Clondalkin native Chris Shields hailed the influence of Republic of Ireland Under-21 manager Stephen Kenny as he collected the SSE Airtricity League player of the year gong at the FAI Awards on Sunday.
Shields fought off competition from his Dundalk teammates Michael Duffy and Patrick Hoban, the league’s top scorer, to lift the award at the annual gala at RTÉ Studios in Montrose.
It capped off a momentous year for the Lilywhites which saw them lift their fourth title in five years as well as the FAI Cup, while Kenny was rewarded with the international job.
Millbrook Lawns man Kenny will take charge of Ireland under-21s’ European Championship qualifying campaign before taking the senior job from Mick McCarthy after Euro 2020.
The former St Francis schoolboy, who spent three years with Bray Wanderers before signing for Dundalk in 2012, was one of two players left over from the side that avoided relegation in a play-off before Kenny assumed the reins.
“He [Kenny] was entirely crucial to myself and to the group along with Vinny [Perth], who was with him and has now taken Stephen’s role,” said Shields upon accepting the award.
“He helped me, he’s a great man manager. A lot of players will tell you the same, he can fill you with confidence and he can give you a kick up the backside when you need it.”
The Lilywhites have had a relatively inconsistent start to the season under Killinarden man Perth, drawing two of their opening three games with Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers.
They currently sit four points behind firstplaced Rovers, albeit with a game in hand, but Shields says nobody is prepared to rest on their laurels.
“It’s funny, four or five games into a new season, you’re trying to focus on that and you’re brought back to the success of last year which was a great year for the club.
“It’s a credit being up there myself, Mickey [Duffy] and Pat [Hoban] being up for most of the awards, it’s kind of unheard of so it’s a credit to the group and the three of us.”
After ceding the league to Cork City last year, Dundalk faced a difficult task in the Europa League qualifiers.
They shook off the challenge of Levadia Tallinn with home and away wins but, despite a scoreless draw in the first leg at home, were humbled with a 4-0 away defeat to AEK Larnaca.
With a minimum of four guaranteed games in Europe this year, Shields says there’s a determination for the return to the form that saw them become the second Irish side to reach the group stages of the Europa League in 2016.
“We want to be retaining the trophies that we won last year and then obviously, we had a disappointing European campaign last year so we want to put that right.
“[We’re] back in the Champions League qualifications this year so we’re fully focused on that and it’s only the start for us now at the minute.”