Stephen McDonnell was last week appointed the New Dundalk FC academy manager. One of the last locally born players to play regularly for the club’s first team prior to his early retirement due to a heart defect, James Rogers caught up with the 28-year-old former Warrenpoint Town boss to discuss his plans including a pre-academy, bringing in new coaches, utilising the Lilywhite Training and ensuring that future local stars are added to names like McConville, Martin, McKeown, Murphy, Kehoe and Crawley in the club’s history books going forward.
James Rogers: Congrats on the new role Stephen. Can you tell me how it came about first and foremost? You’d obviously worked up north for the IFA in recent months so I presume that was the link with Jim Magilton?
Stephen McDonnell: Yeah, myself and Jim actually go back to my time at Warrenpoint. That’s when we first struck up a relationship. I actually had Jim’s two nephews at Warrenpoint and I didn’t even know it at the time but he was in attendance quite regularly. I often wonder was it for the brand of football or the two nephews! Once I lost my position at Warrenpoint we had kind of parted company but then down the line he reached out to me to see would I be interested coming in as a casual coach for the ClubNI programme and the full-time UEFA academy that they have up there. It went from there and I was working with himself and Gerard Lyttle then for around eight months. That bond then became a little bit closer and he probably got to see me more as a coach than anything because the majority of what we were doing was planning coaching sessions and delivering them so he was able to see that. I suppose then when he got the gig here, a week or two in he reached out to me. We sat down, had a conversation and he outlined what he was looking for. To be honest, it was something I was thinking about as something I wanted for the next move in my career anyway because I had got a taste of first-team coaching and the management job which I had for just short of two years. I got that experience and I enjoyed the managing end of it but I also really liked the hands-on side of coaching so, for me, it was important to find that balance and I think this position as academy manager allows you to do both because you’re overseeing multiple teams from a management point of view in terms of putting staff in place, recruitment etc so I felt this was perfect and it’s full-time so it’s something I feel I can get my teeth stuck into. I felt for me to progress as a young coach or a young manager I needed to get something that I could really get stuck into it in terms of the work load. I think this is the right time for me to take a position like this but, more importantly, Dundalk FC is close to my heart I suppose.
JR: Yeah, and that’s it, I’m sure it would have been an attractive job for you anyway but the fact you knew Jim, how he works and his background has been youth development for the last few years must be a bonus. Even Filippo is coming from an academy background so it looks like it’s a real priority now rather than just an afterthought which is something people have felt in the past?
SMcD: I think the issue is we’ve overachieved as a club. Domestic success is one thing but with two European campaigns in five years, when you go and achieve something like that lots of aspects of the club are looked at. People start looking at the ground and other facilities. I don’t think it’s through anyone’s fault that the academy hasn’t been paid as much attention but trying to achieve bigger and better things at first-team level at least lays a foundation then for add-ons, as I like to call them. Now is the time where they’re looking at the academy as an add-on. They’ve now said that the first-team is functioning correctly and we have them where we want them, the recruitment has gone very European so now they’re saying, while we’re strong at first-team level we now need to focus on the youth because it’s all well and good signing the players that we’ve signed but I still think clubs want to be promoting from within. You have to look at what Shamrock Rovers have done in recent years. I know no one has come in and played regularly but even the likes of a Gavin Bazunu came in for a regular period in the team but then moved on for €500,000, which is big finance for a League of Ireland club. It’s important on a couple of different points that we have a good academy system.
JR: You’re only one person but have you the authority over the next few weeks or months to bring in your own dedicated coaches to look after different teams?
SMcD: Yeah well, as an example, I’m going to be the head coach of the U-19 team as well. I think that’s important to have that connection with the first-team because I’ll be very close to that in terms of being around the first team as well on a daily basis whether that be just watching or if there is any assistance needed over time then I’m happy to give it. I need to see what is happening on the ground there anyway so I can then take all those bits of information and then feed it on to our academy coaches. Being the U-19 head coach will be important for that because, we’re going to have lads, please God, going in the right direction. They might be on professional contracts with a view to being considered first-team players in a year or two time. That will be our objective, to get good players into the U-19s. If I have that connection with the first-team it’s important but then everything under that falls under my remit regarding putting the right staff in the right places. I’ve already had discussions with around 70% of the current academy staff regarding where we want to take it, how we need to function properly, how we need to increase contact time with players but it’s very important that we all sing of the same hymn sheet because, at the end of the day, our academy U-19 left winger needs to be carrying out the exact same principles as our academy U-14 left winger. For that to happen we need to go through a lot of fine detail and get everyone on the same wavelength but that doesn’t mean that we’ll be taking away from the coaches individual methods but once it is under our structure that is the main thing. They’re things we’re looking for at the moment and we are looking at recruiting new coaches so, again, that’s something that I have to try and identify in terms of who they are, will they fit what we’re trying to do and then they’ll also have to have the UEFA qualifications to work with whatever age group it is. They’re all important factors because the way I look at it is, the team reflects the coach so if we don’t have people with the correct qualifications in place then that is ultimately going to reflect on academy performances and results etc. On that point, I don’t think results are major and we’re not focused all on the result but it’s more about developing the individual because it’s individuals that we want to try and get into our first-team. That’s massively important but obviously we all want to win and having a winning culture will improve the player going forward because they’re going into a winning environment as well with the first-team. While it is not the main focus, it’s also very important that performances add up as well as the individual development of each player.
JR: You mentioned in your statement to the club website that the tradition is there from the Barry Kehoe’s, to the Tommy McConville’s, the John Murphy’s, David Crawley’s etc. The tradition is there for Dundalk lads playing big parts in the first-team but you’re probably at a stage now where the kids who were 5, 6, 7 or 8 when Stephen Kenny first came in are now at an age where they’re eligible for your U-15s or whatever. Do you think you can harness that to get a high level of local player in the club again?
SMcD: Yeah, it’s something that we really need to focus on. It’s something that I always considered as an outsider in my own subjective thoughts that the club could have always done more below the entry age of academy teams. The entry age is normally U-13 but from 14 and below we currently have nothing in place and never had and it’s something that I always thought if we’re going to develop players for an elite academy at League of Ireland level then surely a fundamental programme, i.e. a pre-academy programme, should be in place at the club for kids below them age groups because from my own experience and even speaking with parents, a lot of good quality kids and their parents feel the need to travel to the likes of Dublin for better development opportunities and education of the game because there is nothing really in place here at elite level for those so-called better players. It’s something that we need to spend a lot of time on. For me, once we get the elite academy in place in terms of the League of Ireland teams, players and staff in place, I think that’s where I’ll be spending a lot of my focus on because number one we need to be developing more local players. Instead of focusing on the 15, 16 and 17 year olds, unfortunately for them they’ve probably missed out on key years of development, so for me now the goal now has to be your 9s, 10s, 11s and 12s. We have to look at developing a programme and be creative in what we’re thinking. That might be a catch and release programme where the come in and we develop the players and then they go back and play with their local clubs so we will be looking for a buy-in from the Schoolboys’ League and the grassroots clubs locally but, again, I plan to contact all them clubs and the league individually and explain what it is we’re trying to create here. Obviously there will be benefits for them as well. Even though we fall under the elite banner, we’re still going to try look at Dundalk as a football town and see how we can possibly effect every single club. That’s something I believe we need to create, that relationship, and how it will work is going to be the most important part. Us setting up a free academy taking the best players to further develop them but in return allowing them to go back and play their games with their clubs would be one thing. Is it possible that we can keep the best young players in the Dundalk Schoolboys’ League by having them in this programme? That would mean they wouldn’t have to look at further development opportunities elsewhere. It would mean you’ve a revolving door effect so if we set something up and it’s a high quality then they’ll obviously go on to our senior academy teams. It could be five or six years down the line before you might see the fruits of the pre-academy coming out but it’s something I feel we have to do. The players we have in the academy now, there are a lot of highly talented players but we have to spend a lot of time in trying to develop them because that’s our initial job and they’ve all come from different development backgrounds. We’ve players in the club from the north, Dublin, Drogheda, Navan, Cavan, Monaghan etc so they’ve all had different backgrounds and we have to work with them now and try to get as many of them through the ranks of the club and onto the first-team on a professional contract. That’s the ultimate objective. That’s initially what the job is going to look like but the way we’re venturing as a club on the European front with regard to signings, who’s to say down the line we might have to mirror something like that but they’re conversations for a later stage and probably at boardroom level but certainly my initial conversations with Jim and the powers-that-be they’re asking how can we get the academy functioning at a similar level to the first-team.
JR: You’d know of young lads from town playing elsewhere but Jimmy Dunne is probably an example of someone who is in a Premier League squad at the moment but had to leave Rock Celtic when he was younger to go to Dublin because he didn’t feel there was anything locally that was good enough to help him to get to the level he was now at?
SMcD: Yeah look, we’re not discriminating local clubs but I’m specifically talking about elite players and Jimmy was obviously at a level where he had been selected at underage international level and probably felt whatever he could achieve locally here in Dundalk that he probably needed to go to Dublin where it was more competitive. For years, all the scouts had been going to the DDSL games whether it be Belvedere against St Kevin’s or Home Farm and St Joseph’s. He obviously felt it was something he needed to do to secure a contract across the water and obviously then he got his move to Man Utd on the back of it. What he has done since then is down to his own development but that’s something that we need to focus on. It’s something that is still happening to this current day but with Brexit coming in players of a younger age can’t go across the water now until they’re 18 so, for me, that’s a bigger opportunity now for League of Ireland clubs in general to really do more to ensure quality structures are in place. The draw of going to Dublin isn’t there as much now because if you’re doing that now it’s only really if you want to sign for the likes of Bohs, Rovers or Pat’s. That’s why we can now really focus on it and set up a pre-academy with the idea being that we can catch and release the best local talent, develop them and then hopefully they’ll see our academy as the next step in their development. The days of going to Home Farm to try catch the eye of Celtic or Man Utd are over now until they’re 18 so their initial thoughts have to be what League of Ireland club am I going to play with and then players and parents will asks what is the best set up and why. We need to have something place for them questions.
JR: Even since you’ve left the club in 2013, you must be impressed with what the YDC has become?
SMcD: Yeah, it’s now the Lilywhite Centre. It’s an incredible facility but it’s about how we getting it operational and functioning properly. Obviously the first team have the main use of it at the moment but is there a way we can incorporate other teams from the academy into it. It’s a fine set up but it’s about how we can make it all work. That’s going to be the thing we have to plan for?
JR: Just finally, you played for Quay Celtic yourself. A good relationship with the Dundalk Schoolboys’ League is obviously going to be crucial. I know you did touch on it, but it’s obviously something that you’re going to be looking to develop with all the local clubs?
SMcD: Absolutely, I think we have to do that. We’ve a town of 40,000 here and, for me, soccer is probably the dominant sport. With the club right in the heart of the town I think we’re in a powerful position and with the success we’ve had you’ve seen the fans come out and get behind it. I don’t think we need to discuss that but we really need to work with the local grassroots clubs in the Schoolboys’ League because we could be running something like a workshop two or three times a year where someone like myself, Liam Burns or the academy coaches show them how to develop a session plan. You can reach out to all the local clubs and offer to run the workshop for free and we can operate it out of Oriel Park as the hub. That means we’ve got a relationship and constant communication. If we set up the pre-academy, we will be leaning on clubs but the benefit for everybody here is that the players will develop because they’re the most important in all of this. We’re also keeping them here locally. For example, if we’ve a 9-year-old in our academy system and he trains with us twice a week and goes back and plays with Quay Celtic or Bellurgan or the Redeemer on a Saturday then they’re going to see the fruits of that initially because they’ll get three or four years of this player getting high level coaching and performing for their club team which, in turn, will probably raise the standard within their team because if Wee Jimmy is playing at Dundalk’s academy and coming back and scoring a hat-trick for the Redeemer every weekend then Wee Joe beside him is saying he wants to be there. It does have a knock-on effect and something as simple as that can have an influence over all these clubs. They’re just two examples of how we can look to create that relationship but it is something that will need to be ongoing but they’re the initial ideas and we’ll definitely try to be creative with what we do.
JR: Thanks Stephen, I wish you the best of luck with it.