It genuinely pains me to have to write something like this but following on from a Letter to the Editor, signed by Dundalk FC CEO Mark Devlin in today’s Argus newspaper, I feel I have no option but to respond to protect my professional integrity.

Without going through point by point of the response signed off on by Mr Devlin, I stand by claims that Dundalk FC or parties operating on the club’s behalf were interested in signing the likes of Ashley Nadesan, David Meyler and Richie Towell. I have solid sources to back these up – sources which I do not doubt and sources which in many and most cases are multiple – but for obvious reasons I cannot publish these without breaching trust. Since publishing the article in question in The Argus on August 27th, more than further confirmation of the accuracy of these reports has been provided to me.

The letter in today’s Argus newspaper

Elements within the club may want to split hairs over the level of interest in some players but, for me, even a message to check on someone’s status is an indication of interest shown and in many ways I would judge the club if they didn’t at least put the feelers out to see would an out of contract player such as Towell be interested in coming home given his success here previously.

I personally feel the club have read too much into what was an opinion piece effectively outlining the difficulty they would have in attracting players who could take them to the so-called “next level”. The original piece, in perhaps a long-winded way, outlined why attracting foreign players would be difficult from the point of view that it has never been really done in Ireland before, to how attracting players here of a significant calibre would be difficult due to culture, climate, cost of living etc when compared with other clubs competing in Europe. I also spoke of the environment the club operate and how Oriel Park in its dilapidated state could prove just as much a hindrance in attracting players as a league where the prize money for winning the Premier Division didn’t even cover the cost of one of the club’s chartered flights to compete in Europe this season.

In mentioning transfer targets, I was doing so to outline that it wasn’t for the want of trying on the club’s behalf to improve the playing staff. Even if all the targets refuted by Mr Devlin in his letter are accurate, there were still eight others mentioned that he failed to deny who, for one reason or another, failed to arrive at Oriel Park.

It is my understanding that all the players I mentioned are no longer active targets due to agreeing deals elsewhere. I purposely did not mention any live targets as I would never want to be accused of potentially scuppering a deal or even alerting another club, be it at home or abroad, to a player’s availability.

I am, first and foremost, a Dundalk fan who wants to see the team do well both on and off the pitch. Not only on my behalf, but I feel there has been an enormous amount of goodwill shown by the local media towards the club over a long period of time. This season alone I personally have sat on news of signings until the club announced them, kept injury news and other team updates quiet and adhered to requests from club staff not to publish other matters, some of which I would never have dreamed of publishing anyway. When the club chairman Mike Treacy contacted me after an interview at the start of the season to say he was uncomfortable with one particular FAI-related question asked I immediately scrapped it from my subsequent piece with him, without question. My response to him at the time was “Happy to scrap that bit as it isn’t my intention to cause you or the club any hassle.” That remains the case.

I’m not looking for any prizes or plaudits for that but I doubt local media elsewhere – and I know I’m not alone in Dundalk in doing some of the above – would do likewise.

Thankfully the success that the club has enjoyed on the field in recent years has meant that I haven’t had to be too critical of players or staff. A hobby of mine is keeping stats on players but I have always used these to accentuate the positives (goals scored, clean sheets kept, landmarks reached) rather than use them to be critical (X has gone so long with a goal/assist etc).

Despite all this, the mood towards the local media has changed of late and I’m not alone in expressing the view that the attitude towards us has become somewhat aggressive and confrontational, while access to players across media both national and local has been severely curtailed. Other members of the local media have had their run-ins with the club in recent months which they can raise if they so wish but just for background, I have been threatened to be banned from Oriel Park three times in as many months.

The first came at the end of June when I published quotes from Patrick Hoban on his contract situation in which he said there was no contract offer currently on the table for the club but that it was his desire to stay. I don’t think there was anything outrageous in reporting that – I’m not alone in asking about his future – but still the threat came with Vinny Perth informing me that he was told not to talk to me by those above him only for him to fight my corner at the time.

Then the following month, as part of a wider piece with Gary Rogers on breaking the League of Ireland European appearance record in Riga, I asked the question in response to him saying he felt like he was playing better than ever would he like to play on next year? I don’t think this was an outrageous question to ask a man who is soon turning 38 and out of contract shortly after but, again, I was threatened with expulsion from the press conference in Skonto Stadium.

Then there was the current article in which Mr Devlin is referring in the letter signed off by him. This resulted in the club banning me for five matches. Were it not for the intervention of the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland and subsequently interim FAI general manager Noel Mooney, I would not have been allowed into Oriel Park for last Friday’s league game with Cork City and thus prevented from earning a living. While I welcomed that hurdle being overturned, I am still banned from speaking to players and staff up to and including this coming Saturday’s EA Sports Cup final. I feel this to be an unjust punishment as, and I’m open to correction on this, I have offended no player.

I have kept quiet about this until now as it was never my intention to get into confrontation with the club but I do feel it was an over the top response and a form of censorship. America might be the land of the free but it would appear there is no room for freedom of speech at Oriel Park.

Even presuming the points that Mr Devlin referenced in his letter are accurate, is it now standard practice to request retractions and to ban journalists if they get transfer links wrong or to seek similar if a journalist comments that a manager is under pressure? If such a situation were the norm then there wouldn’t be many covering the likes of Manchester United. Equally if the FAI took a similar tact to all of the media who criticised them then the press box at the Aviva Stadium would be a pretty empty place on match day.

I would also point out that at no point did I try to be sensationalist with this content. The aforementioned quote from Rogers was the second last in a piece which was, in my opinion, a tribute to a fantastic achievement while the transfer speculation that the club have taken issue to was buried in a 4,000-word article. It is also worth pointing out that a number of the players refuted in today’s letter have been referenced in other media outlets while links to the likes of goalkeepers were also published by other media throughout the summer. To the best of my knowledge nothing has been written to these respective media outlets refuting them.

The club might not appreciate transfer speculation and other matters being discussed but it is part and parcel of football and it is surely a local journalist’s job to be a conduit for what is a loyal fanbase who travel the length and breadth of the country on a regular basis as well as across Europe, often at great expense. When I asked the likes of Hoban about his future or Rogers about his future playing plans, it is not to stir trouble. It is because it’s an example of the sort of question that is on many fans’ lips, the same way as this time last year people wanted to know what Michael Duffy’s future plans were.

For the record I have never met Mr Devlin and numerous requests to do so in the last week or so have been refused. In the end I was told that if The Argus published a retraction (later reverted to Letter to the Editor) he would agree to meet me. For the record I only freelance for The Argus and have no control good, bad, or indifferent what does or doesn’t go into that publication. It is also worth pointing out that in changing the original document signed by Mr Devlin The Argus is not accepting the points raised in it, merely giving him an avenue for a right of reply. Having cleared everything written about with both the newspaper and their legal team they have shown full support for me on this matter.

The paper clearly felt that giving Mr Devlin the right to reply was the correct course of action and I respect that but equally I cannot let it go by without sharing both sides of the story on the kind of conditions that exist right now behind the scenes at Oriel Park.

People might not agree with everything I write and I wouldn’t expect them to but equally I do not wish to be portrayed as a rumour monger. The reference to Nick Barmby in the article I feel was misread by the club. At no point did I suggest such a link was true, merely that it was something within the dressing room which the players had discussed. I commented that such a thing was unhelpful before such a big game (Riga away). This rumour was not started by me, had been previously heard by at least one club official I referenced it to over the summer and as many as three players have asked me about it to see if there was any truth in the matter – all before I first published Barmby’s name.

People can make their own minds up on who to believe but, as said previously, I trust my sources on the information in the piece.

That said, I like to feel I’m a reasonable man and if Vinny Perth wants to sit down with me and can answer no to the following questions or refute some of the names mentioned I will be happy to publish the same.

My questions for him would be:

  • At any point this season have you felt undermined by someone either employed or representing Dundalk FC who is not part of the management team, coaching staff or playing staff?
  • At any point this season have you felt under pressure to drop/select players from someone either employed or representing Dundalk FC who is not part of the management team, coaching staff or playing staff?

I have no desire for a dispute with Dundalk FC.

I traveled to Alicante back in January for a Dundalk pre season game as a fan (no interviews were conducted on the trip) during which time I spoke to Vinny Perth in the days following his appointment as Stephen Kenny’s successor. I wished him well, said I would have his back and promised I wouldn’t be calling for his head at the first sign of a few bad results. I feel I’ve kept my word on all counts.

I do not wish to disrupt his or his staff’s preparations for the games ahead or beyond.

I wish him and the team well in Saturday’s EA Sports Cup final and hope within a couple of month’s time there are at least two or three more pieces of silverware alongside it in Oriel Park.

I’ve been covering this great club since 2001 and been a fan for much longer. I’ve seen good days and bad. Like many in and around Dundalk I’ve been absolutely spoiled by the football produced and the success achieved in recent years. I’ve seen countries I’ve never dreamed of going to and, a bit like the players, I’m hungry for more.

There are many great people involved with Dundalk Football Club – some of whom, it must be said, are part of the new ownership regime which is still relatively in its infancy. Despite this reply I have no animosity towards Mr Devlin, who I’ve still yet to meet. He’s still relatively new to his role as CEO and I look forward to doing so in the coming days, weeks or months. If in my role as either a fan or journalist I can assist him in his job to meet whatever targets he has I’d be happy to do so.

I’ve had disagreements with people at the club before, some of them no longer with us sadly, and accept that such things are part and parcel of writing about something that brings about such emotion in all of us. That said, I’ve never doubted that those people I’ve had those disagreements with in the past had the best interests of the club at heart. I might not have agreed with their decisions but I couldn’t doubt their intentions.

Sadly there are people acting on the club’s behalf at present that I cannot say the same for. Perhaps I am wrong about them and, genuinely, nothing would make me happier if I am but equally I don’t think I would be doing my job if I didn’t at times comment on where the club is at and where it is going.

Not everyone will agree with my views, of course, and I fully accept and understand that but free speech is surely a right and the constant threat of bans for me and other colleagues needs to stop. I’ve had unbelievable support from other members of the press in the last few hours many of whom know the truth as to what is happening behind the scenes. If fans have the desire to, I’d encourage them to talk to other members of the local media off the record as I’m sure they’d be happy to share their experiences.

Hopefully we are all celebrating a treble in the coming weeks but a football club is about more than its first team and to say there are no improvements that can be made at Dundalk FC would be a lie. Sometimes you have to be somewhat critical to achieve an end goal and while owners and staff might not always like that, it is always done so in a manner to try and be constructive, raise debate and hopefully grow and flourish.

I didn’t want to write this and nor do I wish to get in a tit-for-tat situation with the club. Certainly from my side this is not personal. I’d like to think I’ve always been friendly with any representative of the club I’ve met. Hopefully by publishing this my current ban will not be extended and I can go back to doing a job that I love. Curtailing access and banning people doesn’t do either side any favours. It affects my livelihood and detracts from the unbelievable results the side are achieving on the field.

This incident aside, there has been a feeling (expressed by others) of something of a cloud over Oriel Park this year – something that is unbelievable given the club’s stunning turnaround in the league to record a record number of points EVER after 30 matches played. The media can’t be blamed for all of that, no more than the owners, the staff, or the fans but hopefully a line can be drawn in the sand so that we can all enjoy what will hopefully be a memorable few weeks in the club’s history.