Dundalk goalkeeper Nathan Shepherd says it was “a no-brainer” to stay at Oriel Park for 2023 as he eyes a title tilt and a crack at Europe.
The 22-year-old Welshman was a big success for Stephen O’Donnell last season having come to Ireland from Brentford ‘B’.
O’Donnell’s gamble on youth paid off emphatically, with Shepherd maturing into one of the best stoppers in the division.
He’s in the running to be named the Goalkeeper of the Year at Saturday’s SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers Ireland awards having made the short list alongside Shamrock Rovers veteran Alan Mannus and Brian Maher of Derry City.
And after the Lilywhites finished third in 2022, 13 points behind champions Rovers having lost only one game more than the Hoops, Shepherd is targeting some more forward strides.
“It was my first proper experience [of men’s football]… playing in front of fans for three points.”
“I wanted to come back and play in Europe,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t want to leave at all.
“We need to back up what we did last year. We had a spell where it wasn’t great for a few weeks but over the course of the season, we did well and we want to do that again and be more consistent so if we have a spell where we lose a couple of games, if we’re more consistent and winning those games I’m sure we’ll be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.
“I came here with the goal of playing. It was my first proper experience [of men’s football]… playing in front of fans for three points.
“It’s the same again [this year]. I want to play games in the league and the cup, and hopefully we’ll do well in both competitions. We’ll be playing in Europe as well which will be a great experience for myself. I haven’t played in Europe before so I’m looking forward to that.”
Having been in the incubator of Brentford’s development squad, the step into a tough, highly competitive Premier Division was an eye-opener for Shepherd.
However he’s loved the muck and bullets of life in the League of Ireland, where points are precious and victories are hard-earned.
“I had a few friends who’d played here and I obviously wanted to play games so I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a really good standard, it’s a very competitive league,” he said.
“And the fans are great. The cup competitions are great and obviously you’ve got a chance to play in Europe which obviously you don’t get in League Two, League One or even the Championship.
“That side of it is great, I’ve never played in any of the English leagues myself but the boys that have and that have been here as well and left they’ve always said that it compares really well.
“It’s just a lot smaller in terms of teams, that’s the main difference. Leagues back home have 24 teams rather than 10. But they’ve all said the standard matches up, that it’s pretty much the same.”
Earlier this week O’Donnell brought in Gibraltar international defender Louie Annesley [above] from Blackburn Rovers as he looks to strengthen his squad.
It remains to be seen if more fresh faces follow, but Shepherd insists the main positive in Dundalk is the potential for improvement among the players who are already in situ.
“We obviously see stuff online and what people are saying but the core of the team from last year is still there and the quality as well is what we’d all want rather than numbers,” he added.
“I’m sure Louie will come in and be a good addition and anyone else who comes in in the future will be good and that’s what we’re looking for. We want quality to help us push on next season and take the next step in terms of getting up the table and in the cup and in Europe.
“There were a lot of players like me last season where it was their first season in the league and different things like that. There were a lot of changes as well so hopefully this year the players that come in and settle in quickly and push on .”