Ahead of Tuesday’s draw for the first qualifying round of the Champions League, I sat down with Dundalk FC head coach Vinny Perth to get his views on Europe, the pressure of the job, group stage targets, Stephen Kenny’s shadow, the development of his players, this week’s training camp in Spain, the latest on transfers and much more.
Check out the extended Q&A below…
James Rogers: The European draw obviously comes into focus now, how do you feel about it?
Vinny Perth: It’s a really special time. Since I’ve been here I think we’ve played 24 European games and personally I’ve been involved in over 30 of them and they’re the highlight of your career in terms of whether you’re a player or a coach because of the level of the opposition. The opposition might not always be big household names but they’re always special occasions. It’s what you’re judged on over your career. Obviously winning leagues and cups is what you’re first judged on but how you do in Europe is a measure of were you just very good or were you excellent and that’s the drive. We’re really looking forward to Europe and we’ve worked hard on it. I believe one of the so-called pundits said the fact we had no match last weekend was an opportunity to give the players seven or 10 days off but we had four training sessions last week. It was all about going up to the next level because that’s what Europe is. It’s a really exciting time.
JR: It’s your first time taking Europe on in the head coach role. I suppose it’s nothing new to you having been involved with Stephen but how much will you look forward to the different challenge where, depending on the opposition, they might not sit back as much as a League of Ireland side might and equally you might not have the ball as much as you would domestically as well?
VP: I can’t answer that question without saying that obviously I worked with Stephen Kenny and himself and Jim McLaughlin are the two greatest League of Ireland managers of all-time in our league but I was heavily involved in our style of play, our tactics and team selection over the last six years, particularly around Europe where I was probably more involved than normal so it’s something that I embrace. I’ve no fear of it. It’s just another season of European football in my head. Other people might look at it and say have they lost the experience of Stephen and obviously we have but the fact I was so heavily involved was why we as a club made the decision to keep myself in and around the centre of the management team so it’s not a concern in any way, shape or form for me personally but ultimately the staff will be judged when the European campaign ends.
JR: Do you think it’s fair that you could maybe win another double but lose two rounds in Europe and the season might be judged a failure?
VP: I don’t know. If that’s the worst headache we have this year then we’ll take that. Some people will say I’ve the best job in Irish football, some will say I’ve the easiest job in Irish football but what comes with being around this club is pressure to achieve at the highest level. Anything other than winning a league is failure, anything other than not having a good European campaign means we have underachieved so that is massive pressure and you don’t get that at most other clubs. There’s a fine line between the two. I don’t know how the season will be judged until it’s over but we’ve started okay and we’re on a good road and we’ll see where that goes.
JR: I’m sure you’ve had a look at the teams and there’s too many to go into all of them but needless to say there’s a few there that needless to say you’d want to avoid. The likes of the Polish champions Piast Gliwice, Cluj and Ferencváros…
VP: The Lithuanian side have a massive budget as well. I have the lists, I’ve gone through them and looked at all of the clubs but I haven’t looked at one player from any of the clubs because it’s a waste of energy. I’ve enough to be focused on but once the draw is put into its pots this weekend we’ll start and then there’s no point in worrying about it until after the draw on Tuesday. The advantage we’ve given ourselves is we’re worried about one or two teams whereas previously we were worried about five teams because they all had higher seedings. The year we had FH, they were the one we probably wanted, but this year we’re trying to avoid maybe two out of five or three out of six so we’re in a better position because of our record on the pitch. It’s a lot more positive but like any draw in a cup competition you need a lot of luck in order to progress.
JR: In terms of Europe, it’s a great opportunity for players to come to the fore. When you think back to 2016, Robbie Benson wasn’t in the team a lot before Europe and got three goals. Ciaran Kilduff obviously contributed in the league as well but the goals he is best remembered for are against Alkmaar and Tel Aviv. Is it a chance for lads who maybe haven’t been leading lights so far this year to add something different to the equation now?
VP: Definitely. I’ve used Stephen Donald, who played for the All Blacks, as motivation for people. He was fourth choice number 10 and was out fishing but they had a serious amount of injuries at number 10 and he ended up scoring the winning penalty in the World Cup final against South Africa in 2011. I’ve shown the lads that video and none of them had heard of the guy before so it can be someone coming from nowhere who makes a difference when it really matters. It can be a keeper making a penalty save or something. Europe is always like that. The magic of cup competitions is that somebody can come from nowhere to be the hero.
JR: Even last year Dylan Connolly popped up with a big goal in Tallinn…
VP: Let’s be fair there was a bit of criticism of Dylan from other people but we really respected him hugely and we saw the benefits he brought to the team in terms of his pace which created problems and allowed space in other areas. His goal away from home last year was probably worth €200-odd thousand to this club. The challenge is for the players to be inspired by Europe and see who is the next Stephen Donald. That’s the figure I’ve used but it could be who is the next Ciaran Kilduff, the next Robbie Benson or David McMillan, who all got big goals. It’s exciting for the players and something for them to really look forward to.
JR: I’m sure you’ll look at the first round before even contemplating talk of the group stages but needless to say it’s harder to get there now than when you done it before. I know you need a little luck along the way but do you think getting to the group stages again is something that is achievable?
VP: Yeah. If we’re not aspiring to be in the group stages of the Europa League then we’re selling ourselves short. I believe the club is getting closer to having the right infrastructure, we’re getting closer to having the squad capable of doing it again but ultimately you need a couple of things to go your way. Our seeding is what it is but you’re trying to compete against some major clubs to get back into that area. Once this competition starts our focus is trying to get into the group stages of the Europa League again. You must dream and you must believe you can do that. The standards we’ve had in the club over the last six or seven years has always been that high that when we have gone out of Europe, no matter whether it was against Hajduk Split, Rosenborg or even not getting out of the group in 2016, there’s always disappointment when we go out of Europe at whatever stage that may be. It’s a massive target for us but we certainly have no inferiority complex with anybody that we’ll meet. We’ll give it everything that it deserves. That’s why we will be working hard this week when the easier thing to do is to take seven or 10 days holidays. That’s not what we do around here. We’re getting ready for Europe and the back end of the season.
JR: How much have you learnt from 2016 because while it didn’t immediately affect you the fixture congestion probably crippled you more the next season. I presume you don’t want a situation where you’re squeezing a lot of games in between European matches?
VP: I think that’s going to happen. I think we’re going to struggle with the fixture list. We’ve a free weekend this week. We did try really hard to move fixtures forward but that was deemed undoable. It will be an issue for us but at the same time we’ve got a good enough squad. To be fair to the owners of the club, they’ve really backed the group. In 2016 the squad wasn’t as big or as deep as it is now. We probably didn’t have the squad to rotate that we do now. We’re probably in a better position. We’re starting to see players come back. Robbie Benson more or less trained this week, Sean Murray more or less trained this week and they’ve partially been integrated in the group so they’ll be massive players for us in the second half of the season.
JR: In the first six months you’ve probably been compared a little to Stephen Kenny but one thing you’ve probably done more than him is rotate players. As you say you’ve probably had a deeper squad to allow you to do that but is that a conscious thing with Europe in mind?
VP: I don’t think I’ve necessarily had a choice to a point. I know I’ve rotated the centre half position where we haven’t had that many injuries but there has been injuries in the background. Sean Hoare, for argument’s sake, had a lot of niggles last week and we just felt that Brian and Dan were in such a good place that both of them were ready to play. Some of it has been forced, some of it has been keeping people fresh. I expect Stephen Kenny’s name to be continuously coming up and I don’t mind that. It would probably be different if there was a manager in place but because me and him worked so closely I expect his name to continue to come up. I wouldn’t be in any way, shape or form, upset about that. In fact, I take it as a compliment that I’m so heavily linked to him but I have slightly different beliefs than Stephen in terms of certain things but I think if Stephen had the squad that we do we maybe would have rotated more than we did but we’ve always rotated the number nine jersey to a point between McMillan and Kilduff. It has probably happened less this year because of injuries but when you’ve got so many players in the one group it’s hard not to keep them fresh and motivated. You might see that settle down a little bit but who knows?
JR: What do you hope to get out of Spain this week?
VP: This week was a lot more about fitness work and sharpness. We did speed and power stuff that you really need to be at the peak of your performance heading into Europe. Spain is something we’ll use to work a little bit more on how we set up the team. We’ll practice dropping off against a certain team and we’ll practice running around in the heat because last year we had really exceptional weather in Ireland but it does take a bit of getting used to. We had it in Larnaca and we could have it in one or two venues where it could be anywhere between 25 to 35 degrees so you need to practice in that. Also then even in our domestic league there is areas of improvement we can make. We’ve played against a back five in the last four games and we need to work on breaking teams down. At times that can be just practicing low tempo situations and who runs where. It’s very much targeted at improving the style of play in the team and learning new styles as we head into Europe.
JR: I’m sure it varies game by game but you’re 20-odd matches into the season now between the league and cups and you probably haven’t picked your first choice squad yet.
VP: No but when everybody is fit I’m going to let Ruaidhrí and John pick the squad because I wouldn’t know who to leave out. The answer to that is who is the best between Jarvis and Massey, for example? We don’t know that so that’s great to have because you need to be really on form to get in the team. Who is better Murray or Benson? It’s a great debate and people are probably having it but form, how you train and your performances the week before will get you into the team and that’s really what you want. We’ve seen that in the right wing position. Both wingers have got hat-tricks to keep the other out of the team. If you look at the level John Mountney has gone to over the last four weeks, he has only gone to that level because of the performances of Daniel Kelly for the six weeks before that. It’s a brilliant place to be in and a challenge we’re looking forward to.
JR: It’s something that has maybe gone under the radar a little but how big was it for Jordan Flores to get 90 minutes against Finn Harps?
VP: That’s massive. It was a milestone we would have spoken about. It was massive for him personally. People don’t see that players can be emotional and have feelings but that was a special moment for him. I nearly took him off with five minutes to go because we were bringing Dylan Hand on but I said I wanted Jordan to finish the 90 minutes so we took off Chris Shields. It was brilliant for him to play the 90. We did say Jordan was going to take longer to get to where we wanted him to get to. He’s not there yet but he’s well on the way. It has always been the way and I don’t know why it is but a lot of players coming here take six to nine months to become Dundalk type players. He’s well on the way to doing that.
JR: Sean Gannon has been named Player of the Month. It’s hard to believe it’s his first isn’t it?
VP: Yeah. Owen Heary in the last 30 years is a legend as such at right back. Sean is well and truly on the way to that. We speak to him a lot about becoming a serial league winner and everything he does in his life has to be about maximising the last little bit of his ability as he heads towards his 30s. He has still got a few years left before he does that. The difference this year is I’ve given him a lot more responsibility. I think Stephen would have done the same thing but he has got a lot more responsibility within the squad and he’s got more leadership roles than he has ever had so I think we’re starting to see the next stage of Sean Gannon – someone who is a senior player and a senior pro. His game has elevated I think this year. He probably could have won the award last month as well but at the same time when he was told he won the award yesterday he was very clear to praise his team-mates. His understanding with Daniel Kelly at the start of the season was brilliant. The two of them have won us penalties and have been brilliant getting to the end line but the combination of him and John Mountney has always been very strong for this club so the lads in front of him have really helped him. It’s just brilliant for him personally. When I look around the dressing room and I see Sean Gannon sitting there I feel that now we’ve got a real man. We used to joke with him that he was heading for Young Player of the Year again but now we’ve got a real man who is a proper leader and a proper winner. People take that type of stuff for granted but it’s not as easy as it looks so to have as many league titles as he has at his age is tremendous.
JR: Finally, I know you’re limited in terms of what you can say but any updates on transfers, re-signings, exits or anything like that?
VP: No, we’re genuinely no closer to signing anybody or for anybody to go out. The window doesn’t open for another two weeks so a lot of things can change in that time. Fellas can become available and we’ll take them if we think they’re going to improve the squad. People may come to me and say they’re not happy and want to leave. The only real one of note, and everybody knows about it, is Stephen Folan. It has probably been a year now since Stephen has played first-team football and I think for him personally we have to look after him and see can he go somewhere to play first-team football. For him to be a year and a half without first team football would affect his career so we’re open to that but there’s nothing to report as yet. Over the course of the next two weeks we’ll have a few discussions with Stephen and different clubs. There’s a lot of interest in him because he’s that good a player but we’ll see how that one goes. Beyond that there’s nobody else nearly done or being close to done so we’ll see where we end up.