Even before Dundalk’s European campaign was ended by Slovan Bratislava, the post mortem into the summer had begun.
There were any amount of people lining up to tell you all about the League of Ireland’s deficiencies, the lack of quality among players and their thoughts on how that could be rectified.
Most, including high profile pundits such as Stuart Byrne and Alan Cawley, argued that in order for Irish sides to seriously compete on the European stage the league needed foreign imports to take it to “the next level”.
It’s a thought process that has been shared time and time again since Dundalk became the last of the four Irish sides to bow out of the Europa League.
Is it really that simple though?
It’s 15 years since a Shelbourne side which Byrne and Cawley played in went on that memorable Champions League run which saw them beat KR Reykjavik and Hajduk Split before losing 3-0 away to Deportivo La Coruna in the third qualifying round having drawn the first leg 0-0 at Lansdowne Road.
They would go on to play in the first round of the old UEFA Cup against Lille that September but despite a gutsy 2-2 draw in the first leg at Lansdowne, their European adventure was ended by a 2-0 second leg defeat in France a fortnight later.
The interesting thing about that Shelbourne team was that, former Cameroon international Joseph N’Do aside, there were no real foreign imports as such. Liverpudlian Dave Rogers was a key member of the side, as were the Welsh duo of Steve Williams and Jamie Harris but the latter pair had already been in the league for a number of years before that memorable run.
What perhaps set them apart was that they all made Ireland their home. Williams is the current Dundalk goalkeeping coach and is living in the town, as is Rogers. Harris is a personal trainer in Dublin while the 43-year-old N’Do is still registered to play with Achill Rovers in Mayo.
There was a similar story with Shamrock Rovers when they reached the Holy Grail of the Europa League group stages in 2011. Jamaican Ryan Thompson did feature in goal for them in a number of European games but only after first choice Alan Mannus, now back in Tallaght, had signed for St Johnstone that July.
Scottish duo Craig Sives and Gary Twigg were also a key part of the Rovers side but while both are now Hoops legends, they arrived in Tallaght with question marks very much over them.
Centre back Sives initially failed a medical in March 2009 but was offered a chance to go through a rehabilitation programme with the club’s medical staff in a non-paid capacity before finally securing a short-term deal a few months later.
Twigg, who would score a stunning 124 goals in 160 appearances for the Hoops, looks a snip in hindsight at €15,000 but he only arrived in Tallaght having followed manager Michael O’Neill from Scottish Second Division side Brechin City.
Just three and a half years after he had failed a trial at Derry City, current Northern Irish boss O’Neill helped transform Twigg’s career after he had his contract cancelled at Hamilton Academical following a falling out with manager Billy Reid.
Then, of course, there was the memorable Dundalk side of 2016 where the nearest thing to foreign flair in the squad was Romanian-born, Italian-raised back-up goalkeeper Gabriel Sava who had been living in Drogheda for the previous 15 years due to family connections with the town.
While what Stephen Kenny’s side achieved back then was no doubt incredible and led to the club being taken over by a PEAK6-led consortium just over 20 months ago, there’s little doubt that the prospects of an Irish team repeating those three memorable runs has got much more difficult.
For a start, there’s another round to negotiate to make the group stages but also a lot of other so-called ‘weaker nations’ have also copped on to the rewards of Europe and have invested accordingly to seek them out.
Without going into the many possible examples, you only have to take Dundalk’s last four European opponents to see what we are up against. AEK Larnaca, who went on to the Europa League group stages last year following a 4-0 win over the Lilywhites in Cyprus, have used both finance and climate to attract several former La Liga stars while in captain Ivan Trichkovski they have a player with 54 Macedonian caps who has even scored against the Republic of Ireland national side at the Aviva Stadium during Euro 2012 qualification.
Onto this season and Dundalk’s first opponents were Riga FC, a side whose co-efficient is only as low as it is because they were founded just five years ago. Many expected Vinny Perth’s side to comfortably see off the Latvians but after a stalemate over 210 minutes, it went to the lottery of a shoot-out for the Lilywhites to advance.
Since then Riga – who have nine different nationalities in their squad with hundreds of international caps between them – have dispatched of Polish champions Piast Gliwice and HJK of Finland to reach the play-off round of the Europa League against FC Copenhagen.
Next up was Azerbaijani kingpins Qarabag. Having reached the group stages of the Europa League in four of the last five seasons and the Champions League in the other, they are likely to do so again despite a shock 3-2 loss away to Linfield in last week’s first-leg Europa League play-off tie at Windsor Park.
Despite a disappointing defeat to APOEL in the Champions League qualifiers after their meeting with Dundalk, they are a serious outfit with eight different nationalities and millions of euro at their disposal. Indeed, the gulf between Dundalk and Qarabag can perhaps be best summed up by the way both sides travelled to face the other. While Gurban Gurbanov’s men made their way to Ireland via their Government’s jet, Dundalk’s route to Baku was much more modest. Even had the Irish Government offered up its jet to the League of Ireland champions it would have been most unsuitable given it contains just eight seats.
Then there was Slovan Bratislava. Admittedly, there was a feeling that Dundalk should have fared better against the Slovakian champions but Jan Kozak’s side are no slouches either. Like the others Dundalk have faced, they have a wealth of international experience with 14 different nationalities in their squad and are in a market where they are now paying seven figure sums for players.
It sums up their spending power that Nigerian international Rabiu Ibrahim, a €1 million signing from Gent in 2017, didn’t play a minute against the Lilywhites. He is not even their record signing but the figure paid for him shows how worlds apart these sides are in terms of finances given that the 2017 signing of Dylan Connolly for €40,000 remains Dundalk’s biggest transfer splurge to date.
It’s easy to say Dundalk should look abroad to strengthen but the reality is you can count on one hand how many foreign imports to this league have set it alight over the years.
The aforementioned N’Do is undoubtedly one but the fear is that for every N’Do there is at least a dozen Marco Tagbajumi’s. The Nigerian-born striker, who departed Oriel Park in the summer of last year, has yet to score a competitive goal since netting the last in a 5-0 win over Bray Wanderers at Oriel Park in May 2018.
He, along with Karolis Chvedukas, are warning signs of how you can get burnt by looking abroad. On paper the Lithuanian international – now at Waterford – could and probably should have been the league’s best player. More than 18 months on from his arrival on these shores though, he has yet to set the world alight in even a solitary game.
In recent times Dundalk have arguably only had two success stories when it comes to foreign imports. Krisztián Adorján was just getting up to speed when his loan from Novara came to an end but the finances required to turn that deal permanent were prohibitive and he ended up at Serie C side Virtus Entella.
Granted it probably suited Dundalk at the time to get Patrick McEleney back on board following his brief spell at Oldham Athletic, but it shows the depth of waters you’re entering when competing financially with third tier Italian sides is an issue.
The only other success was Niclas Vemmelund, who stood out at centre back in Dundalk’s Champions League defeat to Rosenborg in 2017. The move for Vemmelund was perhaps less of a risk given the Dane had played a season with Derry City prior to his move to Oriel.
Nevertheless, Vemmelund’s experience here highlighted why other nationalities might not want to come here.
Speaking to The Argus before the 2017 FAI Cup final, a match which proved to be his final game for the Lilywhites before returning to his homeland to play with Middelfart, the Dane admitted to being homesick and described Dundalk as “boring”.
He said: “There’s not much to do around here.
“You can go play snooker, go to the gym or take a walk around the town. That’s pretty much it.
“There are a couple of the boys living here and I see them every once in a while and we go to the cinema or for coffee or whatever we can do but overall there’s not much to do.
“I don’t have a car here so I don’t have a chance to get around. On our days off some of the guys go back to Derry or Dublin or wherever but I can’t go home. Of course you have your training and you can go to the gym but there’s only so much of that you can do.”
Which begs the question, even leaving finances aside, why would someone turn down the opportunity to live in cities such as Larnaca, Riga, Baku or Bratislava – with all of their attractions – to come to Dundalk.
The constant bleating over the need to upgrade Oriel Park might be a tune the current owners are sick of by now but even they must admit that a tired, dilapidated ground with an artificial surface is hardly likely to attract the world’s best talents. That’s a factor that is unlikely to change either given Mike Treacy’s remark at a recent club gathering that “We’re not here to build real estate.”
Dundalk neither want nor need something like the €75 million Tehelné pole stadium in Bratislava where they last played but their visit there was another timely reminder of just how far apart they are from even average European clubs when it comes to infrastructure.
Leaving aside issues with attractions, weather and facilities, perhaps Dundalk’s biggest hindrance is the league they are operating in. In an environment where the €150,000 for a chartered flight to Baku will cost more than Dundalk will amass from winning the league title (€110,000), you’ve got an issue if you’re going to push the boat out to land the calibre of player wanted.
The lack of sizeable crowds, TV revenue and any sort of Government or local authority support are other factors which don’t help clubs here grow on or off the field.
As well as Byrne and Cawley, Brian Kerr – the Godfather of Irish football – also called for more foreign imports recently, describing the current set up here as ‘beige’.
Those comments weren’t lost on Vinny Perth but speaking after the Slovan game, he admitted that even the former Republic of Ireland boss struggled with attracting outsiders to the league.
“Definitely we need some improvement in the league but players don’t come until you’re in and around a certain stage.
“I heard Brian Kerr’s comments and while I agree with him, I remember not that long ago himself and people at Pat’s trying to dominate this league and they never brought anyone in from the outside either because it’s difficult.
“We have a perception issue and we have to fix that first. Being in and around these stages will help us. People know Dundalk around Europe but we need to be in at least the play-offs.
“A little bit of luck in the draw would go a long way. Riga was probably the second worst side we could have got after Astana and then Qarabag was the worst draw. You probably need two good draws in the Champions League and then you get two cracks at the Europa League. That’s what we need over the next year or two.”
Can players be attracted here though? Perth is unsure but thinks it needs to be explored.
“I genuinely think we need a hand,” he said after the recent win over Finn Harps.
“There is obviously really top quality players outside of Dundalk in the League of Ireland but there’s not a huge amount. We’re not missing out on a load of players.
“We definitely need a hand but no other club has done it so we’re stepping into the unknown. It’s difficult to get players to come here as well but I’m really happy with the group we have.
“They do need a hand but the group we have aren’t that far off it and that has to be said. We’ve never used budgets as an excuse and we’re not going to now.
“People criticise us for budgets ironically but when we broke Europe in 2016 we broke it with Gannon who was released by the two so-called big clubs at the time, Gartland was there for everyone to sign, as was Boyle, Massey and Chris Shields. That wasn’t done on budgets. That was about getting people at the right time and that’s the key. We’ll get people at the right time and develop them onto the next stage.”
If you remove emotion and bias from the equation, Dundalk should have no right to compete with Europe’s best given how far apart they are in terms of resources. Quite frankly, they’re worlds apart and will continue to be for some time to come.
Nevertheless it’s fair to say that that “right time” that Perth spoke about just didn’t come for Dundalk this year.
While a treble remains a possibility domestically, injuries have taken their toll when it comes to Europe. Robbie Benson was a huge loss and with several others having had issues throughout the season, unfortunately too many key men went into the biggest games of the year out of form and low on confidence.
That has led to all sorts of debates about what Dundalk need but Perth is wary about mass changes – pointing out how important it is to keep winning the league to ensure the club have the best possible crack at Europe.
“One is they have to improve you, the second is they have to want to come here and the last thing is how you integrate them into the group so it’s not as simple as that,” he said.
“I genuinely believe Stephen Kenny’s biggest achievement in this club was winning the league back after 2017. That gave us the platform to go on from there and the platform for this year where we’re currently standing and that was done on the back of new owners.
“They’re only in this club just over 18 months and I think we’ve got the right blend here. Europe is our holy grail as a club and we’ll get there but we’ve built a couple of blocks this year and it might not look like that from the outside but the people who need to learn the most from what has gone on in the past few weeks is probably me and the owners, not the players because the players are an outstanding group and they deserve everything they’ve got over the last couple of years because they’ve put us in this place and made people invest in us. They’ve made my job very easy.
”I believe we can get there in time. I’m going to that next level and my focus is improving this group ahead of this time next year. Whether I can do it or not I don’t know but I’m going to try.”
The margins are admittedly fine when it comes to Europe but Perth has challenged his players to go up levels.
“I’d be accused of being a dreamer but Pat Hoban had a big, big chance with 15 minutes to go at 1-0 down away in Qarabag. I don’t know what would have happened had that gone in but that’s what happens. They’re fine margins.
“Going back to 2016 even, we were completely and utterly outplayed by BATE Borisov away from home and the fact we came home at 1-0, we were shocked. Then it turned for us here and it was a special night. We can’t rely on that. We need to go up levels to be able to compete and that’s ultimately our plan.”
It’s a plan that Perth is not exactly spearheading.
The arrival of Bournemouth’s Senior Recruitment Consultant Andy Burton at the club at the end of last year has changed the old way of doing things. He now oversees all incomings, outgoings and contract negotiations but it’s fair to say he’s had limited success his role so far.
The former Sky Sports reporter’s exact title has never been revealed. Of the 40 different names featured on the inside of the club’s match day programme his does not appear and yet his influence at the club is significant.
He had a big role to play in the Temple Street/third kit initiative and has become increasingly involved in overseeing media operations in recent weeks. Yet when it comes to recruitment, he has yet to truly deliver.
The bulk of the pre-season arrivals were acquired by the management team’s scouting while despite several efforts to attract others here in the summer, the only player to join was Andy Boyle who had previous links with the club.
The attitude of Burton was that a handful of players could be attracted to Oriel Park on wages over and above the norm but even a series of inflated offers have yet to prove fruitful.
The fear among some within the club is that inflated wages will lead to discontent in the dressing room and greater demands from those already here when contract negotiations come around.
That’s a scenario that has yet to emerge but who exactly is worth forking out for?
Lawrence Shankland, who has since moved to Dundee United from Ayr, and Ashley Nadesan, who turned down the League of Ireland to move from Fleetwood Town to Crawley Town, were both offered weekly wages well above what the current highest earner at the club is on.
While relative unknowns such as Shankland and Nadesan (both 24) could easily have proved to be the next Gary Twigg and an improvement on the strikers currently at the club, similar moves for former Republic of Ireland international Simon Cox and one-time England cap David Nugent hardly scream long-term thinking. While either could have proved an inspirational signing, big name arrivals from the UK in the past such as Rohan Ricketts and Carlton Palmer simply haven’t worked out and even Irishmen who had stellar careers in England such as Damien Delaney and Damien Duff struggled on their return here at the tail end of their careers.
Every signing poses some risk but that risk increases ten fold when you change your wage structure to make it happen.
In recent days it has also emerged that Irish underage striker Jonathan Afolabi was targeted following his summer release by Southampton but once again Dundalk missed out on their man as he penned a three-year deal with Celtic.
The one striker that was almost delivered was Ipswich Town’s Irish U-21 international Aaron Drinan, who spent the first half of this season on loan at Waterford FC. That move fell through however when he wasn’t wanted by Perth while a similar move for David Meyler in the last couple of weeks that was all but completed fell apart for the same reasoning, begging the question who is really spearheading the future vision for the club?
There have been several moves made for a number of midfielders both in the UK and abroad, with former Lilywhite Richie Towell among them, but again nothing has come to fruition as yet.
While Brian Gartland and Chris Shields have been tied down on new deals in recent months, there remains six senior players out of contract at the end of the season – none of whom are close to signing on for next year as things stand.
The most high profile of those whose deal is up at the end of the season is the club’s all-time leading league goalscorer Patrick Hoban. He went public earlier in the summer to say that a deal that had been offered previously was no longer on the table. Hoban’s request is for more than one year but personal issues have meant that there is currently a stand off with regard to these negotiations. While it is Perth’s desire to keep him, well placed sources within Oriel Park suggest no new deal will be forthcoming and he will be allowed to leave at the end of the season.
That would be a great pity as, while Dundalk undoubtedly need another option up front, Hoban is certainly good enough to be one of the three strikers a club like this should have on its books to compete on all fronts. His four goal haul against Bohemians last Monday was a reminder of his talents and while no one would claim he has been as good as last season, Perth himself has admitted that the striker has suffered more than most due to the injuries and lack of form of those behind him.
Still, when goals and assists are added he has been involved in 36.5% of Dundalk’s goals in all competitions this season – more than any other player. Despite breaking records in 2018, he was involved in 34.5% of all Dundalk’s goal last year.
With Dan Carr departing for Apollon Limassol last week, the number nine jersey at Shamrock Rovers is free. Stephen Bradley’s side are an example of a team who have struggled to find a forward in recent years. Effectively gift-wrapping Hoban for them might be a decision the club regret in the long-term.
Of the other out of contract players, Stephen Folan will not have his deal renewed while Dean Jarvis could also be let go after his recent suspension by the club even though potential replacement Daniel Lafferty signed for Rovers last week.
As assets go, at 22-years-old Jamie McGrath is probably the biggest on the club’s books but he is understood to be weighing up options in the UK while Robbie Benson will once again wait until the end of the year before determining whether to continue on playing or to put his Actuarial degree into use. The Athlone man has always said he will continue playing as long as he is enjoying it but after a frustrating year of injuries where he has often felt behind when not sidelined, there are fears he could call it a day.
Then there is goalkeeper Gary Rogers. With 17 clean sheets in the league so far, a handful of top displays in Europe and penalty heroics in Riga, the veteran has shown no signs of slowing down. Yet the club’s pursuit of a goalkeeper in the days before that shoot-out win in which he excelled suggest they will return to that market in the winter.
A European midfielder remains in discussion at present as the club turn their attention towards Eastern and Central Europe for recruits.
With the possible departures, it could mean that up to half a dozen new recruits are required before the start of next season but while targets will undoubtedly be lofty, there can be little confidence of landing them all in that quantity and even if they did so there’s no saying how long it would take that many players to settle.
Leaving aside targets abroad, it must be remembered that Dundalk have also missed out on several domestic players too in the last year or so. Dylan Watts, Aaron McEneff, Liam Scales and Zack Elbouzedi were all wanted at Oriel Park but none came.
It’s no slight on the owners that they’ve found it hard to attract players to the town but the continued uncertainty behind the scenes is doing little to help that cause.
The day after Dundalk’s 0-0 first leg draw with Riga the chat in the players’ gym was not so much on the match the night before but rather over rumours linking former Tottenham and Liverpool winger Nick Barmby with some form of managerial or coaching role at the club.
Rumours can be exactly that, with little or no substance, but in this case they did little to help the side prepare for the biggest match of their season.
Those rumours have persisted ever since. Vinny Perth might still be in the running to win everything domestically this season but he remains a man under pressure with only a partial say in where things go from here.
It could be a winter of great change at Oriel Park.
Commentators might be calling for outside reinforcements but while we all desire Dundalk to do well in Europe, what it takes to get there must be considered.
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.