The announcement that Mark Devlin is to step down as Dundalk FC CEO to return to the UK leaves the clubs at something of a crossroads heading into the close season.
The former Brentford chief’s departure means the club could potentially be looking for their third CEO in the space of 21 months with his seven month spell at Oriel Park even shorter than that of his predecessor Mal Brannigan.
While Devlin had high hopes of making an impact at Oriel Park, a series of factors – many beyond his control – meant that he will depart without much of a legacy to discuss.
While Dundalk have had a fine year on the pitch, things behind the scenes have been chaotic at times with a series of rows threatening to overshadow the good work that Vinny Perth and co have done on the field.
As well as Devlin, the club have also dispensed of the services of consultant Andy Burton recently. That particular six figure investment proved to be disastrous and with the two Englishmen now gone, there are several more roles to fill heading into 2020. Long serving volunteers Simon Blackmore and Colm Murphy have departed the club of late, although there remains hope that the latter can be convinced to return.
Certainly, now is the time to look at what the club really needs and how to drive it forward. The club can ill-afford for the next appointment to be the wrong one. Through no fault of their own Devlin and Brannigan before him didn’t know the league, didn’t know the FAI, didn’t know local business and didn’t know local politics. While candidates of high profile from outside of Ireland cannot be ignored, there’s no real appetite among fans for a new CEO to spend months getting up to speed on things before potentially departing again.
That’s why the club need to be clever, leave ego aside and look at what is really needed to drive things forward. Most of them don’t even require the kind of investment that the club put into Burton and Devlin.
Some sort of supporter liaison role where the club have an individual who can listen to and interact with fans would be a plus. In recent times there has been calls for a supporters’ club to be formed but a supporter liaison officer or a similar role could help fill this void. There are a lot of fans at Oriel Park with expertise with a wide range of fields with plenty of contacts. The right person could tap into these to improve the link between fans and the club.
In recent years there hasn’t been any fundraisers at Oriel Park. While the owners might feel such things are beneath them, simple events such as quiz nights, Q&As, golf classics, club draws etc all improve the atmosphere around a club.
It summed up how much this area has been neglected that one of the most recent fundraisers ended with the money raised being donated to charity because the organiser couldn’t find anyone willing to take the sum from them at Oriel.
About a year ago I was at a neighbour’s birthday party when I met a local businesswoman who had an array of questions for me about the club. This individual had no interest whatsoever in football but loved the feel good atmosphere it brought to the town and was interested in ways to support it. A proper club brings these sort of people into the circle. While football will always be what Dundalk FC is about, there’s no reason other events can’t attract other people to Oriel Park on occasions other than a Friday night.
The club have got complacent off the field. Back in the dreary First Division days, you’d be almost tortured by young club members selling lotto tickets. These days, it is barely promoted and one long-serving player commented recently that they didn’t even know the club had a lotto.
There is equally an appetite among fans for events at Oriel. Many aren’t in a position to travel around the country on a bi-weekly basis so it can mean they go weeks on end without their Dundalk FC fix. Giving them a reason to go to Oriel Park benefits all parties.
Dundalk should be tapping into its history more. Last week, for example, was the 40th anniversary of the famous European Cup match against Celtic in 1979. Members of that team could have been brought back to discuss the occasion and it would have been the perfect build-up to the two-legged affair with Linfield given that side defeated them on that memorable European journey. Simple ideas like that cost little or nothing but build an atmosphere around the club that has been sadly lacking.
Other areas where the club can improve is in terms of education. Already Shamrock Rovers players have been around most schools in their area with the FAI Cup. One of the longest serving players at Oriel admitted recently they had never seen the inside of a school in Dundalk.
Everyone loves success, particularly kids, but while it’s fantastic to see the numbers of youngsters supporting Dundalk, there are surely many more being missed out on by not linking up with schools enough. Given the success of Fyffes’ Fit Squad, a joint proposal to fully focus on this could perhaps be arranged.
A player liaison officer would also be welcomed. Players are after all the club’s biggest asset but they are also human. They have their ups and downs off the field like anyone else and someone to ease burdens on them could be beneficial. This role could possibly be interlinked with others but having someone to be there for the players at all times would be hugely welcomed among the playing staff and would be of particular help in assisting any new signings in integrating into the area – particularly given a proportion of new recruits are most likely to be from outside of Ireland.
Players and people in general always like to feel appreciated and acknowledging small landmarks can aid this.
Just on Friday night alone, Sean Hoare played his 100th game for the club, Chris Shields played his 300th and Daniel Kelly scored the club’s 100th goal of the season. You might not be able to acknowledge every landmark but contrast Shields’ achievement – which went totally unacknowledged – with that of Ian Bermingham, who was presented with an award by St Patrick’s Athletic when he reached a similar landmark for the Inchicore club recently.
There are so many simple things Dundalk can do to improve supporter relations, make players and staff happier and ensure match nights are a better experience.
Of course, someone or a team of people are needed to oversee everything. There are big challenges ahead, chief amongst them the upgrade of Oriel Park which is taking slow steps in a positive direction behind the scenes right now.
They need to be met head on and in the right manner but the simple things can have a bigger impact in the short term. The right calls now need to be made to ensure they’re in place for the start of next season. Building beyond that will take a longer term commitment from the right person or people.