Dermot Keely’s affection for Dundalk is well documented so winning a league title here as manager in 1994/95 should have been one of his happiest memories in football.
Instead he reflects on that famous final day title triumph from 25 years ago as his hardest year in management, with regular disputes with then chairman, the late Enda McGuill, overshadowing the joy of what was the club’s ninth title success at the time.
This week ahead of the anniversary of that success, The Argus caught up with Keely – currently in lockdown in Lanzarote – to look back on one of the most memorable final days in League of Ireland history.
No one had really expected Dundalk to challenge that season, let alone win the Premier Division. Not even Keely.
Having succeeded Turlough O’Connor the season before, he inherited an ageing team who had narrowly avoided the drop while off the field the very future of the club was up in the air as the threat of bankruptcy loomed.
“You’ve got to put it in context,” he said.
“I took over from Turly midway through the previous season and it was a top six/bottom six arrangement and Dundalk were in the bottom six. The crowds were gone as well and we were only getting a couple of hundred people.
“The club was in absolute disarray when I took over. The players were running the club. James Coll, Tom McNulty and other strong pros were running it. They were in charge. They were doing their own thing, doing whatever they wanted and they nearly got relegated.
“I always said that whatever I do and wherever I go it will take me a half a season to clear stuff out and another season to win a league. It’s happened me so often in my career but with Dundalk, I never thought of winning the league that year because every single week there were rows.
“I was always upstairs shouting and roaring at Enda constantly. My memory of it, and this is obviously unfair because it’s a generalisation, but my recollection of it is that every time we won a match they took another 100 quid off my budget. You were working really with your hands tied behind your back.”
While Dermot admits to having sympathy with the board now in hindsight, he struggled with the idea at the time.
“In my eyes at the time the board would only pay the players out of the gates. If the gate money came in, you’d get money and if things were going bad then you wouldn’t get any money.
“I felt that that was the mentality of the board because they were businessmen but I don’t know how many times I said to them it’s not a business. Football is a business but you can’t treat it as a normal business either because it never was and I don’t think it ever will be.
“You had these people coming in to try and save money – to try to save the club and I understood that – but that’s no good to you as a manager. As a manager my job wasn’t to come in and save money. My job was to come in and stabilise the club. To go in and have that persistent number of cuts even though we went on to win a league at a time when no one thought we were going to win a league was tough. But absolutely no one thought we would win a league that season until maybe the last five or six matches when we went on a mad run at the end of the season when we won pretty much every game 1-0.
“This wouldn’t probably be correct if you looked up the raw data but my recollection of that year is Mick Doohan going up for a corner in the last 10 minutes, scoring a goal and us winning 1-0. We did that so many times, it was just unbelievable. Stephen Kelly might have got a lot of goals but Doohan got so many goals that were magic. He was unbelievable and a really, really nice fella.”
Asked how close Dundalk actually came to going to the wall that season, Keely said: “Very, very close.
“Now looking back I can see Enda’s point of view. At that time I could only see Enda as wanting Jim McLaughlin back and I’ll admit now I was wrong. That was my insecurities coming through in a way because I knew Enda and Jim were close and Jim was such a good manager.
“I would have misread that situation but I thought Enda was constantly at me, which he was, but I mistook his reasons. It was not because he wanted rid of me but because he was under so much pressure every single week to run the club.
“The club was going out of existence and all I was interested in was winning matches because that was my job. Our two jobs were different. His job was to run the club and my job was to win a league or win trophies. We weren’t operating at the same thing and in fairness I don’t think the board at that time had any idea we were going to win a league or no concept we could win one.
“The only thing they wanted was for the club to survive, which is grand, but as a manager you’re not looking at it like that. All I could see was that they were stifling me. Whatever chance I had of winning a league, in my eyes they were taking it away from me. It’s only as you get older and you look back that you say really it wasn’t a personal thing at all.
“They were trying desperately to save a club whereas my idea was let’s go for it and I’ll win the league for you but they were thinking ‘will you f**k, you’re going to break the club.’ Me being who I am, I speak my mind and I wouldn’t obey so there was constant friction because we operating to try and achieve two different goals: one was sheer survival and the other was me trying to win a league.
“That’s what I would have tried to do at any club I went into. That was my driving force, to win a league, but did I expect it to happen then? Not a chance!”
Even on the final day of the season, Keely admitted he never expected to leave Oriel Park that day against Galway Utd with a second league win as a manager under his belt.
“They hadn’t even got the trophy there. The trophy was down in Athlone because Derry had been expected to win it.
“That day I wasn’t concentrating because I thought with three horses in the race we would have been 100/1. I went in that day and I remember saying let’s just do our work and whatever happens, happens.
“At that stage of the season if we had finished second or third it would have been a fantastic season from nearly being relegated the year before. My expectation wasn’t to go up to Oriel Park that day and win a league but when the game was over it was only at that stage that I realised there was something going on because the crowd were shouting and roaring and didn’t leave the stadium.
“They all came onto the pitch so I went into the dressing room at that stage and listened to the radio. It was only at that stage that I realised all the results were going our way.
“You had to pinch yourself to think you were that close. I think the first time we were top of the league was when we won it and when you look at the stats you’d think we had no chance so to be sitting there at the end of 90 minutes and to think that in another two or three minutes you could be crowned league champions, it was surreal. No one expected the results to go the way they did that day. It was unbelievable.”
Keely would later win two further league titles with Shels but given his love for Dundalk, where he played and later resided before his move to Lanzarote, that April 1995 triumph should have been up there amongst his best. Unfortunately the arguments of that year mean the memories are tainted somewhat.
“It took a bit of the joy away from it. It should have been one of the best moments in my life because Dundalk is so special to me but it was definitely the hardest year I had managing in football.
“When I won it with other teams and even getting promotion with Sligo or whatever it was, there was always a feeling of joy. You remember so much about it and good spirits all through the year but that year was a constant battle.
“I was battling with the directors all the time, at every single match. I was battling with players who thought they knew how to run the team. Tom McNulty was probably the only player who could have played in any other side in the league and won a league. He was probably the only one but the way that things were, the best signing I made was Anto Whelan.
“He went in beside James Coll and was the gel. He was my go between that year. James Coll was captain on the pitch but he was seek and destroy so to speak. Anto had the ability to bring people in and talk to them. He kept the whole unit as a unit.
Without him I don’t think we would have won the league, not so much for what he did on the pitch because he was near finished then but what he did off the pitch with the players was superb. He was so well respected.
“Your job as a manager is try to play with what you have and what you can get in and I think we brought some good players in. They were good pros and likeable fellas too. That meant that the click that was there when I took over was broken up, not by me but by the people I signed.
“Signing Jody Byrne was to smarten Eddie Van Boxtel up. That was the reason I signed him because I knew he was solid and good in a group. It’s easier to do it through players rather than dictating as a manager. The people that came that year were top class professionals and knew exactly what to do and how to behave and eventually when you’ve that in the group it takes over the group as opposed to anything else that was there.
“When you’re over a winning team it’s enjoyable for the most part but that year was just always hard work. I was going up to Oriel wondering what is going to happen now and are they going to say I have to get rid of so-and-so. Sadly that’s what lingers.
“At the end of it I was just washed out. It took so much out of me. Obviously I was ecstatic to have won the league but equally it was a case of thank God the season is over. I would have already been thinking of the following season and how we could progress it but as it happened I would eventually just have enough of it.”
While there remains some regret, Keely says had he done things differently, Dundalk would be shy one league title in its history right now.
“Dundalk were close to extinction at that time and those people came in to try and rescue the club. They had one agenda and I had another agenda. If I’d tried to understand more at the time what was going on then I would have done things differently but I wouldn’t have won the league.
“Joe Casey famously said to me at Shels ‘Dermot I’ll push the boat out for you but I’ll always keep it tied to the shore’ whereas as a manager you want to push the boat out and see what happens and if you sink, you sink but if you don’t, you don’t.
“Directors are only thinking of saving the club and it’s because of these people that Dundalk is still alive and well and thriving. It’s the same with Shels. It took them how long to get back into the Premier Division but they’re still here. In Cork you’ve had three or four different rebirths of the same Cork but Dundalk, Rovers, Bohs and all those clubs, the directors are guardians. Managers aren’t. There are two different shows going on and I understand that now but at the time I didn’t.
“If I had understood it at the time it would have hampered us though. You have to go in single-minded but it was probably the only time that I ever had trouble with a board in terms of fighting with them every single week. It never happened before then or since then but I now understand what these people were trying to do. I felt at the time they were trying to prevent me from winning a league, which is obviously nonsense, but that’s the way I felt because my view at the time was if you’re not with me, you’re against me.”
Twenty five years on, however, Keely doesn’t ever think we’ll see the like of that season again.
“I don’t think you’ll ever get a set of circumstances like that ever again in the League of Ireland. I think it was a completely unique occasion where you had a club who were really fighting for its life going on to win a league with so few goals and all sorts of different things.
“That team broke records for all the wrong reasons I think,” he laughed.
“You’d love to say you managed a team in 1995 to win the league and they scored 100 goals and they were the most attractive side ever but we weren’t. We did a lap of honour if we won 2-0. 1-0 was the goal and when we got one that was it. I shut up shop. We’d settle for that. If we got the second one, it was a night out.
“Everyone would love to win 4-0 every week and play beautiful football but we weren’t like that. It was the same with the double winning side under Jim McLaughlin. Don’t tell me that side was a beautiful side. It was ferocious and hard but there was no lovely football being played then either even though it was a different era. Rovers played lovely football under Giles but we beat them up every time.”
Dundalk in 1995 were indeed hard to beat and while that side may not be remembered as one of the club’s best, they were certainly winners and and 25 years on their achievement will never be forgotten.