While incomparable to the current Covid-19 crisis in terms of the length of impact it has had on people, the battle with foot and mouth 20 years ago threatened to derail Dundalk’s season as they fought for promotion back to the Premier Division.
With cases of the disease, which impacts cloven-hoofed animals, being discovered in the Cooley Peninsula, Co Louth became an exclusion zone from the rest of the country.
Much like now, this led to restrictions in the area with people advised against unnecessary travel, checkpoints set up to inspect and disinfect vehicles travelling in and out of the area and key events in the social calendar such as the St Patrick’s Day parade being cancelled.
Also just like now, people suffered with business down locally and farmers, in particular, fearing for their livelihoods as huge culls on sheep and cattle took place.
Sport was also impacted with GAA, racing, football and all other schedules halted.
For Dundalk FC, it briefly threatened to cost them promotion back to the Premier Division.
It was 20 years ago today (Tuesday) February 23rd 2001 that the club played its last match before the season was shut down. It was a disappointing 1-1 draw away to St Francis in John Hyland Park in Baldonnell. Despite being held to a draw by a side who had been pumped 7-0 at Oriel Park just before Christmas, Martin Murray’s side were on a good run of form.
Since losing 3-2 away to Cobh Ramblers at the start of December they had played 12 matches in all competitions and lost just once, winning eight and drawing three, including that game against St Francis in which John Ryan’s 10th minute opener – scored against a certain Gary Rogers – was cancelled out by a Brian Rickard penalty after goalkeeper John Connolly had been sent-off.
This meant that when the league was halted they were four points clear of Athlone Town at the top of the table with fourth and fifth placed Sligo Rovers and Monaghan Utd having the opportunity to close the gap to two and seven points respectively if they won their games in hands. Waterford, who were also seven points behind, were also not out of the running even if they had played a game more at that stage.
The fact that Dundalk had to play each of these sides in their eight remaining matches meant that the title race was too close to call.
It would be April 1st when the side would play again, a short break by current standards with Covid-19 but what felt like an eternity at the time.
The wait wasn’t really worth it though as Dundalk crashed out of the FAI Cup in embarrassing fashion following a 1-0 loss against AUL junior league side Portmarnock in John Hyland Park in a match that was finally played at the fifth attempt after a series of cancellations.
This was followed by a 4-0 drubbing away to Monaghan Utd in the side’s first league game back a week later and while the side did respond with a 2-1 win away to Waterford Utd, their title challenge was firmly rattled when they went down 5-2 to Sligo Rovers at a game played in United Park in Drogheda due to the authorities not allowing the side to return to Oriel just yet.
That result saw Dundalk drop to third in the table, two points adrift of Monaghan in second and a further one behind leaders Athlone – albeit with a game in hand.
Thankfully, the Lilywhites managed to turn things around with four wins in-a-row. The run began with wins away to Home Farm and Limerick before an early Martin Reilly double earned a vital 2-1 win over Athlone Town in the first game back at Oriel Park in 10 weeks.
A month on from the defeat to Portmarnock, promotion was then secured on May 1st when Martin Reilly struck for his 20th goal of the season in the 88th minute to earn a 1-0 win over Drogheda Utd. Sligo’s failure to beat Limerick 24 hours later meant Dundalk were champions, meaning that a 2-0 defeat away to Cobh Ramblers in the final game was of no consequence on a day that David Crawley lifted the first First Division title in the club’s history.
All’s well that ends well but key member of that side, John Flanagan, recalls great uncertainty about that time.
“It just sounds really, really long ago. You don’t feel that old until you hear things like that,” he laughed when reminded of the situation this week.
“I remember that time quite well. It was mad because we weren’t able to train. Unlike now they actually were able to close down all the borders and roads. We trained separately as a squad for weeks. Every time I’d drive to Dundalk for training I remember having to get the car cleaned, going through washers and everything just to get to training. It was a tough time for team sports, trying to keep everyone motivated and together.
“Maybe because it was agriculture or whatever but it was definitely more strict than now. There were friends of mine living up the Cooley Mountains and they’d always have had different ways of getting to the north, even now, either across the mountains or in through Carlingford or whatever but there were checkpoints then every which way you went and they were enforced but now it’s just a free flow. Maybe that’s because it’s so widespread now whereas back then it was pretty localised in Louth and they were able to throw all their resources at it back then just to close us off.”
Captain David Crawley also recalled the uncertainty.
“We didn’t know whether the league was going to be called off or whether it would go on, something similar to how it is today.
“Dundalk now are full-time professionals but we were only semi-professionals at the time so Ollie Ralph took the training for us boys in Dundalk and Martin Murray did the training with the Dublin boys up in Dublin so it was strange times.”
Flanagan admits in hindsight that the stoppage could have cost Dundalk big time.
“We had been going so well up until the foot and mouth but then it was so disjointed because we were the one team who probably couldn’t train together for such a long period of time whereas everyone else was coming together.
“Then when it was re-opened it was more or less straight into games. There was very little training as a squad before we had games again. It took a few weeks to get back on track and it nearly did derail the good work we had done in the first half of the season.”
The Cup defeat to Portmarnock would be unthinkable now but Keith Bruen’s header from a Barry Flynn corner after John Connolly had saved Craig Bolton’s penalty was no more than the Dubliners deserved.
Supporter Ian Sharkey will never forget that match. Working with Portmarnock player Des Cummins, who came on as a 65th minute sub in the game, he skipped out of work at the IBM plant in Mulhuddart to watch the match from afar with close friend Gerry McCartney.
Little did he know he had been snapped by Sportsfile with his picture appearing on the back page of The Irish Independent the next day.
“I was working in IBM at the time with Paudie McEntaggart and the funny story about that Portmarnock game was that I was working with a Portmarnock player, a fella called Des Cummins,” explained Ian.
“We worked in the stores together. Liverpool played Everton the day before and Paudie and Des wanted to see the game so I said I’d cover for them. The two of them went to the Grasshopper in Clonee and the two of them came back pissed so I said that’ll be a help anyway but then Des only came on as a sub the next day.
“I left work in Mulhuddart to drive over to the game and I remember meeting (now Irish Independent journalist) Daniel McDonnell and a few others. Martin Reilly’s father was up between two trees watching it and his mother was standing on the road but she couldn’t see really. There were a few watching it but I never knew until the next day when I saw the back of the Independent that myself and big Gerry had been snapped.
“I was all over the Independent so I had to ring Paudie and said put me down for a half day because I was supposed to be working but I had let the boys go so Paudie was covering for me,” laughed Ian.
While that game on April Fool’s Day is now just a footnote in an otherwise successful season, Flanagan says it could have been the beginning of the end for Dundalk’s title charge.
“I’ll never forget that Portmarnock game because it had been cancelled a few times before it actually got played. I remember travelling to Baldonnell one midweek and it was actually called off while we were there. The game itself, Portmarnock were a very good junior team but I think we’d have still been there now and we wouldn’t have scored.
“It can knock the shite out of the season. It’s a mental thing as well. You’re not training properly as a group. That’s why teams have pre-seasons now because the only way you get better is by working together and training together for partnerships on the field. It nearly did take that mini pre-season to get going again.
“I know we’ve had some beatings over the years but that was one of the worst we’ve ever had and not just because they were a junior team because that can happen but the whole atmosphere was so down and that was a real kick in the teeth.
“John Ryan was playing that day and on any other day he’d have scored three or four but it just didn’t happen that day for whatever reason and maybe it was the kick in the arse we needed to knuckle down and put the work in for a couple of weeks to get back at it and luckily enough we did in the end.”
Thankfully Dundalk would recover but Crawley is in no doubt that foot and mouth almost caught up with Dundalk.
“If the foot and mouth hadn’t happened we’d probably have been a lot fitter because we’d have been playing games in the First Division and it would have stood to us so they probably got us at the right time.
“Thankfully we recovered. I was lucky enough to lift two major trophies for Dundalk but that was my first. I have a picture of that on my wall. It was a strange time but we did well to win the league.
“Dundalk have won a lot of leagues over the last few years but that one shouldn’t be underestimated because when you’re in the First Division it is a tough league to win. It really is.”
Amazingly a year and six days after that defeat to Portmarnock, Dundalk would be FAI Cup champions having beaten Bohemians in the final at Tolka Park. Summing up the madness of the period, the side had been relegated back to the First Division just a week earlier.
“If you said to me after that game in Portmarnock that just over a year later we’d win the Cup I’d have laughed at you,” admitted Flanagan, “but that was the ups and downs of football back then.
“Nowadays fans are spoilt. All they know is success. There’s a whole generation now who only know success because all they’re used to is winning everything.
“Still to this day the First Division is neglected in this country. It’s the doldrums. It took the club a long time even after we finally got up to get onto a stable footing to where we are now.
“People quickly forget where we’ve come from but I remember bucket collections on the last day of the season to try to keep the club afloat.”
Thankfully Dundalk survived the stresses and strains of foot and mouth both on and off the pitch. Here’s hoping we can reflect back on Covid-19 in 20 years’ time with a similar outcome.
Dundalk are hopeful of adding two further signings to their squad this week ahead of the new campaign which gets underway next month.
To date head coach Filippo Giovagnoli has brought in goalkeeper Alessio Abibi, defenders Sonni Nattestad and Raivis Jurkovskis, midfielder Sam Stanton and forward Ole Erik Midtskogen to add to his ranks over the off season but the Italian is confident of adding at least a couple more before the transfer deadline next Monday February 22nd.
The Argus understands that a winger and goalkeeper are amongst the main targets with interest renewed in former Derry City and Sligo Rovers star Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe.
The 26-year-old was top scorer in the league in 2019 and has had a good record against the Lilywhites in his season-and-a-half in the SSE Airtricity League having scored three times against his potential new employers, including the third goal in Sligo’s 3-1 win over Dundalk at The Showgrounds last summer.
It is also believed that the club are hopeful of securing a goalkeeper on a loan from a Championship club in England with 23-year-old Barnsley goalkeeper Corey Addai, who stands at a massive 6ft 7in in height, the prime target. Meanwhile a contract could also be given to 2014 title winner Peter Cherrie, who has been training with the club following his release by Derry City at the end of last season.
While free agents can be signed after next Monday’s deadline, anyone in contract with a club needs to have their move completed before then.
While he refused to be drawn on the players or their positions, Giovagnoli confirmed to The Argus on Sunday evening that he was hopeful of new arrivals to Oriel Park this week.
“We are looking to have a couple of signings this week. We’re working on it. It could be in one day or two days. We’re going to have news but not yet.
“We need to complete the team. We are close to completing the team. It’s not over yet but we want to make the right decisions.”
Aside from the potential new arrivals, Dundalk remain hopeful of securing a work permit to sign South Korean winger Han Eui-gwon.
The 26-year-old was one game shy of the 25% quota of games he was required to play in for former club Suwon Samsung Bluewings last season but as the K League season was curtailed due to Covid-19, Dundalk are arguing that the “most recent full season” – in which he played 76% of his club’s matches – should apply.
Giovagnoli said he did not have an update on how that deal was proceeding but remained hopeful of securing the services of the winger.
“I really don’t know because it’s the club that is dealing with this so it’s more a question for Jim (Magilton) and Bill (Hulsizer) because they are dealing with this,” said Filippo.
“I just feel that it’s a shame that a player like that could miss out on a move here. It would be great to have him in the league. It would be good for Dundalk but it would also be good for the league.
“I think the rules should be interpreted to deal with these moments because maybe he would have completed his 25% if they had played all year. The only reason he didn’t play was because he didn’t sign a contract because he was in a little bit of a fight with the club to leave but it is what it is.
“There are rules but rules should be interpreted well in this case because of Covid but let’s see. Maybe it’s going to end well but, if not, we have to look to something else.”
One player who departed Oriel Park last week is young winger Jamie Wynne. The club had been hopeful of retaining the 19-year-old, who made his league and European debut under Giovagnoli last season, but he has instead signed for Cork City.
Asked about the Malahide youngster, Giovagnoli said: “He was in pre-season with us and we said to him let’s see how it goes and we’ll talk about your future. I wanted to see him in pre-season with the team because of course Dundalk is a strong team. It’s one of the strongest in the league so finding space is not easy but then he decided with his agent to leave.
“I respect that if he feels it is the right opportunity but I just hope he is going to play. I wish the best for him because he is a really nice kid and a really hard worker.”
Meanwhile, another Dundalk youngster – Meathman Andrew Quinn – is also set to depart Oriel Park on loan with a move to Bray Wanderers expected to ensure the defender receives some vital experience this season. Will Patching will also join Derry City on loan.
Alessio Abibi will wear the number one jersey for Dundalk this season but has not been guaranteed the starting position by head coach Filippo Giovagnoli.
The Albanian is currently the only goalkeeper on the books at Oriel Park following the retirement of Gary Rogers and departures of Aaron McCarey and Jimmy Corcoran at the end of last season.
However, The Argus understands that two new goalkeepers could be signed this week.
One of those is likely to be a loan signing of a player from a Championship club in England with the Lilywhites understood to be closing in on a deal to bring over 6ft 7in goalkeeper Corey Addai from Barnsley.
Dundalk are also expected to hand a deal to one of the two out of contract goalkeepers who are training with them at present.
Former Huddersfield Town, Galway Utd and Cork City netminder Tadhg Ryan, who was at Waterford last season and 2014 title winner Peter Cherrie, who was released by Derry City at the end of last season, have been taking part in pre-season at Oriel Park in recent days.
While Ryan is the younger option at just 23, 37-year-old Cherrie is thought to be ahead of him in the pecking order for a contract at present.
The Scot – who still lives locally – made 237 appearances for Dundalk between 2009 and 2014 having arrived from Clyde. Since departing Oriel Park, Cherrie has played with Cliftonville, Bray Wanderers, Cork City and Derry City but could now be set for an emotional return back to a club where he was hugely popular amongst fans in the early part of the last decade.
Asked about the two trialists, Giovagnoli said: “They are doing well. We are probably going to decide this week what to do with them.
“They’re doing well. They’re good people and good players. They’re working hard and we like them both. We’re going to decide this week but I’m happy with what I see from them. They’re really good players.”
Asked would Abibi be his number one at the start of the season, the Italian didn’t give a firm commitment that he would be.
He said: “With a coach like me, I’ll play who deserves to play. The pitch is going to talk. We have to do the best for the club.
“If Alessio is the number one it’s because he is the best at the moment or it’s going to be another goalkeeper. That’s not a problem. Let’s see who is going to be the other two goalkeepers and then they’re going to fight for the spot, like all the other players.”
Despite this, Giovagnoli dismissed rumours which spread via social media last week suggesting Abibi had failed to settle in Ireland and had already departed just a month after his arrival.
“I don’t even know what the rumour is but Alessio is doing really well and he’s happy,” said the coach.
“He’s a really strong, modern goalkeeper. He’s a big size, really aggressive and he is something that is just different than the profiles that are here in Ireland. We are really happy with him. He is doing well and he’s working hard. He’s a really hard worker.
“Alessio is going to do really well,” he said.
One goalkeeper who did depart last week was American underage international Alex Rando, who opted to return Stateside to pursue a scholarship rather than accept an offer at Oriel Park.
On the player he had worked with in New York, Giovagnoli said: “Alex is a really good goalkeeper. He came and we were going to offer him a contract but he had this thing with his college and he spoke with his family and in the end they decided it would be better to go back to the college.
“For American players sometimes this is the decision they have to make and we respect that. It’s fine. We’re going to get other goalkeepers with competitive profiles, there’s no problem.”
Dundalk head coach Filippo Giovagnoli is hoping his side’s new recruits give the team an element of surprise in the early weeks of the season.
While most of the new additions to squads across the league this winter are well known here, there is most certainly an unknown element to Dundalk’s five new recruits to date: goalkeeper Alessio Abibi, defenders Sonni Nattestad and Raivis Jurkovskis, midfielder Sam Stanton and forward Ole Erik Midtskogen.
“This is beautiful for the league,” said Giovagnoli.
“Here in every game you know what to expect so now maybe you won’t know what to expect and that’s nice. I think it’s important.”
While traditionally slow starters over the years, Giovagnoli is hoping his side can hit the ground running as they attempt to wrestle the title back from Shamrock Rovers.
“We don’t want to start slow, we want to start strong. We want to make a statement right away. We’re going to be really aggressive from the beginning. I’ve no doubt on that. We are working for that.
“I think if we have our best team on the pitch then we’re going to be really strong. I hope to have headaches every weekend and I think I will because even with the new players that we’re going to sign we will have almost two players for every position so then they have to fight for their position.”
Dundalk face a difficult start to the new season with games against three of last year’s top four in their opening four league matches but Giovagnoli is confident his side will be ready for the challenge.
“In this league I don’t think there are any easy games. Whether you play someone in the third game or sixth game, it’s not going to change much.
“We just need to be ready and healthy and fit for the start of the league and we’re going to be. We just need to recover the players that are injured and then we’ll be okay because our team is strong.”
The Italian is also keen to see how Shamrock Rovers look this season having lost Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff to APOEL and Hearts over the winter.
“Shamrock will be a different team from last year because without Jack Byrne and Aaron McEneff it’s going to be a different team. They cannot be the same.
“Nobody is going to be the same but of course if you replace a player with a player that you know then at least you know their individual characteristics but the way that they play is going to be different for sure. The style will change for sure but let’s see how they look. I’m curious because I’m a student of the game and I like this kind of challenge,” he said.
Dundalk will travel to the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium next Tuesday February 23rd for the first of their pre-season friendly fixtures against Derry City.
The match with Declan Devine’s side is the first of three in the pipeline for Filippo Giovagnoli’s side ahead of the new campaign with a trip to United Park to face Drogheda Utd in the Jim Malone Cup and the visit of Bohemians to Oriel Park also on the agenda. Exact dates and times for those matches had yet to be officially confirmed at the time of going to press.
Those three matches, as well as the President’s Cup final against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght Stadium on Friday March 12th, could be the only games the side plays before the new league season kicks-off against Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds on Saturday March 20th.
“They’ll be the three games before the President’s Cup,” said Giovagnoli.
While looking forward to getting his side back on the pitch, the Italian said he was unsure at this stage how many first-team players would be ready to face the Candystripes next week.
“Derry will be just the first approach to giving minutes to some of the players because I’m not going to have many players available for this game but it doesn’t matter. We’ll play some of the younger players as well and some of them could surprise us.
“We want to be challenged. We have to be use to playing strong teams so those games are going to be really good for us.”
Asked would he be treating the President’s Cup match as a friendly, Giovagnoli said: “Not really, for us it’s a Cup and we want to win.”
With continued doubts over the WatchLOI service for the forthcoming season, Dundalk are understood to be exploring the possibility of streaming their own matches with a trial possible during the pre-season games.