, as were Friday night games, but it’s been terrific, getting back playing football every week and scoring goals. Fingers crossed, it continues that way.
“The standard of football is good, the difference between Irish football and the SPL isn’t that great. It’s a tough league.”
Byrne, naturally, keeps an eye on events at Easter Road, admitting winning the league and cup double was an achievement he’ll never forget, that feat earning himself and a host of his team-mates first-team contracts. Paul Hanlon was one of that number although he’d earned promotion to Mixu Paatelainen’s first team squad before those memorable matches at Fir Park and Hampden.
Byrne said: “With David Wotherspoon away to St Johnstone and Callum Booth out on loan at Raith Rovers, there’s really only Paul left from that time. It’s hard to grasp, as our Under-19 side was the best in the country at that time, so to have no-one other than one player left is strange. But that’s football. I always look for the Hibs score every week to see how they are doing and I see they haven’t been going as well as they would have liked, but it’s a young squad and hopefully over the coming months they’ll be pushing up the table.”