Former chairman Tony O’Kane has spoken of his immense pride at seeing his grandson Ryan sign a professional contract with his beloved Dundalk FC.
The 17-year-old last week put pen to paper on a three year deal at Oriel Park having impressed Filippo Giovagnoli and his team during pre-season training.
While undoubtedly more one for the future rather than the present, it is a significant step in the career of the St Mary’s College student.
Having played at schoolboy level for Bellurgan Utd, Ryan showed his undoubted talent after being named the SuperCup NI’s Junior Player of the Tournament in 2018 for his performances for the Dundalk Schoolboys’ League representative side.
He would later go on to make his NIFL Premiership debut for Warrenpoint Town under current Dundalk FC academy manager Stephen McDonnell at just 15-years-old in August 2019.
Now he is back at his hometown club following a brief spell at Cliftonville, much to his family’s delight.
Ryan was less than nine months old when grandfather Tony became chairman of the Oriel Park club on May 1st 2004, bringing the Trevor Anderson era to an end on his first day at the helm.
A lifelong supporter of the club having been first brought to Oriel Park by his own father back in 1952, Tony told The Argus he was on cloud nine at the prospect of seeing his grandson one day pulling on the famous Lilywhite jersey.
“That would be something special,” he beamed.
“We can’t believe it. As a family we’re all just thrilled.
“It’s amazing how things fall into place. The big break that he got was Stephen McDonnell coming back to the club because Stephen had managed him at Warrenpoint and he knew about Ryan. The minute Stephen came back he was on to Barry and Joanne (Ryan’s parents) straight away to find out what Ryan was doing.
“He was on amateur forms with Cliftonville so when Stephen said he wanted to bring him back to the club, Ryan was delighted. Then when the forms came through from Cliftonville he told him to come up for training one Monday. Ryan thought that he would be training with the U-17s or the U-19s but he said no you’re going in with the first team and he has been there for three weeks now.
“He rings me every day when he comes home and he’s just buzzing. The players have taken greatly to him and Chris Shields was very good to him in the beginning, introducing him to all the players and getting him settled. He’s just loving it.”
Tony said he had no doubt that the winger would now put in the hard work to ensure he is knocking on the door for a first-team place in the years to come.
“He’s only 17. He’s not 18 until August so he has a bit to go but he’s a great guy. You’d never have to ask him to do anything football-wise, he just adores playing it. He’s at his happiest when he has a ball with him.
“His best asset is just being on the ball. He can really beat a man very quickly. That’s his best asset for me. He can dip the shoulder one way and then go the other way before you know it. He’d be difficult to mark in a one to one.
“Barry has a big garden where he lives up in Gibstown and from he was 10 years of age he’s had two goals in the garden and Barry bought all the stuff for him, including a wall to practice his free kicks and all that sort of stuff. He worked with him on his weaker foot for I don’t know how many weeks to get him using the other foot and the benefit of that is he’s now very good with his two feet.
“One of the things that probably went against him in recent years was that he was so small. Like I’ve been looking at photos of him when he got the award in the Milk Cup and he’s just a different guy now.
“He has sprung up in the last year. He just took a massive leap. He just grew up all of a sudden and he’ll get strength and conditioning training now to bring him on further.”
While time is on the Leaving Cert student’s side to make a breakthrough at Oriel Park, a number of injuries to first-team players at present means that a cameo in the friendly against Bohemians at Oriel Park this Friday (kick-off 12 noon) is a possibility.
“You never know,” said Tony, “but no matter what the family are just delighted.
“Giuseppe and Filippo apparently love him and have been giving him great praise.
“He loves it. He can’t wait to get in every day. He has loads of time on his side but he is loving training with Dundalk because he feels these are the best players in the league and they’ve all taken him under his wing. He just can’t believe his luck.
“I said to him it’s a challenge for you. You have the opportunity now so take it by the horns and do your very best and that’s all he can do,” said Tony.
David McMillan is hoping he can pick up from where he left off when Dundalk return to competitive action next month.
After an initial slow start to his second spell at Oriel Park following his return from Scotland last July, the striker finished the season in style with two goals against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League to equal the record for most goals by a League of Ireland player in Europe. There was also a brace away to both Bohemians and Athlone Town in the FAI Cup quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively before he became just the third player in history to score a hat-trick in the final as Dundalk beat Shamrock Rovers 4-2 after extra time at the Aviva Stadium last December to ensure a topsy-turvy year ended with some silverware.
The 32-year-old will be back in action along with his team-mates for the first time this year when they welcome Bohemians to Oriel Park for the first of the two pre-season friendlies.
Having missed out on a proper pre-season before the league resumed after a break for Covid last summer, McMillan said he was looking forward to the next couple of matches against Bohs and Drogheda to get him prepared for the President’s Cup clash with Rovers on March 12th and the league opener away to Sligo eight days later.
“We’ve been back quite a while but we’re really only going to have two friendlies, Bohs and Drogheda, over the next two weeks so I suppose heading into this week it’s nice to be having a normal training week that you’d be used to going into a game on the Friday.
“Last year was frustrating because I had been hoping to sign back maybe a week or two before I did and probably for that to have happened would have been more advantageous for myself and the club to be back training longer but that’s just the way it worked out.
“It can be hard to get some deals over the line and you’re sometimes relying on other people coming and going. It took a while personally for myself to get up and running but it’s nice to have had an injury-free pre-season so far to get up to speed and continue hopefully from where I left off at the end of last year.
“The end to last year was a good time for me personally being amongst the goals. I had had a long time off from March through to July with very little other than individual training so by the time I got up to speed and started playing more games the season was over but that’s the way it was.
“It was just a strange year and I’m sure this year will be a little bit different as well as there might be breaks in play but hopefully later in the year we’ll be fully back to normal fingers crossed. It was a good end to the year but it has been such a short break. It really has felt like no time off at all and now I’m back in training and feeling good.”
One frustration for McMillan last year was that he failed to grab a league goal but with a 36-game season ahead, he is hoping to put that right sooner rather than later.
“Definitely, that was frustrating but to get the other goals helped alleviate the annoyance.
“It’s a fresh start this year and I’ll be looking to get as many goals and as many games as possible but I think we’re building a strong squad and there’ll be plenty of competition and hopefully there’ll be plenty of goals to come from a few of us.
“We’re just building towards that President’s Cup game now. There has been a couple of niggly injuries for some players in the group but hopefully they’ll get back over the next few weeks and we’ll be raring to go against Rovers on the 12th and Sligo the following week,” he said.
As one of only two local men to lift a league trophy for Dundalk, former club captain David Crawley wants to see more from the area breakthrough into the first-team at Oriel Park in the years to come.
The former left back added his name to that of John Murphy in the club’s history books when he picked up the First Division title as captain for the club 20 years ago this May. He followed it up by captaining his hometown club to the FAI Cup a year later before embarking on a hugely successful spell with Shelbourne where further silverware and European adventures followed.
Crawley, whose brother Willie also represented the Lilywhites with honour for many years, would later return to Oriel Park to play a big role in helping the club out of the First Division after seven long years in 2008.
Now back at the club as a coach under new academy manager Stephen McDonnell, Crawley will help coach the club’s U-14 side in the year ahead.
While he admits he is starting at the bottom of the coaching ladder, the now 43-year-old says he wants to encourage young local talent to break through to the club’s first-team in the years ahead.
“Stephen McDonnell got the job as academy manager and before it was announced he got onto me and asked me would I get involved,” explained David.
“I was going to go to Warrenpoint with Stephen at one stage to do a bit of coaching but unfortunately things didn’t work out for him there in the end. When he came onto me a few weeks ago he said this is a great opportunity for both of us and in fairness my kids are 10, 13 and 19 so they’re sort of grown up now. Then when I said it to my wife, Carla, she said if you ever want to get involved with Dundalk again then this is your opportunity.
“I’m going in as a coach to the U-14s and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m starting at the bottom of the ladder but hopefully I can climb that ladder in a couple of years and dream big. That’s the way I’m looking at it.
“When you play one game for Dundalk it’s a great honour but I’ve been lucky to play over 320 games and it’s only when you’re finished you realise what it means. I played under so many great managers up there, the likes of Jim McLaughlin, Dermot Keely, Tommy Connolly, Tommy McConville etc so I’m hoping to go up there and get a couple of local boys playing. At the end of the day I’m at U-14 level but I want to be pushing them on to U-15s and hopefully beyond so that they’re eventually pushing for the first team,” he said.
Crawley feels his own experience of being at the club as a teenager will help him in his new role.
“I’d love to be growing up again to have the opportunity of playing full-time with Dundalk,” he said.
“It’s a massive chance for young kids and hopefully I can put my experience across to them from playing under the likes of Jim McLaughlin, Tommy Connolly and even Pat Fenlon at Shels. I was in and around the reserve team when I was just gone 15 so I know what it is like. I know I haven’t been there for a while but hopefully this is the start of something good.
“I can remember going to Oriel Park and we used to train down in the De La Salle and Jim McLaughlin used to make us run down to the De La Salle to play indoor football. I used to train with Tommy McConville, Barry Kehoe, Willie (Crawley), Paul McLaughlin, Denis Cunningham, and all these greats but it stood to me because they used to kick me up and down the pitch.
“I got great experience out of it and whatever I put into football I got out of it.
“I’ll be honest there was a stage of my life where I said I’m never going to win anything but all of a sudden I had two First Divisions and I won an FAI Cup as a captain. To me that’s my biggest achievement.
“I used to go up and watch Dundalk every Sunday with my mother and when they won the 88 Cup coming over Hill Street Bridge I was directly in front of the bus saying to myself these are heroes so for me to do that was a massive achievement and I still get a massive buzz out of it. It’s only really when you retire that you appreciate it.
“The likes of Brian Gartland can’t enjoy it now because they’re always going again and going again but they’ll have some memories when they look back on it in years to come. You can’t beat memories and what Dundalk have done over the last six or seven years has been unbelievable but fingers crossed it keeps going for many years to come.”
He reiterated his desire for the club’s long legacy of talented local players to continue into the future.
“We want locals to get a chance,” said Crawley.
“At the end of the day there’s always going to be Dublin boys or boys from Derry. That’s the way it has always been but the more locals we can get into the team the more people you’ll get into Oriel Park because if your son is playing his friends, relatives etc will hopefully all go,” he said.
Dundalk are hopeful of having further new faces in their squad by the time they play their first pre-season game this Friday.
The match with Bohemians at Oriel Park (kick-off 12 noon) will be streamed to supporters for free by the club and is one of just two friendlies currently planned ahead of the start of the season after a scheduled match away to Derry City today (Tuesday) had to be postponed due to the large number of injuries within the camp at present.
As well as the Bohs game, Filippo Giovagnoli’s side will also face neighbours Drogheda Utd in the annual Malone Cup match at United Park on Saturday March 6th before the President’s Cup meeting with Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght on Friday March 12th and the league opener away to Sligo Rovers on Saturday March 20th.
Following the return to Oriel Park of goalkeeper Peter Cherrie last week and capture of young local teenager Ryan O’Kane, Dundalk are set to further bolster their squad this week.
Former Sligo Rovers and Derry City player Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe is understood to have completed his move to the FAI Cup winners with a formal announcement expected this week.
Another goalkeeper to provide competition to Cherrie and Albanian Alessio Abibi is also on the radar although a possible move for Barnsley’s 6ft 7in netminder Corey Addai is now understood to be off.
Meanwhile, having announced the signing of midfielder Taner Dogan on Monday, the club are also expected to complete a deal for fellow American Jesús ‘Chino’ Pérez who was on trial at the club last winter. Dogan, while not officially a Dundalk player, was associated with the club last year but spent the campaign playing for Athlone Town in the First Division. Both he and Pérez are expected to be loaned out this season.
Other American youngsters German Giammattei and Dane Lind are also believed to have returned to Oriel Park while Canadian full back Terique Mohammed has arrived on trial.
At this stage it is looking unlikely that South Korean winger Han Eui-gwon will be granted a permit to join Dundalk following his release from K League outfit Suwon Samsung Bluewings as he was one game shy of the quota of matches required to have been played last year but an appeal over the matter to a higher body has not been ruled out.
Meanwhile, midfielder Will Patching is set to join Derry City on loan while another talented youngster, Andrew Quinn, has also secured a loan move to Bray Wanderers.
Peter Cherrie insists he has not come back to Oriel Park to sit on the bench after re-signing for Dundalk almost six years and four months on from his last game for the club.
As first revealed by The Argus, the 37-year-old goalkeeper sealed an emotional return to the club he first joined from Clyde in his native Scotland back in the summer of 2009 last week.
In his initial spell at Oriel Park, Cherrie made 237 appearances for the club and won an EA Sports Cup and league title in his final season in 2014.
Since then he has had spells at Cliftonville, Bray Wanderers, Cork City and Derry City with his future very much up in the air following his release by the Candystripes at the end of last season.
However, Cherrie’s career has been given a lifeline in the wake of being invited in to train with his old club recently by former team-mate and current Dundalk FC academy manager Stephen McDonnell.
Now having secured a contract for the forthcoming season, Cherrie told dundalkfc.com that he is not just here to sit on the bench and wants to push Albanian Alessio Abibi for the starting position between the sticks.
“It has never been in my nature to come and sit on a bench. It’s just not in me. If that day comes then I may as well retire,” he told the Black and White Town podcast.
“I know a lot of people go on about me being 37 but that really doesn’t matter. To be honest it gets on my nerves when people say that because at the end of the day it’s all about how the body feels. If I can still do it out on the pitch and the boys are confident in me then that’s all I need to know.
“You look at the likes of Buffon going on into his 40s and that shows age doesn’t matter. It’s all about the body.
“I’m not here to sit on the bench and hope I get in. I’m here to push every single day and I will work every single day and I’ve told the boss that as well because I might only have a couple of years or a year left in me so I’m going to come in every day as if it’s my last.”
Cherrie, who still lives locally in Ardee, said he was as surprised as anyone that the move came about.
Asked what he would have said if he had been told he would be back at Oriel Park just a few weeks ago, he said: “I’d have probably said no chance, it’s never going to happen because I know all the success Dundalk have had over recent years and people would probably have said Peter is getting on a bit and he’s not at that level but when I got the call I thought ‘yeah, I know I’ve still got it so I’m going to give it a push’ and now I’m absolutely delighted.
“It came about because of Stephen McDonnell, who I know very well. I was just chatting away with him and he said to me about maybe coming in and training with Dundalk. I said it would make more sense because it’s local and easier.
“He phoned me up one night and said the boss said you can come in and train no problem and it just sort of steamrolled from there and I’m absolutely delighted that it did,” said Cherrie.
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.