“It’s a great dressing room… they’re good group for morale”

Michael Barker in action against Cork City - Stephen Burke

BOHEMIANS v DUNDALK
SSE Airtricity League
Friday May 10 2019, Dalymount Park, 7.45pm

Michael Barker’s second spell at Bohemians didn’t get off to the start he wanted but, just like the club he rejoined after a five-year absence, the defender now has a renewed sense of purpose and is determined to make an impact.

Barker, 25, was snapped up by Keith Long at the start of December after spells with UCD, Bray Wanderers and, most recently, St Patrick’s Athletic.

The manager hailed his versatility at the time and admitted that it was “third time lucky” trying to sign him after unsuccessful attempts in the previous two off-seasons.

However, Barker’s hopes of making an immediate impact were struck down after he suffered a hamstring tear while innocuously kicking a ball in the final week of pre-season training.

As if missing the start of the 2019 campaign was not enough of blow, Barker’s impending absence meant Long was forced to bring in defensive reinforcements and yet another rival for a starting place with the arrival of Aaron Barry on loan from Cork City on the eve of the season opener against Finn Harps.

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Barker, who originally came through the Bohs U19s under Owen Heary before making his first-team debut in 2012 under Aaron Callaghan, said: “I fully understand why Keith had to bring someone in.

“You have to strengthen your options as best you can and at that stage we didn’t know how serious my injury was going to be or how long I’d be out for.

“The timing of the injury was a difficult one to take. We all worked extremely hard in pre-season but it was a very enjoyable pre-season too and I was geared towards playing at the start of the season.

“So to be ruled out without even kicking a ball was extremely disappointing for me. The lads were good throughout in trying to pick me up. It’s a great dressing room. They’re good group for morale.

“Even when you have to train by yourself when recovering from an injury, they don’t like to see you excluded. Throughout my time injured I was made feel part of the main group and the lads helped me hugely along the way.”

But while team-mates and management do their best to make everyone feel part of the collective effort, Barker knew he faced an uphill struggle trying to break into the team and had to patiently bide his time waiting for that chance to come.

Finding an opening in a defence that had contributed greatly to James Talbot’s 11 clean sheets in 14 league games was never going to be an easy task. Barker’s involvement was curtailed to starts in the Leinster Senior Cup and EA Sports Cup victories over Shelbourne and Cabinteely respectively.

Barker said: “They’ve done brilliantly and it’s a team game, so it has been great to see the team doing so well even when you’re not playing.”

But his opportunity came last Friday as a combination of an Achilles injury to Rob Cornwall and Barry not being allowed play against his parent club afforded Barker a place at the heart of defence.

Finally getting his first league start of his second spell at Dalymount Park delighted him – the manner the 1-0 defeat to the Leesiders less so.

Conor McCarthy’s first-half header set managerless City on their way to victory. They soaked up Bohs’ pressure and frustrated the home side in the second half and, with a mixture of disciplined but negative tactics, managed to come away from Dalymount with all three points.

Barker said: “Obviously it was great for me personally to finally get a chance. With the run of form the lads have been on, we were confident going into the game, so to lose in the manner we did was disappointing.

“But there were positives that we can take from our second-half performance and we will bring that into the game against Dundalk.”

It doesn’t get any easier as Bohs welcome Vinny Perth’s side to Dalyer. It’s third v second with Bohs on 30 points and the visitors on 31.

The last time these sides met, the Gypsies gave one of their best performances of the season but, agonisingly, made the trip home down the M1 from Oriel Park empty-handed.

Long made seven changes to his starting line-up for that game. The team surprised many by putting in a display deserving of victory but having failed to make their chances and large spells of dominance pay, they suffered the sucker-punch of losing the game through an injury-time penalty.

Barker insists the Gypsies are not motivated by revenge for that defeat.

He said: “There was huge disappointment with the result from the last time we played Dundalk. To make so many changes and play the way we did shows the depth of quality we have.

“The performance the lads put in deserved to win the game so to lose in the manner we did was a big disappointment for everyone.

“This game isn’t about revenge at all. But there is expectation, yes. We know if we go out and give a performance like we did against them the last tine, we can cause them a lot of problems.”

That optimism is one of many things Barker has seen change at the club since he left for UCD in 2014.

Off the field, Bohs are in a far healthier state than the club he left and, on the field, Long’s hard work and dedication has helped rediscover the club’s identity as well as building a young side who appear to hold no fear.

In third but just four points off leaders Shamrock Rovers and with a game in hand, the manager and team do not deviate from the mantra that nobody can afford to get carried away.

Nobody will be allowed pat themselves on the back either but after being five years away, Barker is well-placed to comment on the changed undercurrent of optimism and enjoyment throughout the club that was at times lacking in his first spell.

He added: “There’s a fantastic atmosphere in every aspect of the club. From training, to games at Dalymount to away trips, it’s been really enjoyable.

“To be honest there is no comparison between where the club is now to where it was when I was last here.

“As a team we know that if we perform to our ability we can give any team in the league a game and beat.

“Before it was a times a be case of ‘let’s go out and see how we do.’ Now we all believe.

“There’s a great buzz around the place. The club is embedded in the community now in a way it wasn’t before, the sell-out crowds at Dalymount are amazing to see and are driving us on all the time.

“The whole club has been turned around massively compared to where it was a few years ago. We won’t get carried away but we all want to build on that and be a part of it.”

TEAM NEWS

Rob Cornwall (Achilles) and Keith Ward (foot) are doubts. Loanee Aaron Barry, unavailable for selection against parent club Cork City last week, comes back into the fold. Cristian Magerusan (cruciate) remains out.

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