While many Dundalk fans would give their right arm to be in the Emirates for the Europa League clash with Arsenal on Thursday, one familiar face around Oriel Park has a genuine outside chance of being there.
Eoin Clarkin was the club’s strength and conditioning coach in 2018 and into 2019 but these days he is the Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach at Arsenal’s women’s team.
Now he is hoping his close ties to the Gunners’ mens team can lead to being reunited with some old friends when the Lilywhites play in London this week.
Speaking ahead of the Group B encounter, Eoin said: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw they got Arsenal.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get to it to be honest because they’re so strict here with the protocols that I don’t even know if the lads who are outside the squad are getting into the games. I’ve asked can I get in but I’m just waiting to hear back now and hopefully it’ll happen at the last minute.
“It’s probably unlikely but it would be nice to catch up with the lads and the staff that are left from my time there,” he said.
Eoin, who is also working with the Republic of Ireland U-21s at present, said he still keeps in contact with a large number of the squad at Oriel Park.
“I keep in touch with some of the boys. Not as regularly as I would have at the start but I’d still be in touch with a lot of the staff, the likes of David Murphy, Danny Miller, Steve Williams and even Graham Norton.
“I was involved with bringing Graham in as I left so I’d keep in touch with him a bit and we’d bounce ideas off each other. I’d be chatting to the guys quite regularly and then even with the Irish U-21s at the minute, Darragh Leahy is in the team so I’m in regular contact with the likes of him. Even some of the lads who’ve come in since I’ve left I’d know, the likes of Greg Sloggett who I’d have known from UCD.”
While gone from Oriel Park around 18 months now, Eoin admits to regularly following the side’s games and considers himself a Dundalk fan nowadays having struggled with the idea of leaving the club initially.
“Since I’ve left I’ve probably watched about 90% of the games and I signed up to the new streaming platform,” he said.
“When I left originally I left half way through the season and I think I watched every single game because I still felt part of it and involved. I had done most of the pre-season for that season so you naturally want to see the lads do well and you just become a fan I think.
“Even now, there has been a changeover of staff, but there are still a lot of the same staff still there and a lot of the same players.
“It was a special place to me. I was only there for a year but it felt a lot longer. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave. At the time when the offer came about it was probably a time in my life where I said I wanted a crack at England. I was just going into my 30s and I was single at the time so it was probably the last chance to take an opportunity and see where it would go but if you were to ask me honestly did I want to leave Dundalk at the time then the answer would have been no and any of my friends and family would tell you that.
“It was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make because I just enjoyed it so much and I was so tied into the culture at the club. I loved working with the lads and even my lifestyle there was good in terms of living with my best mate etc. Things were good and when life is going well it’s a harder decision to make to leave so I guess it was made more with the head than the heart. I just saw it as the next step for me in my career and I wanted to see where it would take me.”
Life is good for Eoin in England though. A season ticket holder at the Emirates, he has played his part in helping the Arsenal Women’s team – which includes Irish captain Katie McCabe – to the top of the league with six wins from six to date. He says he has ambitions to get to the very top of his field but feels he is in the right place to progress at the moment.
“It has been brilliant here and a brilliant experience for me so far. I’ve just been learning a lot and improving as a practitioner.
“Right now I’m working with the women’s team here and with the Irish U-21s so I’ve still one foot in the men’s game but I’m really enjoying it here.
“The player group and staff group here are brilliant. There’s a togetherness amongst the staff. I want to get to the highest level I can go but I’m in no rush to get there. Once I’m learning I’m happy in a job and right now I’m still learning so I’m very happy where I am. I’m enjoying what I’m doing now though and not looking too far ahead.”
While the difference in standards between Arsenal and Dundalk will no doubt be debated aplenty this week, Eoin insists he learnt a lot from working with a great group of professionals at Dundalk as well.
“I came in the year we won the double under Stephen Kenny from UCD and it was a completely different environment.
“UCD was great but they were younger lads. At Dundalk they were all senior pros and players who had won things for the last couple of years. They were an outstanding group to work with. They ran the dressing room themselves and set the standards.
“There were very few times that you had to step in and get on top of them. It was more about helping them from your end of things as a practitioner but the culture and environment that was in the place, it didn’t need me to step in. The players themselves would step in if any standards dropped at any time.
“There were no egos in the group. Sometimes you expect a few egos but it was a real team environment and I learnt a massive amount about that side of the game during my time at Dundalk and that was probably one of the reasons why I didn’t want to leave at the time because I was going to work every day and enjoying it.
“Even though it was intense and there was always pressure to keep winning and striving forward, it was enjoyable too. They were just a great group of lads and that would be the reason why you’d keep in touch with some of them.”
So if one of his old pals finds the net against Arsenal on Thursday, can Eoin afford a little celebration? He doesn’t see why not.
“Naturally Dundalk being the underdogs in the tie and me having worked for them, I think I absolutely could celebrate,” he laughed.
“It’s a hard one to answer but I’d be delighted for them and I don’t think I’d be able to hold it in but at the same time I have a tie and an attachment to Arsenal now. It’s all one club and you very much feel that.
“Hopefully Dundalk and Arsenal both qualify from that group. Maybe a 3-3 draw in the Emirates would do,” he said.
Of all the opponents Shane Keegan has scouted this season, you might think Arsenal would be the easiest to prepare for.
After all, they’re a side many in the Dundalk dressing room would watch week in, week out and many of the names such as Aubameyang, Lacazette, Partey, Luiz and Tierney roll easily off the tongue.
However, speaking ahead of the trip to London this week Keegan admits that the Gunners are arguably the toughest side to prepare for as it was close to impossible to know what sort of line-up they would go with at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday night.
“To be honest that’s the biggest difficulty from my side of things this week. Normally you can make a fair stab at the opposition’s starting 11 and get it fairly right, which we have done in the past, but Arsenal can pick from 25 players and it’s a complete lucky dip.
“Are they going to go as strong as they went last week or is there going to be fellas like Joe Willock and Emile Smith Rowe given a chance because they’d see us as lesser opposition? Quite possibly, but it’s very frustrating in terms of trying to guess the personnel.
“That’s next or near to impossible but I suppose all we can do is look at is Mikel Arteta’s principles and Arsenal’s principles because they are likely to remain the same regardless of who the personnel are on the pitch.
“They’re likely to defend the same, build-up the same and attack the same so we’ll try and nail down that so at least the boys understand that side of it and then whatever names come out we’ll try deal with that.”
Keegan admitted that Dundalk’s own priorities might have changed in the wake of defeat to Waterford on Sunday with victory over St Patrick’s Athletic next weekend now arguably more important as they look to secure European football for themselves again next summer.
“If we’re being brutally honest, today’s result has to have an impact on our priorities,” he said.
“I’d say the team Filippo was planning on picking Thursday night is now a very, very different team than what he was going to pick because we have to win next Sunday. It’s as simple as that.
“Speaking so closely after a final whistle, there’s a lot of frustration because if we had gone and got a result today then we could really have gone and enjoyed Thursday but it’s slightly different now to be honest but we’ll probably get over it in the next 24 hours or so and we do need to go and give a good account of ourselves on Thursday night.
“I’m not saying we’re going to completely write it off but we can’t have a repeat next week of what we had this week where we just completely took our eye off the ball.”
Keegan, a self confessed Spurs fan, will once again be Dundalk’s only man in the technical area at the Emirates on Thursday as the only Pro Licence holder at the club. While he admits he is enjoying his increased involvement since Vinny Perth’s departure in August, he said he had a lot of sympathy for Filippo Giovagnoli.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it. It’s going to be an enjoyable couple of days over there but we have to make sure we’re there to play soccer and do our business. We’re not there to be tourists and smile regardless of how the performance goes.
“In terms of being in the technical area, you’d be lying if you said it wasn’t enjoyable being that involved but at the same time I can’t help but put myself in Filippo’s shoes and he must feel like he’s trying to manage with one arm chopped off.
“The fact that we found out so late that that was going to be the situation last Thursday probably meant that we didn’t have our communication lines bedded down quite so well so I think over the next few days the two of us and Giuseppe need to have a chat about how we get those communication lines right and how we make sure that every message he wants put out onto the pitch is put out onto the pitch effectively.”
Keegan also said that Dundalk’s current schedule wasn’t helping the side but admitted they had little excuse to complain.
“Of course it’s tough but unfortunately if you state the fact that it’s tough then other people will interpret that as whinging and moaning. We’re not whinging and moaning. We’re absolutely loving the situation that we’re in but you can be enjoying the situation that you’re in while also the reality is that it is very tough to deal with.
“I was just chatting to Tadhg Ryan as I was coming out there who I had at Galway and he was saying Waterford are off for the next three days. What our lads wouldn’t give for three days off but then what wouldn’t Waterford give to be heading off to the Emirates this Thursday so it swings both ways.
“It is tough and not just tough from a physicality and mentality side but it’s really tough for Filippo and Giuseppe because they’re getting maximum one proper training session to prepare for some massively important games and that’s a really, really crazy scenario.
“You’re used to a working week and how it flows. If you lose one training session out of a working week well then you should still be able to do the vast majority of what you’re trying to cover but when you’re trying to do absolutely everything in the space of one proper training session, that is extremely challenging and that probably did bite us in the arse a bit today.
“Again, it’s the reality of the situation that we’re in so we just have to deal with it and try to get that balance of trying to juggle two balls at the same time a little bit better,” he said.
Dundalk boss Filippo Giovagnoli has hinted he may play a weakened side against Arsenal in the Europa League on Thursday (kick-off 8pm, live on Virgin Media Two) in order to concentrate on Sunday’s crucial league match away to St Patrick’s Athletic (kick-off 5.45pm).
While a trip to the Emirates Stadium is the stand-out journey in Group B, the Lilywhites’ 1-0 defeat to Waterford at the weekend means they are sweating on securing a place in Europe again for next season.
With Stephen O’Donnell’s side having the most realistic chance of pipping Dundalk to third given they have two games in hand over them, Giovagnoli admitted that his side’s most important game this week was now the one at Richmond Park on Sunday.
“From now we’re going to pay more attention on the league because we are a little bit distracted from the rest,” he said after the loss at the RSC.
“That’s natural because the Europa League is big and important for both the club and the players but it can distract the process as well.
“At the end of the day we have to achieve an objective and the objective is third position. This is our objective. We didn’t achieve it today so we have to do it Sunday.
“With the Europa League, it’s different. You go, you play and you try and get points but you have to be realistic you play against giants there. You do your best and that’s it but our reality is we need to get third position in the league. This is the only thing that counts.
“We were a little bit distracted today, let’s say that.”
The Italian said he felt Dundalk were the better side against Waterford but admitted they lacked a bit of sharpness in the final third.
“It’s really disappointing,” he said.
“I don’t think the result is fair at all. Waterford were just kicking the ball forward trying to find a mistake whereas we tried to build up like always, tried to play and tried to create but we were not sharp on finishing today and we weren’t really sharp on our desire to win the game.
“It was just a case of controlling the game and controlling the game and trying to find the opportunity but if you want to win games you have to be nastier and really have the desire.
“Right now, that was missing but for the next game we’re going to have to have that desire because it’s the game of the league for us. If we win against St Patrick’s then it’s probably over.”
Giovagnoli said that he felt the need to win would make his side more focused for the Pat’s game when it comes around.
“It has to be the priority mentally, not necessarily physically.
“When you have to do something or you’re not going to achieve your objective then you are more focused. If you’re thinking that you want to be safe for a big game then you probably forget what you have to do in the present but it’s human to be like that and I understand that but from now we cannot do that anymore.”
Nevertheless, the 49-year-old said he wanted his side to enjoy the occasion at the Emirates but reiterated that beating Pat’s was now more important to him.
“In a game like that you have to go and enjoy it and enjoy the day but realistically what do you want to do?
“Do you want to win against Arsenal away? We have to be realistic.
“We have to perform. We’re going to prepare the game seriously like we do always but now we have to move our focus on St Patrick’s.”
Nathan Oduwa (hamstring) and Daniel Kelly (knee) are both doubts for the Arsenal game and Giovagnoli said he did not know if they would be back in time for it.
“I don’t know. We have to see,” he said when asked about the two wingers.
“They have minor injuries that are bothering them but if you risk them then they could be out for the entire season.
“It’s not only them. We had more people who didn’t start today because of minor things. We had to leave Cleary out. I have Hoare coming back. Pat McEleney couldn’t start today because he has a problem with his knee. We have a few things but that’s not an excuse. We should be able to manage with those things.”
Giovagnoli is also hoping for a better week personally after being frustrated at not being able to coach from the sideline against Molde due to the fact he doesn’t hold a UEFA Pro Licence.
“It was a really disappointing week for me because I had huge problems on Thursday against Molde because they told me that I couldn’t coach and I had to stay away from the technical area. I didn’t know that. They only told me just before the game.
“The UEFA delegate was threatening me that I could be suspended so I didn’t enjoy the game at all and I couldn’t help the team. Some substitutions came late because we were not organised in the chain of command because they didn’t tell us anything but from now we’re going to be more organised.
“It was a really big disappointment on Thursday night and it was another big disappointment tonight. We had so many good days since I came here. Of course, it can’t be the best day every week and that’s fine but we’re strong and we have to manage the situation.
“Let’s learn and do better the next time,” he said.