Dundalk may well have to do things the hard way on and off the field if they are to retain their league title this season.
On Friday, the FAI and the National League Executive Committee held a teleconference where it was decided that the weekend of June 19th was the new target date for the resumption of the SSE Airtricity League, with the league set to conclude on Friday December 4th.
In order to accommodate this the league will be reduced to 27 games in total with the fourth round of games removed from the schedule.
While most people would be happy to see the resumption of games on that date as it would mean the end of the current Covid-19 pandemic, it does throw up problems both on and off the pitch for Dundalk FC.
Firstly, the removal of the final round of matches would mean that it would be advantage Shamrock Rovers in the title race as they would play Dundalk twice at Tallaght Stadium – one of which they have already won last month – compared to just one game in Oriel Park. Dundalk would also face the prospect of two trips to Dalymount Park to face last season’s third best team in the league, Bohemians.
While the side’s away form is generally strong and they have good recent records at both Tallaght and Dalymount despite defeats on their last two visits there, it does make things that little bit trickier if they are to make it three league wins in-a-row come the end of the season.
Then there is the financial implications as well. The removal of the final series of games means five less home games at Oriel Park with the visits of Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers, Finn Harps, Bohemians and Sligo lost.
To put that in context, two of Dundalk’s three biggest gates last season were for home games against Rovers. The match on April 26th was the only game to break the 4,000 mark with 4,026 in attendance while the game that wrapped up the league title last September brought in 3,634. The only game in between was the early season meeting with Cork City which attracted 3,783 to the Carrick Road venue.
The fourth highest attendance the club recorded was for last season’s league opener against Sligo Rovers when 3,347 turned out for what was Vinny Perth’s first league game in charge since replacing Stephen Kenny. While that undoubtedly led to a larger turnout, losing a potential bumper crowd for a final league game of the season is also a blow as, barring any changes to the fixtures, Dundalk will now finish their season away to Sligo in The Showgrounds.
While Shelbourne were not in the league last season, it’s fair to say they would be expected to bring more than the 1,843 who turned out for the visit of the side they replaced in the league, UCD, last season. That was the club’s lowest gate of 2019.
Similarly the last visits of Finn Harps (2,217) and Bohemians (2,312) brought decent crowds with a larger crowd due to be expected for the visit of the latter only for the fact that game was played on a Monday.
Even taking into account Dundalk’s average attendance of 2,753 last season, the loss of five home matches would mean around 14,000 less people through the turnstiles of Oriel Park this year. At an average of €15 per ticket that is a sizeable chunk of revenue lost to a club with the highest wage bill in the league.
Admittedly, a large number of those attending would be season ticket holders and therefore not be paying for their day to day admission but when you factor in the additional revenue from the club shop, the bar, lotto sales etc, it is a sizeable blow to the club coffers. Factor in that the EA Sports Cup has been axed and it is another potential source of revenue gone.
Given Dundalk’s position they will get little sympathy from around the league – especially given the fact that just about virtually every other club is in the same boat. Some, most notably Sligo Rovers and Cork City, have already had to lay people off for example with others bound to follow.
Having bigger commitments creates bigger headaches though.
Make no doubt about it, Dundalk’s wage bill both on and off the field is sizeable. While the club are fortunate to have money in the bank from their historic Europa League run in 2016, they now face the prospect of paying staff for a period of around three and a half months – at best – to do virtually nothing. Of course, players are still doing their own bits and pieces to maintain their fitness but with the Covid-19 pandemic likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, it will be some time before the side are back training together again.
The word behind the scenes are that owners PEAK6 will continue to honour contracts during this unprecedented crisis and, if so, that is admirable.
Yet, given there has always been doubts about their long-term intentions from a certain element of the Dundalk support, you can’t help but feel they are missing a trick by not going public now to back the club, the community, their staff and supporters in these very worrying times.
That may well come or maybe they will let their actions do the talking.
There are bigger concerns for the people of this area, of course, but either way Covid-19 presents a unique challenge for the club off the field and will again on it whenever football resumes. Getting back to a game at Oriel will no doubt feel as good as any title win though and, hopefully, we are all there to see it.