While incomparable to the current Covid-19 crisis in terms of the length of impact it has had on people, the battle with foot and mouth 20 years ago threatened to derail Dundalk’s season as they fought for promotion back to the Premier Division.

With cases of the disease, which impacts cloven-hoofed animals, being discovered in the Cooley Peninsula, Co Louth became an exclusion zone from the rest of the country.

The article as it appeared in The Argus on February 23rd 2021

Much like now, this led to restrictions in the area with people advised against unnecessary travel, checkpoints set up to inspect and disinfect vehicles travelling in and out of the area and key events in the social calendar such as the St Patrick’s Day parade being cancelled.

Also just like now, people suffered with business down locally and farmers, in particular, fearing for their livelihoods as huge culls on sheep and cattle took place.

Sport was also impacted with GAA, racing, football and all other schedules halted.

For Dundalk FC, it briefly threatened to cost them promotion back to the Premier Division.

It was 20 years ago today (Tuesday) February 23rd 2001 that the club played its last match before the season was shut down. It was a disappointing 1-1 draw away to St Francis in John Hyland Park in Baldonnell. Despite being held to a draw by a side who had been pumped 7-0 at Oriel Park just before Christmas, Martin Murray’s side were on a good run of form.

Since losing 3-2 away to Cobh Ramblers at the start of December they had played 12 matches in all competitions and lost just once, winning eight and drawing three, including that game against St Francis in which John Ryan’s 10th minute opener – scored against a certain Gary Rogers – was cancelled out by a Brian Rickard penalty after goalkeeper John Connolly had been sent-off.

This meant that when the league was halted they were four points clear of Athlone Town at the top of the table with fourth and fifth placed Sligo Rovers and Monaghan Utd having the opportunity to close the gap to two and seven points respectively if they won their games in hands. Waterford, who were also seven points behind, were also not out of the running even if they had played a game more at that stage.

The fact that Dundalk had to play each of these sides in their eight remaining matches meant that the title race was too close to call.

It would be April 1st when the side would play again, a short break by current standards with Covid-19 but what felt like an eternity at the time.

The wait wasn’t really worth it though as Dundalk crashed out of the FAI Cup in embarrassing fashion following a 1-0 loss against AUL junior league side Portmarnock in John Hyland Park in a match that was finally played at the fifth attempt after a series of cancellations.

This was followed by a 4-0 drubbing away to Monaghan Utd in the side’s first league game back a week later and while the side did respond with a 2-1 win away to Waterford Utd, their title challenge was firmly rattled when they went down 5-2 to Sligo Rovers at a game played in United Park in Drogheda due to the authorities not allowing the side to return to Oriel just yet.

That result saw Dundalk drop to third in the table, two points adrift of Monaghan in second and a further one behind leaders Athlone – albeit with a game in hand.

Thankfully, the Lilywhites managed to turn things around with four wins in-a-row. The run began with wins away to Home Farm and Limerick before an early Martin Reilly double earned a vital 2-1 win over Athlone Town in the first game back at Oriel Park in 10 weeks.

A month on from the defeat to Portmarnock, promotion was then secured on May 1st when Martin Reilly struck for his 20th goal of the season in the 88th minute to earn a 1-0 win over Drogheda Utd. Sligo’s failure to beat Limerick 24 hours later meant Dundalk were champions, meaning that a 2-0 defeat away to Cobh Ramblers in the final game was of no consequence on a day that David Crawley lifted the first First Division title in the club’s history.

All’s well that ends well but key member of that side, John Flanagan, recalls great uncertainty about that time.

“It just sounds really, really long ago. You don’t feel that old until you hear things like that,” he laughed when reminded of the situation this week.

“I remember that time quite well. It was mad because we weren’t able to train. Unlike now they actually were able to close down all the borders and roads. We trained separately as a squad for weeks. Every time I’d drive to Dundalk for training I remember having to get the car cleaned, going through washers and everything just to get to training. It was a tough time for team sports, trying to keep everyone motivated and together.

“Maybe because it was agriculture or whatever but it was definitely more strict than now. There were friends of mine living up the Cooley Mountains and they’d always have had different ways of getting to the north, even now, either across the mountains or in through Carlingford or whatever but there were checkpoints then every which way you went and they were enforced but now it’s just a free flow. Maybe that’s because it’s so widespread now whereas back then it was pretty localised in Louth and they were able to throw all their resources at it back then just to close us off.”

Captain David Crawley also recalled the uncertainty.

“We didn’t know whether the league was going to be called off or whether it would go on, something similar to how it is today.

“Dundalk now are full-time professionals but we were only semi-professionals at the time so Ollie Ralph took the training for us boys in Dundalk and Martin Murray did the training with the Dublin boys up in Dublin so it was strange times.”

Flanagan admits in hindsight that the stoppage could have cost Dundalk big time.

“We had been going so well up until the foot and mouth but then it was so disjointed because we were the one team who probably couldn’t train together for such a long period of time whereas everyone else was coming together.

“Then when it was re-opened it was more or less straight into games. There was very little training as a squad before we had games again. It took a few weeks to get back on track and it nearly did derail the good work we had done in the first half of the season.”

The Cup defeat to Portmarnock would be unthinkable now but Keith Bruen’s header from a Barry Flynn corner after John Connolly had saved Craig Bolton’s penalty was no more than the Dubliners deserved.

Supporter Ian Sharkey will never forget that match. Working with Portmarnock player Des Cummins, who came on as a 65th minute sub in the game, he skipped out of work at the IBM plant in Mulhuddart to watch the match from afar with close friend Gerry McCartney.

Little did he know he had been snapped by Sportsfile with his picture appearing on the back page of The Irish Independent the next day.

“I was working in IBM at the time with Paudie McEntaggart and the funny story about that Portmarnock game was that I was working with a Portmarnock player, a fella called Des Cummins,” explained Ian.

“We worked in the stores together. Liverpool played Everton the day before and Paudie and Des wanted to see the game so I said I’d cover for them. The two of them went to the Grasshopper in Clonee and the two of them came back pissed so I said that’ll be a help anyway but then Des only came on as a sub the next day.

“I left work in Mulhuddart to drive over to the game and I remember meeting (now Irish Independent journalist) Daniel McDonnell and a few others. Martin Reilly’s father was up between two trees watching it and his mother was standing on the road but she couldn’t see really. There were a few watching it but I never knew until the next day when I saw the back of the Independent that myself and big Gerry had been snapped.

“I was all over the Independent so I had to ring Paudie and said put me down for a half day because I was supposed to be working but I had let the boys go so Paudie was covering for me,” laughed Ian.

While that game on April Fool’s Day is now just a footnote in an otherwise successful season, Flanagan says it could have been the beginning of the end for Dundalk’s title charge.

“I’ll never forget that Portmarnock game because it had been cancelled a few times before it actually got played. I remember travelling to Baldonnell one midweek and it was actually called off while we were there. The game itself, Portmarnock were a very good junior team but I think we’d have still been there now and we wouldn’t have scored.

“It can knock the shite out of the season. It’s a mental thing as well. You’re not training properly as a group. That’s why teams have pre-seasons now because the only way you get better is by working together and training together for partnerships on the field. It nearly did take that mini pre-season to get going again.

“I know we’ve had some beatings over the years but that was one of the worst we’ve ever had and not just because they were a junior team because that can happen but the whole atmosphere was so down and that was a real kick in the teeth.

“John Ryan was playing that day and on any other day he’d have scored three or four but it just didn’t happen that day for whatever reason and maybe it was the kick in the arse we needed to knuckle down and put the work in for a couple of weeks to get back at it and luckily enough we did in the end.”

Irish Army at a checkpoint on the Louth-Armagh border, set up to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in March 2001

Thankfully Dundalk would recover but Crawley is in no doubt that foot and mouth almost caught up with Dundalk.

“If the foot and mouth hadn’t happened we’d probably have been a lot fitter because we’d have been playing games in the First Division and it would have stood to us so they probably got us at the right time.

“Thankfully we recovered. I was lucky enough to lift two major trophies for Dundalk but that was my first. I have a picture of that on my wall. It was a strange time but we did well to win the league.

“Dundalk have won a lot of leagues over the last few years but that one shouldn’t be underestimated because when you’re in the First Division it is a tough league to win. It really is.”

Amazingly a year and six days after that defeat to Portmarnock, Dundalk would be FAI Cup champions having beaten Bohemians in the final at Tolka Park. Summing up the madness of the period, the side had been relegated back to the First Division just a week earlier.

“If you said to me after that game in Portmarnock that just over a year later we’d win the Cup I’d have laughed at you,” admitted Flanagan, “but that was the ups and downs of football back then.

“Nowadays fans are spoilt. All they know is success. There’s a whole generation now who only know success because all they’re used to is winning everything.

“Still to this day the First Division is neglected in this country. It’s the doldrums. It took the club a long time even after we finally got up to get onto a stable footing to where we are now.

“People quickly forget where we’ve come from but I remember bucket collections on the last day of the season to try to keep the club afloat.”

Thankfully Dundalk survived the stresses and strains of foot and mouth both on and off the pitch. Here’s hoping we can reflect back on Covid-19 in 20 years’ time with a similar outcome.